Kosher Derived from Non-Kosher
Long [original] version original [1455 words]
What Could Be Wrong With…L-Cysteine?
When is the last time you have seen a harvest? Some of us can think back to last fall’s grape crunch; others can still picture a combine’s quick clearing of a wheat field for Shmurah flour. Most of us, however, could not rapidly identify the last harvest we witnessed. It would surprise many of us to learn that we have all been at a harvest, and the harvested field was us.
If you have not guessed by now, this mysterious farm is your local barbershop, or beauty salon. Did you know that human hair is loaded with valuable amino acids? One of those amino acids, l-cystine, is used as a base for the production of food and pharmaceutical chemicals. Its derivative, l-cysteine, is used as a dough relaxant and as a component in reacted meat flavors. Another derivative, n-acetyl-l-cysteine, is used in treatment of respiratory disorders.
But do not worry. It is probably not your hair that will find its way to relax your next Shabbos challah and grace your table. In this land of throwaway diapers, cutlery, and cameras, there is little interest in barber-shop droppings. But in the frugal Far East, clippings are too valuable to waste. Human hair is collected from area barber shops for extraction of its component amino acids.
So the story goes. Of course, there are other alleged versions of this hairy tale. Some say heads of Asian corpses are shorn before they are interred (or otherwise disposed of). Others say that heads – again, Asian – are shaved in a pagan, idolatrous ritual. These latter versions are denied vehemently by l-cysteine manufacturers.
The halachic ramifications of the hair-collection method are significant. Although human flesh is prohibited, human hair, collected from the living, is permitted. A corpse’s hair, however, is prohibited (see Mechaber in Yoreh Deah 349:1 and Tosafot in Bava Kamma 10a s.v. she’hashor). Likewise, hair shorn in idolatrous rituals is prohibited. In the course of our research, we did not uncover any evidence to support the allegations of hair gathered for idolatrous rituals or posthumous shearings. Therefore, it is the OU’s position that l-cysteine derived from human hair is acceptable.
It is interesting to note that some manufacturers of l-cysteine will no longer accept human-hair-derived l-cysteine. Although, like the OU, they have investigated, and rejected, the claims of idolatrous and posthumous hair, they are concerned about public opinion and perception. The European Union has moved to draft a regulation prohibiting the use of all human by products in food and pharmaceuticals. Thus, industry is scrambling to provide l-cysteine not sourced from human hair.
L-cysteine need not be isolated from natural sources. Ajinomoto, a large, OU-certified manufacturer of amino acids, produces l-cysteine synthetically. Ajinomoto cannot, however, meet the world’s demand itself. In addition, many industries, such as flavors, require natural chemicals to meet their customers’ demands for clean labels. Food producers, as a group, prefer to list natural flavors, instead of artificial flavors, on their labels. They do not wish to use a flavor that contains synthetic l-cysteine, as this would require them to list artificial flavors. Hence, the need for naturally derived l-cysteine, not sourced from human hair, is growing.
Fortunately, or perhaps unfortunately, there is an abundant supply of natural, non-human material, from which l-cysteine can be derived. The spines of feathers contain many of the same amino acids that are found in human hair. Since feathers are an unavoidable by-product of poultry production, they would seem to be the logical choice for l-cysteine raw material. Once our pillows, comforters, and down jackets are properly stuffed, there should still be an adequate supply of feathers remaining for amino acid production. Feather-derived l-cysteine is natural, it is not affected by any of the halachic concerns discussed earlier, and it will not disturb the sensibilities of even the most squeamish European Union regulator.
Alas, there is an halachic issue concerning the kosher status of feathers that is not easily resolved. Poultry producers have discovered that birds are properly stripped of their feathers only by first soaking them in hot water. Producers are somewhat restrained in the temperature of water they may use; they cannot use water that is too hot, for it will pre-cook the bird. Nevertheless, all seem to agree that the water is in excess of 160 degrees Fahrenheit, a temperature considered yad soledes bo according to almost all opinions.
Soaking a bird in hot water is discussed in Yoreh Deah 68:10,11. The specific case discussed there is a slaughtered bird that has not yet been salted, and still contains blood. In our discussion, we are confronted not only with blood, but also with unslaughtered flesh, which is neveilah.
Like most cases of heat-inspired transfer of taste, the extent of the damage depends on the method of heating employed. Soaking the bird in a kli rishon prohibits the entire bird, pouring kli rishon water on the bird prohibits its skin, and soaking it in a kli sheini does not prohibit it. In our case, the spines of the feathers are only a skin’s-width thick, and therefore would absorb the blood and the neveilah if any kli-rishon water were used. It is our experience that kli rishon water is used, despite some representations to the contrary.
It is interesting to note that Empire Poultry, who does not use hot water to soak the birds, said they dispose of their feathers as waste because the feathers are ruined by their cold water process.
How can kosher l-cysteine be made from neveilah – and blood-laden feathers? This question was pondered by our Poskim and by those of other kashrus agencies. In order to understand the different approaches to this question, it is first necessary to describe some of the details of l-cysteine production.
The spines of the feathers are first dissolved in a 3% hydrochloric acid solution. The l-cystine floats to the top. Residual acid in the l-cystine is neutralized with a caustic soda solution. The l-cystine is then purified and crystallized. The l-cystine is converted to l-cysteine by further reaction and chemical processing.
Some have argued that since the feathers are first dissolved in a strongly acidic solution, all absorbed taste of neveilah and blood would be rendered pagum. As a point of history, a similar argument has been presented, and rejected, for permitting gelatin produced from non-kosher hides and bones. Since, at the end of the process, the gelatin is no longer pagum, we cannot accept its mid-process pegimah as sufficient grounds for permitting it.
Those that have forwarded this argument to permit feather-derived l-cystine distinguish between gelatin and l-cystine. In making gelatin, the hides and bones are processed with the intention of removing the pegimah at the end and transforming them into gelatin. In making l-cystine, however, there is no intention to utilize the absorbed neveilah and blood. The only product of interest is the l-cystine, which is kosher in its own right. Therefore, the mid-process pegimah of the neveilah and the blood is acceptable and the l-cystine is permitted.
Rav Schechter rejected this view. Rav Schechter argues that a mid-process pegimah has lasting validity only if the pegimah is not removed, but rather is rendered ineffective for another reason. For example, if neveilah would be treated with an acid and rendered pagum, and then it would be sweetened with sugar until it would be edible, it would be permitted. But if the acid would be removed, then the neveilah reverts to its original prohibition.
The same logic applies to l-cystine. Even though it is treated with hydrochloric acid, the acid is later neutralized and removed by treatment with caustic soda. Therefore, the mid-process pegimah is not sufficient grounds to permit l-cystine.
Rabbi Genack, however, felt that l-cystine is permissible for a different reason. L-cystine is subjected to multiple purifications before it is crystallized. In the purification process, all, or almost all of the absorbed blood and neveilah will have been removed. Based on this, Rav Schechter ruled that as long as the blood and neveilah will now be batel b’shishim, the l-cystine is permitted. We need not concern ourselves with chanan, because the feathers have the status of a kli, which is not subject to chanan.
Rav Schechter also ruled that since the l-cystine producers would prefer that the feathers not be contaminated with absorptions of blood and neveilah, their use of the feathers is not considered mevatlin issur lechatchila. Therefore, we would be permitted to grant certification to such producers.
The elaborate tale of this seemingly innocuous amino acid proves, once again, that our presumptions about raw materials must be constantly reviewed and scrutinized. Only careful research and the Halachic process can ensure the acceptability of raw materials used in kosher foods.
NB Summary version [769 words]
L-Cysteine - Is It Kosher?
Amino acids, like l-cystine, which is used in food production as a dough improver as well as a component in some flavours, can be extracted from human hair or feathers.
Although there is little reason to suspect that these amino acids are extracted from hair of corpses or hair shorn as part of a pagan ritual, which would make them prohibited, it is almost certainly derived from feathers.
Therefore there is a serious Kashrus concern even though feathers are not a food and therefore cannot be non-Kosher. This is due to the common method of feather removal which requires that the birds, after slaughter, be immersed in hot water. As far as Kosher is concerned, this is a severe problem because the flesh, if the bird has not been Shechted, is not Kosher. Thus the the feathers become non-Kosher because they have been cooked with non-Kosher.
Nevertheless, it is Kosher just as gelatine is ruled to be Kosher by the world's great Poskim, headed by HaRav Ch Ozer Grodzenski, notwithstanding its derivation from non-Kosher bones and hides, because the processing renders it inedible.
However, today's ultra-fringe-orthodox Kosher agencies which insist that Kosher gelatine must be extracted from Kosher sources [and have mobilised significant consumer numbers to make the far more expensive Kosher derived gelatine commercially viable] have a problem - if gelatine must be derived from Kosher sources, so too l-cysteine.
[BTW it is noteworthy that HaRav Ch Ozer's Pesak was not challenged during his lifetime, nor for many years after his passing as well as the gelatine he ruled about had a significant meaty aroma and flavour]
In order to explain how l-cysteine is different to gelatine, it is suggested that a tainted status flavour renders the substance Kosher only if it remains but is masked by a pleasant flavour. If however, the element that causes the taint is removed, then the product reverts to its non-Kosher status.
And so, since the acid is eventually neutralised, the l-cysteine will revert to its non-Kosher status.
Usually, when a Kosher food becomes non-Kosher because it has been cooked with non-Kosher, be it in a non-K pot or with actual non-K food; that food is deemed to be 100% non-K. We do not argue that only a percentage of it is not Kosher.
For example, if 50 kilo of Kosher meat is cooked with 1 kilo of non-K meat, and subsequently, a part of that 51 kilos is cooked with Kosher food - we do not argue that only only 1/50th is non-K and only that tiny proportion requires Bittul. Halacha determines that every single gram of that pot is 100% non-K and requires Bittul. Even if this occurs 100 times until the mathematical calculation indicates that the actual non-K percentage is to be measured in ppm, Halacha still determines this food to be 100% non-K.
Now this Halachic principle applies also to a spoon for example. If a spoon is used to stir a pot of hot non-K meat, Halacha asserts that the spoon absorbs as much non-K as its own mass. So, a 200g ladle holds the equivalent of 200g of non-K meat. This ladle will render even 100 or more, eleven-litre pots of Kosher food, non-Kosher when used to stir those pots.
It is therefore surprising that some suggest that we may safely assume that the non-K components have been removed through filtration and processing.
Halachah has very interesting definitions of cooking. For example, a KeLi Rishon [a pot which is or was on the fire] will cook foods that are placed in it, provided its temperature is greater than Yad Soledes [Igros Moshe, OCh 4:74 - LeChumrah 43C and 71C; 109F and 160F]. So a cold piece of meat dropped into a pot of hot milk will become prohibited because the meat was cooked with milk.
However, if that pot is decanted into another, it is deemed a KeLi Sheni [no matter how hot it is] which will not cook. It will however, cause some absorption to some depth which must be removed.
This applies also to Shabbos; thus Cholent in your bowl, served from a tureen which was filled from the cooking pot, is a Keli Shelishi which according to all authorities is unable to cook or transfer at all [no matter how hot it is] One may therefore add tomato sauce for example, to this bowl of Cholent [but not to the tureen] without risk of transgressing the prohibition of cooking during Shabbos.