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March 9, 2011

Devora Kimelman-Block, KOL Foods and The Virtues of Grass-Fed Meat

By Joan Brunwasser

They need to be 100% grass-fed. They need to use no pesticides, fertilizers, hormones, antibiotics, arsenic or animal by-products as a part of their program. There are a limited amount of 100% grass-fed animals in the US because there is such demand since 100% grass-fed meat is so much healthier and better for the environment. But there is more and more interest among farmers, so as demand grows, supply grows.


My guest today is Devora Kimelman-Block, founder and CEO of KOL Foods, the nation's first retailer of nonindustrial, grass-raised kosher beef, lamb, chicken, turkey and duck. Welcome to OpEdNews, Devora. There's lots to talk about. Let's start with the basics: what is nonindustrial meat and poultry?

Non-industrial meat comes from animals that have never been in confinement feeding operations, fed antibiotics or food that is unnatural for their digestive system. Cows, for example, are ruminants and evolved to eat grass. Over the past 50-100 years, people realized that they could fatten up cows much quicker by feeding them corn, antibiotics and hormones. Similarly, chickens are fed arsenic for the same reason. It saves time and money, but has produced a host of negative consequences, including poor health, environmental degradation, food safety issues, and harm to the animals themselves.

Many assume that certified organic meat is sustainable. Unfortunately, this is not the case. "Certified organic" meat means that the animals have been fed USDA certified organic corn and not fed antibiotics or hormones. However, they still live in confinement, and cause similar waste and environmental problems. In the kosher world, all certified organic meat and poultry (Wise Organic, Empire Organic, Kosher Valley, etc.) that you can find in the common marketplace is industrial organic . The reason I created KOL Foods was because I found industrial organic to be only slightly better than conventional confinement meat and poultry.

In terms of poultry, to call your meat "free range" you must give the birds "access" to the outdoors. But many of these birds live in the same-old industrial confinement house, but have a door that the could walk through during certain weeks of their life. Most chickens (not your adventurous sort) never go through that door so it makes no difference that it is there at all.

There are many advantages to 100% grass-fed (or "pasture finished") meat. (You need to say that because all cows eat grass for the first part of their lives before being brought to the industrial feed lots. What's important is that they eat grass their entire lives). I have a side-by-side comparison here . What I did not include in the comparison is that grass-fed meat is also much safer. [See this article at our website about how eating grass-fed beef lowers your risk of E.coli infection.]

What do you mean, Devora, that grass-fed meat is also safer? Safer how?

Eating grass-fed beef lowers your risk of E. coli infection . Folks at Cornell University have determined that grass-fed animals have far fewer E. coli than grain-fed animals. What's more, the small amount of E. coli they do have is much less likely to survive the natural acidity of our digestive tract--our first line of defense against infectious diseases.

Why this marked difference in the survival of the bacteria? Feeding grain to cattle makes their digestive tracts abnormally acidic. Over time, the E. coli in their systems become acclimated to this acid environment. When we ingest them, a high percentage will survive the acid shock of our digestive juices. By contrast, few E. coli from grass-fed cattle will survive because they have not become acid-resistant. When cattle are fed their natural diet of grass, our natural defenses are still capable of protecting us.

Beef also has a bad rep among nutritionists, but that is unfair for grass-fed meat! According to research from the University of California, grass-fed beef is higher in beta-carotene, vitamin E and omega-3 fatty acids than conventional beef.

So, let me make sure I understand you correctly, Devora. Are you saying that the reasons to avoid red meat don't actually apply to the healthier choice of grass-fed animals?

I get many customers that have been recommended grass-fed beef by their doctors. Usually it is women who are in childbearing age that are missing certain minerals or proteins or children that may be experiencing neurological issues. Their doctor specifically say don't get the corn-fed feedlot beef which is high in saturated fat and cholesterol - it needs to be grass-fed. The reason why fish is considered healthy is because of it's Omega 3s - but then you have to deal with its mercury contamination. Feedlot beef doesn't have the Omega 3 balance so no one mentions it as a good alternative. Grass-fed beef has the Omega 3s without the mercury.

Here is a quote from Patti Lerner, one of my customers who is working to bring KOL Foods to her city's college dining hall.

"My agenda in this is that since my respected doctor, who is on the list of 100 top doctors, a heart and lung specialist who was a pioneer in baby heart transplants decades ago tells me that grass fed is going to measurably improve the health of everyone, I want our food system to change so people are healthy."

How did you go about creating your own kosher alternative to current meat production?

In July 2007, I established a partnership with my synagogue in Washington, DC, a slaughterhouse and a local farmer to make the first glatt* kosher, organically raised, local, grass-fed meat available. Scores of kosher consumers were eager for this product. In just its second offering, the program generated sales of more than 2,400 pounds of beef through a single email. Jews from 14 different area synagogues, ranging from Reform to Conservative to Orthodox, purchased this beef. We were so encouraged by this powerful consumer response that we worked to expand to meet the demand.

An impressive debut! Then what?

Then I got folks coming down from Philadelphia to purchase my meat and so I set up a Buying Club in Philadelphia. Then I set up about 5 more in NYC, NJ, Baltimore and DC. But I kept getting requests from folks outside these places that I couldn't accommodate. I want kosher eaters to have a sustainable option whenever they buy meat. So I moved to online ordering and shipping via mail. Now I do home delivery, buying club delivery and I also supply caterers.

How did you learn to do all this? Do you have a background in business? Agriculture? Animal husbandry?

I had no background in business - but I do now! I came from the educational non-profit world and while I miss the stability there, I am having a lot of fun in the for-profit world. I had no experience in animal husbandry or farming - but I do now! I have always had an attraction to good food and where it comes from. My grandfather came from a depression era farming background. When he was rejected from WWII for health reasons, he became an airplane mechanic outside Columbus. Even after he moved to the city, he always continued to garden extensively.

Part of it was an underlying concern left over from the depression of not having enough food and part of the reason why he gardened was because what he produced tasted so good. I have always been a pretty flexible eater, but as a child I hated tomatoes. My grandfather took me into his garden once when I was in high school - plucked a tomato off the vine and ate it on the spot. He had juice and seeds dripping down his chin. "That is how you know its really a fruit," he said. Next thing I knew, I was squirting and drooling along with my grandfather. One of the gifts that I am giving my children through my business is a relationship with the natural world. The connection to the natural world that we lost when we became disconnected with where our food comes from.

I love the image of the two of you in the garden, tomato dripping from your chins. How do you choose your farmers and suppliers? I'm sure you're very picky. And don't you need a lot of them to handle all your customers?

We have a farmer spec sheet which they need to adhere to. They need to be 100% grass-fed. They need to use no pesticides, fertilizers, hormones, antibiotics, arsenic or animal by-products as a part of their program. There are a limited amount of 100% grass-fed animals in the US because there is such demand since 100% grass-fed meat is so much healthier and better for the environment. But there is more and more interest among farmers, so as demand grows, supply grows. Although there is a two-year - or so - delay because it takes that long to grow a herd.

Do you personally travel around the company, visiting farms to make sure they're on the up and up?

I have a couple of Amish partners who know what I am looking for and whose farms I have visited quite a bit. They also sometimes act as brokers between me and folks that they know. I trust them to visit the farms on my behalf.

Okay. Now we have the background. Let's get down to the nuts and bolts, which is money. Kosher meat is much more expensive than nonkosher meat in the first place. Doesn't that make the price of healthier kosher meat out of reach for the average kosher consumer?

Conventional meat is so highly subsidized from multiple angles (both in its inputs and outputs) that its true price is several times higher than its cost at the grocery store. My meat is not government subsidized - there are no externalities - so what you are paying for is its true cost. I would turn your question around and say that my meat is not expensive, but that it is its true cost. And that conventional feedlot beef is cheap in multiple usages of the word.

Also, Americans spend the smallest percentage of their income on food than they ever have in history. In an age when spending more than $100 a month on cell phone usage is considered a necessity, I think that the average folk could spend more so that the food that they eat is good.

Touche! Have you been surprised by the level of consumer interest in KOL Foods? And is your name - KOL Foods - playing on the popularity of Whole Foods?

There is quite a lot of interest which is the way it should be!

KOL Foods is a play on Whole Foods. Kol is also a Hebrew word meaning "all". So it is a stretch, but it sort of means Whole Foods. Also, before I started mailing meat around the country, it was an acronym Kosher, Organic, Local.

What haven't we talked about yet, Devora?

It is important to mention the huge environmental degradation due to confinement meat. It is one of the core reasons why I started the business.

Large animals like cows generate a lot of waste. The majority of grain-fed livestock in the U.S. live in huge feedlots. Their waste seeps into the groundwater, finds its way into the rivers, and pollutes the waterways. Grass-fed livestock do not produce waste, they produce fertilizer for the fields and pastures in which they graze freely and happily. Grass-fed grazing techniques can take carbon out of the air and contribute to carbon sequestration.

Also, since WWII, our industrial food system has become reliant on cheap oil. The biggest culprit of fossil fuel usage in industrial farming is artificial fertilizers and pesticides which are necessary to produce the - already subsidized - feed that our animals eat. Oil is also required to transport feed and animals, as well as fuel the confinement house. The current instability in the Middle East is making the meat industry very watchful.

Alternatively, grass-fed livestock farms take advantage of natural cycles. The animals feed themselves on grass and distribute their manure - fertilizing the pasture as they go. Rather than fossil fuels, they need only rain and sun to make this system work. Grain needs lots of oil to be produced. Grass needs only sun and rain.

You make a compelling case, Devora. Thanks for talking with me. It's been an education!

KOL Foods Feel good about the meat you eat

All photo credits: Robert Joppa

*Glatt is a strict standard of kosher meat.

Submitters Website:

Submitters Bio:

Joan Brunwasser is a co-founder of Citizens for Election Reform (CER) which since 2005 existed for the sole purpose of raising the public awareness of the critical need for election reform. Our goal: to restore fair, accurate, transparent, secure elections where votes are cast in private and counted in public. Because the problems with electronic (computerized) voting systems include a lack of transparency and the ability to accurately check and authenticate the vote cast, these systems can alter election results and therefore are simply antithetical to democratic principles and functioning.

Since the pivotal 2004 Presidential election, Joan has come to see the connection between a broken election system, a dysfunctional, corporate media and a total lack of campaign finance reform. This has led her to enlarge the parameters of her writing to include interviews with whistle-blowers and articulate others who give a view quite different from that presented by the mainstream media. She also turns the spotlight on activists and ordinary folks who are striving to make a difference, to clean up and improve their corner of the world. By focusing on these intrepid individuals, she gives hope and inspiration to those who might otherwise be turned off and alienated. She also interviews people in the arts in all their variations - authors, journalists, filmmakers, actors, playwrights, and artists. Why? The bottom line: without art and inspiration, we lose one of the best parts of ourselves. And we're all in this together. If Joan can keep even one of her fellow citizens going another day, she considers her job well done.

When Joan hit one million page views, OEN Managing Editor, Meryl Ann Butler interviewed her, turning interviewer briefly into interviewee. Read the interview here.

While the news is often quite depressing, Joan nevertheless strives to maintain her mantra: "Grab life now in an exuberant embrace!"

Joan has been Election Integrity Editor for OpEdNews since December, 2005. Her articles also appear at Huffington Post, RepublicMedia.TV and