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.
Making Music, Fleeing Bombs: New Film on Sudan’s Internal Refugeesi
X
Carolyn Weaver
July 06, 2015 6:47 PM
In 2012, Sudanese filmmaker Hajooj Kuka went to make a documentary among civil war refugees in Sudan’s Blue Nile and Nuba Mountains region. What he found surprised him: music was helping to save people from bombing raids by their own government. VOA’s Carolyn Weaver has more.
Video

Video Making Music, Fleeing Bombs: New Film on Sudan’s Internal Refugees

In 2012, Sudanese filmmaker Hajooj Kuka went to make a documentary among civil war refugees in Sudan’s Blue Nile and Nuba Mountains region. What he found surprised him: music was helping to save people from bombing raids by their own government. VOA’s Carolyn Weaver has more.
Video

Video Rice Farmers Frustrated As Drought Grips Thailand

A severe drought in Thailand is limiting the growing season of the country’s important rice crop. Farmers are blaming the government for not doing more to protect a key export. Steve Sandford reports from Chiang Mai, Thailand.
Video

Video 'From This Day Forward' Reveals Difficult Journey of Transgender Parent

In her documentary, "From This Day Forward", filmmaker Sharon Shattuck reveals the personal journey of her transgender father, as he told his family that he always felt he was a woman inside and decided to live as one. VOA’s Penelope Poulou has more.
Video

Video Floodwaters Threaten Iconic American Home

The Farnsworth House in the Midwest State of Illinois is one of the most iconic homes in America. Thousands of tourists visit the site every year. Its location near a river inspired the design of the house, but, as VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, that very location is now threatening the existence of this National Historic Landmark.
Video

Video Olympics Construction Scars Sacred Korean Mountain

Environmentalists in South Korea are protesting a Winter Olympics construction project to build a ski slope through a 500-year-old protected forest. Brian Padden reports that although there is strong national support for hosting the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, there are growing public concerns over the costs and possible ecological damage at the revered mountain.
Video

Video Xenophobia Victims in South Africa Flee Violence, Then Return

Many Malawians fled South Africa early this year after xenophobic attacks on African immigrants. But many quickly found life was no better at home and have returned to South Africa – often illegally and without jobs, and facing the tough task of having to start over. Lameck Masina and Anita Powell file from Johannesburg.
Video

Video Family of American Marine Calls for Release From Iranian Prison

As the crowd of journalists covering the Iran talks swells, so too do the opportunities for media coverage.  Hoping to catch the attention of high-level diplomats, the family of American-Iranian marine Amir Hekmati is in Vienna, pleading for his release from an Iranian prison after nearly 4 years.  VOA’s Heather Murdock reports from Vienna.
Video

Video UK Holds Terror Drill as MPs Mull Tunisia Response

After pledging a tough response to last Friday’s terror attack in Tunisia, which came just days before the 10th anniversary of the bomb attacks on London’s transport network, British security services are shifting their focus to overseas counter-terror operations. VOA's Henry Ridgwell has more.
Video

Video Obama on Cuba: This is What Change Looks Like

President Barack Obama says the United States will soon reopen its embassy in Cuba for the first time since 1961, ending a half-century of isolation. VOA White House correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.
Video

Video Hate Groups Spread Influence Via Internet

Hate groups of various kinds are using the Internet for propaganda and recruitment, and a Jewish human rights organization that monitors these groups, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, says their influence is growing. The messages are different, but the calls to hatred or violence are similar. VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports.
Video

Video Blind Somali Journalist Defies Odds in Mogadishu

Despite improving security in the last few years, Somalia remains one of the most dangerous countries to be a journalist – even more so for someone who cannot see. Abdulaziz Billow has the story of journalist Abdifatah Hassan Kalgacal, who has been reporting from the Somali capital for the last decade despite being blind.
Video

Video Rabbi Hits Road to Heal Jewish-Muslim Relations in France

France is on high alert after last week's terrorist attack near the city Lyon, just six months after deadly Paris shootings. The attack have added new tensions to relations between French Jews and Muslims. France’s Jewish and Muslim communities also share a common heritage, though, and as far as one French rabbi is concerned, they are destined to be friends. From the Paris suburb of La Courneuve, Lisa Bryant reports about Rabbi Michel Serfaty and his friendship bus.

VOA Blogs