News

DNA Tests Prove Worms in Sardine Cans are Kosher

A catch of sardines at the Hout Bay Harbour near Cape Town, South Africa (file photo).
A catch of sardines at the Hout Bay Harbour near Cape Town, South Africa (file photo).

Multimedia

Audio

Some 21st century technology has come to the aid of 2000-year-old religious dietary laws.

Orthodox Jewish rabbis in New York recently called in DNA experts to help them answer an unusual question: are worms found in a sardine can kosher?

Let's say one day you're opening up a can of sardines and you come across a worm.  It is not as unusual as you might think.

"Unfortunately, recently, it hasn't been unusual at all," noted Rabbi Chaim Loike with the Orthodox Union, an organization that certifies whether products conform to Jewish dietary law.

Loikea says these worms were showing up in about one out of every six cans. He does not know why they have become so common, but he says it is not necessarily a new phenomenon.

"The Talmud, which was written 2,000 years ago, described a number of worms, which, even though they're not something you would want to eat, if they were accidentally consumed, would be kosher," Loike explained.

The Talmud, a compilation of rabbinic opinions, debates and analyses, lays out the framework for Jewish law. It says if the worm comes from the intestines, it is generally not kosher.

"However, if a worm is found to have grown its entire life in the flesh of the fish, it is considered to be the same as the fish," said Loike.  "And therefore, it's kosher." Intestinal worms might show up if the sardines are not handled properly.

But why would it matter if the worm is kosher? Most people would still find it disgusting.

Well, if the rabbis decide that these worms, which have become so common in sardines, are not kosher, the Orthodox Union would no longer give the fish its seal of approval. That's a big deal, because even many non-Jews look for that certification as a sign of quality. Kosher foods are a $12.5 billion market.

"We're not advocating that people should eat worms. We're just researching whether or not we would have to de-certify all these things," Loike added.

But Loike is a rabbi, not a parasitologist. He can't tell a gut worm from a flesh worm. So he went where anyone would go to find an expert: the Internet search engine, Google.

"And we saw all the names of people who published papers on them and we started cold-calling them," said Loike.

Mark Siddall at the American Museum of Natural History in New York is one of the world's top experts on parasites. Siddall invited Loike to his office. The rabbi came with some cans of sardines, some tubs of fish eggs.

"[He also brought] a bag of previously frozen whole sardines, as well, that were dripping on the floor as we were walking to the elevators," recalled Siddall.

Dripping bags of fish aside, parasites do not disgust Siddall. He says they are all around us.

"We say, 'yuck' because we in Western society are kind-of like, 'Oh, parasites, that's horrible, right?' But it's actually quite normal for things to be parasitized," Siddall noted.

To figure out what kind of parasites Loike's fish had, Siddall used a technique called DNA barcoding. The genetic code of certain genes varies enough between species that researchers can use them to tell one from another.

Siddall and his colleagues have used it to help the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service check for endangered species in smuggled goods.

"There was a shipment of leeches that came in that were labeled as advertising material. And they were confiscated," Siddall said.

DNA barcoding identified them as endangered European medicinal leeches. Siddall had busted a leech-smuggling ring.

When he DNA-barcoded Loike's sardine worms, he found five species.

"And in all cases they were species we would normally expect [to find] in the muscle tissue or the ovarian tissue of the fish, and thus there was no indication whatsoever that there was improper handling," Siddall explained.

So the Orthodox Union issued a decision: the sardines remain kosher.

Siddall says it's the first time DNA barcoding has been used for a strictly cultural issue.

"And that's kind of cool, where you get cross-talk between science and culture," Siddall added.

As for Rabbi Loike, it strikes him that the parasites found in the fish are the same ones described in the Talmud.

"The fish haven't really changed much in 2,000 years. They have the same parasites, the same everything. The world just keeps going and nothing's really changed," Loike noted.

We just use different tools to describe it.

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
Comments
     
by: lena
March 11, 2012 11:40 PM
I'm reading about the Orthodox religion they don't eat shellfish from the beginning and this is in the Talmud rules that called Kosher in israel and in Union where they are. And if you sure about the worm in the fish and can dead I will always eat the sardine Fish and i don't think this.but can be the worm and the knowledge is much ahead of time.

by: jack
March 11, 2012 3:04 AM
if the worm is dead who cares if its kosher or not

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Rolling Thunder Run Reveals Changed Attitudes Towards Vietnam Wari
X
Katherine Gypson
May 25, 2015 1:32 AM
For many US war veterans, the Memorial Day holiday is an opportunity to look back at a divisive conflict in the nation’s history and to remember those who did not make it home.
Video

Video Rolling Thunder Run Reveals Changed Attitudes Towards Vietnam War

For many US war veterans, the Memorial Day holiday is an opportunity to look back at a divisive conflict in the nation’s history and to remember those who did not make it home.
Video

Video Female American Soldiers: Healing Through Filmmaking

According to the United States Defense Department, there are more than 200-thousand women serving in the U.S. Armed Forces.  Like their male counterparts, females have experiences that can be very traumatic.  VOA's Bernard Shusman tells us about a program that is helping some American women in the military heal through filmmaking.
Video

Video Iowa Family's Sacrifice Shaped US Military Service for Generations

Few places in America have experienced war like Waterloo. This small town in the Midwest state of Iowa became famous during World War II not for what it accomplished, but what it lost. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, the legacy of one family’s sacrifice is still a reminder today of the real cost of war for all families on the homefront.
Video

Video On Film: How Dance Defies Iran's Political Oppression

'Desert Dancer' by filmmaker Richard Raymond is based on the true story of a group of young Iranians, who form an underground dance troupe in the Islamic Republic of Iran. This is the latest in a genre of films that focus on dance as a form of freedom of expression against political oppression and social injustice. VOA’s Penelope Poulou has more.
Video

Video Turkey's Ruling Party Trying to Lure Voters in Opposition Stronghold

Turkey’s AK (Justice and Development) Party is seeking a fourth successive general election victory, with the goal of securing two-thirds of the seats in Parliament to rewrite the constitution and change the country's parliamentary system into a presidential one. To achieve that, the party will need to win seats in opposition strongholds like the western city of Izmir. Dorian Jones reports.
Video

Video Millions Flock to Ethiopia Polls

Millions of Ethiopians cast their votes Sunday in the first national election since the 2012 death of longtime leader Meles Zenawi. Mr. Meles' party, the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front, is almost certain of victory again. VOA's Anita Powell reports from Addis Ababa.
Video

Video Scientists Testing Space Propulsion by Light

Can the sun - the heart of our solar system - power a spacecraft to the edge of our solar system? The answer may come from a just-launched small satellite designed to test the efficiency of solar sail propulsion. Once deployed, its large sail will catch the so-called solar wind and slowly reach what scientists hope to be substantial speed. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video FIFA Trains Somali Referees

As stability returns to the once lawless nation of Somalia, the world football governing body, FIFA, is helping to rebuild the country’s sport sector by training referees as well as its young footballers. Abdulaziz Billow has more from Mogadishu.
Video

Video With US Child Obesity Rates on the Rise, Program Promotes Health Eating

In its fifth year, FoodCorps puts more than 180 young Americans into 500 schools across the United States, where they focus on teaching students about nutrition, engaging them with hands-on activities, and improving their access to healthy foods whether in the cafeteria or the greater community. Aru Pande has more.
Video

Video Virginia Neighborhood Draws People to Nostalgic Main Street

In the U.S., people used to grow up in small towns with a main street lined by family-owned shops and restaurants. Today, however, many main streets are worn down and empty because shoppers have been lured away by shopping malls. But in the Del Ray neighborhood of Alexandria, Virginia, main street is thriving. VOA’s Deborah Block reports it has a nostalgic feel with its small restaurants and unique stores.

VOA Blogs