Kashrus Kuestions – Bug Infestation (003)

QUESTION: I am wondering why today the issue of bug/insect infestation has become so prominent. Our parents and grandparents were observant and this did not seem to be an issue. Is this a stringency or is this actual halacha.

I understood that an insect that is not visible to the eye is not a problem so why do we need to eat the ‘gush katif’ greens and why the big deal about strawberries?

Rabbi Peretz Moncharsh

Rabbi Peretz Moncharsh

RESPONSE: First of all bugs are not a new issue. The Rambam already discusses the procedure to be followed with fruits that were known to have a high prevalence of infestation and the Rosh discusses the issue that in his days most legumes were infested and people did not check them. Similarly R’ Yonasan Eibshitz writes that in his days most flour was infested with mites that were small enough to fit through the holes of a sifter, yet everyone still used flour and he attempts to justify this practice.
To a large degree the recent change is primarily due to increased awareness, but there are also practical factors that have made infestation more prevalent. While once there were many fewer species of insects in any given city that affected only certain specific fruits and vegetables, today globalization has led to widespread distribution of pests that were once only found in distant locations and that infest species that were once considered “clean”. Furthermore, growing awareness of the dangers of carcinogenic pesticides has significantly reduced their use over the past generation, leaving farmers fewer tools to combat insect infestation. Also produce today is often imported from warmer and moister climates, where infestation is more prevalent, then where our ancestors lived.
It is absolutely forbidden to consume bugs in Halacha, and one who does transgresses multiple issurim mi’Deoraisa. A food that is usually infested, or even often infested, may not be used without proper inspection. The details of these Halachos are beyond the scope of this letter, but may be found in seforim or on websites such as the OU.
While it is true that an insect too small to be visible to the naked eye is not forbidden, many of the pests prevalent in our greens are large enough to see, at least when in motion, though they may be difficult to discern due to their natural camouflage. Since it takes concentration and some expertise to be certain that regular produce is completely clean, it is ideal to buy vegetables that have been grown in a manner that insures that they were never infested in any significant probability. Additionally some vegetables are nearly impossible to check adequately because of their many crevices, such as broccoli, cauliflower, corn on the cob and artichokes.
In the past strawberries were often infested with insects that could be dealt with relatively easily. As long as there was no crack in the berry it was sufficient to cut of the top of the berry and wash the remainder in soapy water. However recently it seems that some berries were found to have bugs hiding between the seeds of the berry and the skin, which is nearly impossible to detect. I do not know how prevalent this phenomenon is, but it explains why some are reluctant to eat any berries that are not grown bug-free.

Rabbi Peretz Moncharsh, learned in the Yeshivos of Philadelphia, Brisk- R Dovid, Mir and Kollel La’asukei Shmaytsa.  He currently lives in Beitar and is a Moreh Horaah on both the Ashkenazi and Sefardi Batei Horaah as well as the Rosh Kollel of Kollel Shaarei Horaah. Rabbi Moncharsh received Semicha from R’ Zalman Nechemia Goldberg, R’ Yaakov Tufik (the Sefaradi Rav of Beitar) and the Rabbanut. He did shimush by R’ Tufik and by R’ Yitzchok Kaufman.

One comment

  • C. Gold
    July 27, 2009 - 22:51 | Permalink

    I wanted to add some more very important and pertinent comments FYI.

    In addition to the reasons Rabbi Moncharsh gave for bug infestation in our generation, here are other interesting reasons for the problems of bug infestation specifically in our generation:

    1) Overuse of pesticides has posed its own set of problems. Those bugs that do survive then breed and produce offspring that are more resistant to the pesticides, so then the growers either use larger and larger doses, and or more lethal and dangerous kinds of pesticides. It created a no-win cycle of needing to always use stronger more deadly poisons which are known to also be unhealthy to downright dangerous (some carcinogenic) to human beings as well.

    All these poisons, along with chemical (as opposed to natural) fertilizers, can also adversely affect the crops, which even though they do survive and bear fruit, are not as healthy and strong as those which are grown pesticide free and with natural fertilizers, as has been done since mankind first started working the land.

    2) So how did our descendants grow their crops and deal with infestations? With very simple and actually quite brilliant methods that are still being used today among organic farmers. They did try to control infestation through natural means, some examples being:

    a) Spreading “good” insects through the fields that do not eat the particular crop being grown, but that do eat the unwanted insects that DO eat the crops. Ladybugs are spread around cornfields as they don’t eat corn, but do eat the aphids that can infest the corn. Also preying mantis (hope I spelled that right!) are used in the same way. Another example is making a simple spray out of garlic, which also helps repel certain insects. There are also plants and flowers that repel certain insects, like marigolds, which can be planted around an organic garden to act as a barrier to put off certain bugs from entering.

    b) Pesticide free produce which is grown with natural fertilizers (the way it was always done for all generations until recently) also produces simply much healthier plants, which have their own natural defenses against infestation. As a result, very healthy organic plants can often be very clean of infestation. With organic, it’s either very clean or very infested (if it just wasn’t a good crop or didn’t have a bracha from the Eibishter).

    Studies have shown that overall, the amount of infestation problems in pesticided produce compared to organic produce is approximately the same and not significantly different, making growing crops using the old tried and true methods actually much more preferable as it avoids the use of dangerous pesticides. That’s why more growers have switched to organic here in Israel as they see they do not, as previously thought, suffer any significant loss of crops to bugs by simply growing organic. That was the reasoning behind using pesticides to begin with, it was thought it would dramatically bring infestations down and therefore profits and crop size up, but over time it was seen that it unfortunately created an endless cycle of needing stronger and stronger poisons.

    I had heard that at least with some growers of bug-free greens, they don’t even spray any pesticides directly on the greens, but only spray outside the hothouse to prevent insects from entering the building to begin with. There is a double door system also set up to further prevent flies etc. from entering the hothouse.

    Today in Israel, the organic movement has grown dramatically and has already become mainstream, with some organic produce and other products (milk, eggs, Materna baby disa and more) already on the shelves of regular supers such as Super Sol and even Mr. Zol in the neighborhood. It is not a passing food fad, it is simply how we have always grown our food for thousands of years. Pesticides is relatively a very recent invention.

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