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.
Booming London Property a ‘Haven for Dirty Money’i
X
July 29, 2015 9:34 PM
Billions of dollars of so-called ‘dirty money’ from the proceeds of crime - especially from Russia - are being laundered through the London property market, according to anti-corruption activists. As Henry Ridgwell reports from the British capital, the government has pledged to crack down on the practice.
Video

Video Booming London Property a ‘Haven for Dirty Money’

Billions of dollars of so-called ‘dirty money’ from the proceeds of crime - especially from Russia - are being laundered through the London property market, according to anti-corruption activists. As Henry Ridgwell reports from the British capital, the government has pledged to crack down on the practice.
Video

Video Hometown of Boy Scouts of America Founder Reacts to Gay Leader Decision

Ottawa, Illinois, is the hometown of W.D. Boyce, who founded the Boy Scouts of America in 1910. In Ottawa, where Scouting remains an important part of the legacy of the community, the end of the organization's ban on openly gay adult leaders was seen as inevitable. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.
Video

Video 'Metal Muscles' Flex a New Bionic Hand

Artificial limbs, including the most complex of them – the human hand – are getting more life-like and useful due to constant advances in tiny hydraulic, pneumatic and electric motors called actuators. But now, as VOA’s George Putic reports, scientists in Germany say the future of the prosthetic hand may lie not in motors but in wires that can ‘remember’ their shape.
Video

Video Russia Accused of Abusing Interpol to Pursue Opponents

A British pro-democracy group has accused Russia of abusing the global law enforcement agency Interpol by requesting the arrest and extradition of political opponents. A new report by the group notes such requests can mean the accused are unable to travel and are often unable to open bank accounts. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video 'Positive Atmosphere' Points Toward TPP Trade Deal in Hawaii

Talks on a major new trade agreement among 12 Pacific Rim nations are said to be nearing completion in Hawaii. Some trade experts say the "positive atmosphere" at the discussions could mean a deal is within reach, but there is still hard bargaining to be done over many issues and products, including U.S. drugs and Japanese rice. VOA's Jim Randle reports.
Video

Video Genome Initiative Urgently Moves to Freeze DNA Before Species Go Extinct

Earth is in the midst of its sixth mass extinction. The last such event was caused by an asteroid 66 million years ago. It killed off the dinosaurs and practically everything else. So scientists are in a race against time to classify the estimated 11 million species alive today. So far only 2 million are described by science, and researchers are worried many will disappear before they even have a name. VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports.
Video

Video Scientists: One-Dose Malaria Cure is Possible

Scientists have long been trying to develop an effective protection and cure for malaria - one of the deadliest diseases that affects people in tropical areas, especially children. As the World Health Organization announces plans to begin clinical trials of a promising new vaccine, scientists in South Africa report that they too are at an important threshold. George Putic reports, they are testing a compound that could be a single-dose cure for malaria.
Video

Video 'New York' Magazine Features 35 Cosby Accusers

The latest issue of 'New York' magazine features 35 women who say they were drugged and raped by film and television celebrity Bill Cosby. The women are aged from 44 to 80 and come from different walks of life and races. The magazine interviewed each of them separately, but Zlatica Hoke reports their stories are similar.
Video

Video US Calls Fight Against Human Trafficking a Must Win

The United States is promising not to give up its fight against what Secretary of State John Kerry calls the “scourge” of modern slavery. Officials released the country’s annual human trafficking report Monday – a report that’s being met with some criticism. VOA’s National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin has more from the State Department.
Video

Video Washington DC Underground Streetcar Station to Become Arts Venue

Abandoned more than 50 years ago, the underground streetcar station in Washington D.C.’s historic DuPont Circle district is about to be reborn. The plan calls for turning the spacious underground platforms - once meant to be a transportation hub, - into a unique space for art exhibitions, presentations, concerts and even a film set. Roman Mamonov has more from beneath the streets of the U.S. capital. Joy Wagner narrates his report.
Video

Video Europe’s Twin Crises Collide in Greece as Migrant Numbers Soar

Greece has replaced Italy as the main gateway for migrants into Europe, with more than 100,000 arrivals in the first six months of 2015. Many want to move further into Europe and escape Greece’s economic crisis, but they face widespread dangers on the journey overland through the Balkans. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video Stink Intensifies as Lebanon’s Trash Crisis Continues

After the closure of a major rubbish dump a week ago, the streets of Beirut are filling up with trash. Having failed to draw up a plan B, politicians are struggling to deal with the problem. John Owens has more for VOA from Beirut.
Video

Video Paris Rolls Out Blueprint to Fight Climate Change

A U.N. climate conference in December aims to produce an ambitious agreement to fight heat-trapping greenhouse gases. But many local governments are not waiting, and have drafted their own climate action plans. That’s the case with Paris — which is getting special attention, since it’s hosting the climate summit. Lisa Bryant takes a look for VOA at the transformation of the French capital into an eco-city.
Video

Video Racially Diverse Spider-Man Takes Center Stage

Whether it’s in a comic book or on the big screen, fans have always known the man behind the Spider-Man mask as Peter Parker. But that is changing, at least in the comic book world. Marvel Comics announced that a character called Miles Morales will replace Peter Parker as Spider-Man in a new comic book series. He is half Latino, half African American, and he is quite popular among comic book fans. Correspondent Elizabeth Lee reports from Los Angeles.
Video

Video Historic Symbol Is Theme of Vibrant New Show

A new exhibit in Washington is paying tribute to the American flag with a wide and eclectic selection of artwork that uses the historic symbol as its central theme. VOA’s Julie Taboh was at the DC Chamber of Commerce for the show’s opening.

VOA Blogs