Over 25 years ago my brother and I closely followed the developing story of a new animal species, the beefalo, a cross between domestic cattle and the American bison (commonly, but erroneously, called buffalo).
This animal had gained in popularity due to its ease of handling and the lower fat content of its meat. It was going to be the savior of the American beef industry, which was suffering at that time from revelations about the dangers of fat and cholesterol.
While this hybrid never took off, I continued to follow the growth of the bison population and its entry as a consumer product. Bison meat has less cholesterol, and significantly fewer calories and grams of fat than beef, skinless chicken, or turkey. It is also high in protein and iron. Since it has a greater percentage of protein, it shrinks 25-30% less than beef when cooked, and has to be cooked at a lower temperature than beef (300 instead of 350 degrees F).
Back then, neither we, nor probably anyone else, even dreamt about the possibility of kosher beefalo or bison. But today the kosher food industry in the U.S. is booming, amounting to around $4 billion a year, and the affluent kosher consumer is forever looking for new and varied cuisine to tantalize his palate.
In recent years, goose, deer, and quail have been added to the menus of several kosher New York restaurants and butcher shops. Hence the idea of kosher bison started germinating. However, before kosher bison could become a reality, it was necessary to determine that it is indeed a kosher species.
For the purpose of identifying kosher animals, Jewish law, based on verses in Leviticus and Deuteronomy, divides most of the animal kingdom into five categories, four of which have kosher members. The categories with kosher members are: terrestrial mammalian quadrupeds, fish, birds, and invertebrates. The fifth category - bugs - has no kosher members. In addition, all creatures that do not fit into one of the above categories, such as all reptiles and amphibians, are not kosher.
For each of the four categories with kosher members, the Torah specifies how to tell if a particular species is kosher. In many cases, the rabbis clarified and elaborated on these indicators.
While it is well established that cows and sheep are kosher, and that pig and camel are not kosher, what rules govern "new" species? The basic rule for mammals is that an animal is kosher if it chews its cud and has hooves that are fully split. In addition, the Bible lists 10 kosher "species." According to the Talmud, these 10 and their subcategories are the only species in the world that have both those kosher requirements.
In addition to cows and sheep, the list of animals that meet the kosher requirements includes goats, deer, pronghorn, moose, giraffe, Bongo and bison.
If so, what could conceivably be a problem with respect to bison?
American bison was unknown to the Middle-Eastern and European rabbis of old. This could create a problem, because one of the most significant Israeli religious authorities of the 20th century, the Chazon Ish, ruled that even if an animal possesses the requisite biblical signs, it may not be considered kosher unless it has traditionally been eaten by Jews. That would quickly rule out the American bison! The Chazon Ish locked horns over this issue with the former chief rabbi of Israel, Yitzchak haLevi Herzog, when the latter was asked by the French rabbinate about the zebu, a type of humped cow. Rabbi Herzog was vehemently opposed to those who argued that a tradition is required, and permitted the zebu.
A possible way to circumvent the Chazon Ish's need for a tradition is based on the talmudic assertion that kosher and non-kosher species cannot crossbreed. Thus, if two species can hybridize, and one is known to be kosher, it is proof positive that the other is kosher as well. Since both the zebu and bison pass this "hybridization test" and produce live, fertile offspring with other domesticated cattle and both possess biblical indicia, both should be viewed as kosher.
With this knowledge spreading, murmurings were heard for kosher bison. It is no longer an endangered species and most are raised free of antibiotic, steroid or hormone injections.
One of the forces behind making kosher bison a reality is Israeli Ilan Parente, who works in a packing plant in South Dakota where bison and lamb are kosher slaughtered. The other major figure is Steven Chase, who sells bison cold cuts. His great-grandfather, a Romanian immigrant, sold hot dogs from a wagon in New York, and his grandfather founded Hebrew National.
There is not yet a stampede for kosher bison, but based on my informal survey of several cities, it appears that there is some desire for it. It is even available in Cleveland via EPL Epicurean Kosher Meats, owned by Earl Lefkovitz. To my knowledge, no kosher beefalo is commercially available. Yet.