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Kosher in New York City, halal in Aquitaine: challenging the relationship between neoliberalism and food auditing


Previous work in the agri-food tradition has framed food auditing as a novelty characteristic of a shift to neoliberal governance in agri-food systems and has tackled the analysis of food “quality” in the same light. This article argues that agri-food scholars’ recent interest in the contested qualities of food needs to be situated alongside a much longer history of contested cultural attributions of trust in food relations. It builds on an earlier discussion suggesting that, although neoliberalism has undoubtedly opened up new spaces for audit activity, older political and social dynamics operating around food audits were established long before the neoliberal historical moment. Breaking new ground (as far as is known) by looking further back than the early history of the organic social movement, it examines intersections of religious food auditing, migrant food culture, and commercial dynamics in food systems. Based on secondary sources, two contrasting case studies are presented to illustrate the flux and complexity for: New World Diaspora migrants to New York City of assuring food was kosher; and more recent Maghrebi migrants to southwest France of assuring food is halal. The article concludes by noting that the neoliberal moment stands not as the unique progenitor of a new style of food authority, but rather as the latest response to a wider rupture in the historically contingent arbitration of new forms of trust in food.

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  1. 1.

    In this context, “food audit” extends to non-government audit as adopted and enacted by social movements, consumer organizations, religious groups, NGOs, etc. to establish sets not only of production standards around environmental or food safety criteria, but also of other often less tangible cultural, ethical or religious value, attributes, etc.

  2. 2.

    In the process of likening the elusiveness of “quality” to that of “taste.”

  3. 3.

    He defines audit explosion as “a certain set of attitudes or cultural commitments to problem solving” and audit society as referring to “tendencies revealed by these commitments” (Power 1997, p. 4).

  4. 4.

    Christianity is unusual among the major world religions in proscribing no foods.

  5. 5.

    When halal food—especially meat—is unavailable, it is reported that kosher provisions are an acceptable substitute (Fischer 2008).

  6. 6.

    Also of concern in the manufacture of toiletries and pharmaceuticals.

  7. 7.

    This complexity also gave some leeway. Rabbis often permitted consumption of various goods if nothing approved as kosher was available. “Tolerance levels” of non-kosher ingredients were debated, and specific ritual practices in slaughtering and food preparation were interpreted differently from community to community.

  8. 8.

    While the geographical isolation of a very great number of Jewish communities in Europe had led to a wide variety of styles, orthodoxies, and variations in Jewish observance, over the ensuing century, US-based Judaism generally coalesced around three denominations: Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform (plus some other recent offshoots).

  9. 9.

    A related dynamic emerged because of the surplus of beef created by kosher slaughter. Around 20% of cattle were passed as unfit for kosher by the shohet, and the kosher market also consisted entirely of the forequarters of the carcass. This meant that the lucrative kosher trade brought far more beef to NYC than was actually consumed by observant households. The remaining beef became the basis of NYC’s famed beefsteak and prime rib restaurants and bars.

  10. 10.

    The power of the Union, and its specialist Board controlling kosher—the Kashruth Association—was confirmed in a bitter court case in 1935 in which poultry retailers took the Kasruth Association to court arguing that the use of Union lead seals, plumbes, was in effect racketeering and thus denying retailers the right to access fairly priced meat to sell. The poultry retailers lost a scorifying and protracted case, thus confirming some sort of legal imprimatur on the activities of the Union in certifying kosher products (Gastwirt 1974, pp. 178–182).

  11. 11.

    He argues that: “The more cultures of consumption assert themselves in Malaysia, the more controversies over what Islam is, or ought to be are intensified. As new consumer practices emerge they give rise to new discursive fields within which the meaning of Islam and Islamic practice are being debated. One key effect of these transformations is the deepening and widening concern for halal commodities among Malay Muslims that I labelled halalization. Halalization signifies a major preoccupation with the proliferation of the concept of halal in a multitude of commodified forms” (Fischer 2007, pp. 30–31).

  12. 12.

    But cf. Ficquet (2006) for a contrasting case of a religious and “dietary boundary” between Muslims and Christians in Ethiopia.

  13. 13.

    Also highly pertinent for both religions is the question of intermarriage and maintenance of the integrity of community identity.

  14. 14.

    It should be noted that meat consumption among Maghrebi migrants, among whom meat becomes a daily item on the menu, exceeds that of non-migrants, among whom meat is a luxury. This is consistent with the familiar observation that consumption of items such as meat rises with an increase in income, and to which a smaller proportion of that income need be devoted.

  15. 15.

    Following the model of kosher certification.

  16. 16.

    In other words, those that did not conform to the French national principle of “republican integration.”

  17. 17.

    This contrasts with her observations of shehitah, which includes ritual examination of the carcass, resulting in switching it to the non-kosher chain in cases of failure to conform.

  18. 18.

    There was some interest by supermarkets that could have led to small shops going out of business (cf. Fischer 2008).

  19. 19.

    The contrast with Beckford’s research on Muslim prisoners in Britain (where some halal TPC arrangements were in place) and France (where they were not) is instructive. In both countries, prisoners frequently and indignantly expressed a profound suspicion that they were not given authentic halal food. This was the case despite assurances to the contrary by prison authorities (Beckford 2005, p. 290).

  20. 20.

    There are clear parallels here with some recent scholarship influenced by convention theory and, in particular, the role of “domestic conventions” in particular kinds of food systems (e.g., see Rosin 2007; Rosin and Campbell 2009).

  21. 21.

    How this system then adapted to other forms of novelty in daily life, such as the proliferation of new retail institutions (such as supermarkets), and, in particular, new science knowledges in the second half of the twentieth century will be the subject of a subsequent article.


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The authors would like to thank Richard Le Heron for his dialogue on a precursor paper to this article as well as the comments of two anonymous reviewers.

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Correspondence to Hugh Campbell.

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Campbell, H., Murcott, A. & MacKenzie, A. Kosher in New York City, halal in Aquitaine: challenging the relationship between neoliberalism and food auditing. Agric Hum Values 28, 67–79 (2011).

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  • Agri-food systems
  • Food audit
  • Halal
  • Kosher
  • Quality
  • Governance
  • Trust