Religion & Jewish Life

Cuts above: A Colorado couple raises animals for kosher, organic, premium cuts of meat

Barbados Blackbelly sheep on Brenner and Saunders' ranch (Ben Harris)

(Tablet Magazine) — “This is Fuji?” Hersh Saunders, 59, called from the kitchen sink. He was hovering over a platter of bright pink ground beef about be balled up into burgers. On his head was a large knitted gray yarmulke, and he was wearing a Weird Al Yankovic T-shirt from the “Amish Paradise” tour. On the counter were two cuts of meat waiting their turn on the fire. One was a British White, from a cattle breed raised in England since the 1600s. The other had come from a cow named Fuji, an Angus Hereford that Saunders, a Brooklyn native who works days as a dental surgeon, and his wife, Elisheva Brenner, both rabbis ordained in the Jewish renewal movement, had raised on their 400-acre ranch outside Pueblo, Colo.

“They all have names and they all have personalities,” said Brenner, 58, as she surveyed 50 heads of Barbados Blackbelly sheep milling about her backyard. Ram-bam, Ram-ban, and Bah Bah Ganoush are all members of the flock. So was Fuji once upon a time.

Brenner runs, with a partner, EcoGlatt, a kosher meat company established in March that sells pasture-raised heritage breeds of cattle by mail order and through a local organic delivery service. Saunders does the slaughtering. Like others in the Jewish food movement, Brenner and Saunders had come in recent years to distrust kosher meat conglomerates whose treatment of both factory workers and animals they see as inhumane. For them, the 2008 federal raid on Agriprocessors, the country’s largest kosher meat producer in Postville, Iowa, cemented their ambivalence and made them decide they wanted to consume meat that was both kosher and ethically produced. Since nothing like that was available at that time, they became vegetarians.

About a year later, in the spring of 2009, Saunders and Brenner ate meat again — a goat named Hansel that they raised and slaughtered on the eve of Passover with other members of the tiny Jewish community in Pueblo. We “really developed a sense of the sacrificial consciousness that went into bringing an animal that you know,” said Brenner. “It wasn’t just that we’re taking an animal to butcher it. We understood the identification that people had with their animals at the Temple.”

In the years since Saunders and Brenner tried Hansel, a handful of American companies have begun selling meat that is pasture raised, humanely treated, and slaughtered in accordance with kosher laws. But now EcoGlatt is the only of that group that also supplies cuts from the hind quarters of the cow, the area which provides the choicest cuts: sirloin, T-Bone, and filet mignon. Under Jewish law, the sciatic nerve and certain forbidden fats must be removed from the hind to render it kosher, a process known as “nikkur achoraim.” In Israel, this process is commonplace. But for various reasons — labor-intensiveness among them — kosher meat producers in the United States traditionally do not remove the hind quarters and instead simply sell the hind off to non-kosher meat producers, depriving the kosher-observant of what Saunders calls “all the good stuff.”

The EcoGlatt team raise sheep in Pueblo and then buy Warhill lambs and Charolais cows from other ranchers in Colorado, which they process at a hahal slaughterhouse in Fort Collins, 180 miles away. (Federal law mandates that meat sold for retail must be processed at a USDA-approved facility, like the one in Fort Collins. Brenner and Saunders’ ranch does not have USDA approval.) The company sells about $1,000 of product a week to about 100 regular customers who pay $9 a pound for grass-fed ground beef and $14 a pound for brisket, pricier than non-organic kosher meat but comparable to other organic kosher producers’ prices. Sirloin sells for about $15 a pound, and filet mignon can run up to $28 a pound.

“Philosophically, what we’re about is striving to bring the healthiest, holiest meat on earth to people,” said Nalini Indorf Kaplan, Brenner’s business partner, who is studying for ordination in the Renewal movement.

As a business, EcoGlatt has its challenges. Saunders takes his time slaughtering, saying a standard blessing over each animal — rather than over a whole lot, as is common among kosher meat producers — and guiding each animal into a slaughter box. After the cut is made, EcoGlatt delays processing until an animal has fully bled out and ceased all motion, a process that takes between 10 to 15 minutes. That means they can process only four or five animals an hour. The fastest conventional kosher meat lines can process about 250 heads an hour; non-kosher slaughterhouses can process nearly 400 an hour.

Each slaughter “is a conscious act,” Saunders said. “And that’s how I hope people will consume the food.”

At their ranch, Brenner and Saunders perform slaughters on the animals they consume in an outbuilding behind their home. Saunders showed off the red slaughter box designed by the animal-welfare expert Temple Grandin as well as the flawlessly sharp knives he uses to swiftly dispatch the animals. Later, he retired to a small concrete patio behind the house, furnished only with wicker furniture and a grill, to cook the steaks — barely. Everything was rare, flesh only faintly darkened by fire.

Over dinner — three cuts of meat accompanied by a warm tomato-kale stew and delicata squash — Saunders apologized repeatedly for having no Charolais on hand, a muscular cattle breed celebrated for its well-marbled and tender flesh. “The Charolais would just actually explode your brain,” he said, with deadly earnestness. As Brenner blessed the food, Saunders closed his eyes.

“It’s about taking the divine energy that’s within an animal and preparing it in that way that is usable by us,” Saunders told me. “To then take that divine energy and raise it to a higher level.”

(Ben Harris is a writer based in New York City. This article originally appeared on Tablet Magazine,