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.


    Steve Baragona

    Steve Baragona is an award-winning multimedia journalist covering science, environment and health.

    He spent eight years in molecular biology and infectious disease research before deciding that writing about science was more fun than doing it. He graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a master’s degree in journalism in 2002.

    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.
    Testing Bamboo as Building Materiali
    X
    June 27, 2016 9:06 PM
    For thousands of years various species of bamboo - one of the world's most versatile plants - have been used for diverse purposes ranging from food and medicine to textiles and construction. But its use on a large scale is hampered because it's not manufactured to specific standards but grown in the ground. A University of Pittsburgh professor is on track to changing that. VOA’s George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video Testing Bamboo as Building Material

    For thousands of years various species of bamboo - one of the world's most versatile plants - have been used for diverse purposes ranging from food and medicine to textiles and construction. But its use on a large scale is hampered because it's not manufactured to specific standards but grown in the ground. A University of Pittsburgh professor is on track to changing that. VOA’s George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video Orphanage in Iraqi City Houses Kids Who Lost their Parents to Attacks by IS

    An orphanage in Iraqi Kurdistan has become home to scores of Yazidi children who lost their parents after Islamic State militants took over Sinjar in Iraq’s Nineveh Province in 2014. Iraqi Kurdish forces backed by the U.S. airstrikes have since recaptured Sinjar but the need for the care provided by the orphanage continues. VOA’s Kawa Omar filed this report narrated by Rob Raffaele.
    Video

    Video Re-Opening Old Wounds in a Bullet-Riddled Cultural Landmark

    A cultural landmark before Lebanon’s civil war transformed it into a nest of snipers, Beirut’s ‘Yellow House’ is once again set to play a crucial role in the city.  Built in a neo-Ottoman style in the 1920s, in September it is set to be re-opened as a ‘memory museum’ - its bullet-riddled walls and bunkered positions overlooking the city’s notorious ‘Green Line’ maintained for posterity. John Owens reports from Beirut.
    Video

    Video Brexit Resounds in US Presidential Contest

    Britain’s decision to leave the European Union is resounding in America’s presidential race. As VOA’s Michael Bowman reports, Republican presumptive nominee Donald Trump sees Britain’s move as an affirmation of his campaign’s core messages, while Democrat Hillary Clinton sees the episode as further evidence that Trump is unfit to be president.
    Video

    Video New York Pride March A Celebration of Life, Mourning of Loss

    At this year’s march in New York marking the end of pride week, a record-breaking crowd of LGBT activists and allies marched down Manhattan's Fifth Avenue, in what will be long remembered as a powerful display of solidarity and remembrance for the 49 victims killed two weeks ago in an Orlando gay nightclub.
    Video

    Video NASA Juno Spacecraft, Nearing Jupiter, to Shed Light on Gas Giant

    After a five-year journey, the spacecraft Juno is nearing its destination, the giant planet Jupiter, where it will enter orbit and start sending data back July 4th. As Mike O'Sullivan reports from Pasadena, California, the craft will pierce the veil of Jupiter's dense cloud cover to reveal its mysteries.
    Video

    Video Orlando Shooting Changes Debate on Gun Control

    It’s been nearly two weeks since the largest mass shooting ever in the United States. Despite public calls for tighter gun control laws, Congress is at an impasse. Democratic lawmakers resorted to a 1960s civil rights tactic to portray their frustration. VOA’s Carolyn Presutti explains how the Orlando, Florida shooting is changing the debate.
    Video

    Video Tunisian Fishing Town Searches for Jobs, Local Development Solutions

    As the European Union tries to come to grips with its migrant crisis, some newcomers are leaving voluntarily. But those returning to their home countries face an uncertain future.  Five years after Tunisia's revolution, the tiny North African country is struggling with unrest, soaring unemployment and plummeting growth. From the southern Tunisian fishing town of Zarzis, Lisa Bryant takes a look for VOA at a search for local solutions.
    Video

    Video 'American Troops' in Russia Despite Tensions

    Historic battle re-enactment is a niche hobby with a fair number of adherents in Russia where past military victories are played-up by the Kremlin as a show of national strength. But, one group of World War II re-enactors in Moscow has the rare distinction of choosing to play western ally troops. VOA's Daniel Schearf explains.
    Video

    Video Muslim American Mayor Calls for Tolerance

    Syrian-born Mohamed Khairullah describes himself as "an American mayor who happens to be Muslim." As the three-term mayor of Prospect Park, New Jersey, he believes his town of 6,000 is an example of how ethnicity and religious beliefs should not determine a community's leadership. Ramon Taylor has this report from Prospect Park.
    Video

    Video Internal Rifts Over Syria Policy Could Be Headache for Next US President

    With the Obama administration showing little outward enthusiasm for adopting a more robust Syria policy, there is a strong likelihood that the internal discontent expressed by State Department employees will roll over to the next administration. VOA State Department correspondent Pam Dockins reports.
    Video

    Video Senegal to Park Colorful ‘Cars Rapides’ Permanently

    Brightly painted cars rapide are a hallmark of Dakar, offering residents a cheap way to get around the capital city since 1976. But the privately owned minibuses are scheduled to be parked for good in late 2018, as Ricci Shryock reports for VOA.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora