THE STATUS OF CARMINE IN JEWISH LAW
By Rabbi David I. Sheinkopf
Carmine (carminic acid) is a vivid red pigment, extracted from the female cochineal insect. The insect is collected from the cactus plant and exposed to the sun until it becomes thoroughly dry and brittle. In this state, rendered unfit for animal consumption, the insect loses its status as a forbidden substance in Jewish Law.
Our sources begin with the following ruling by R. Moses Isserles (Rema).
The skin of the stomach (of validly or invalidly slaughtered animals) is sometimes salted and dried until it becomes like wood. Then it is filled with milk (to make cheese). This is permissible because after the skin becomes dry, it is considered mere wood without any meat moisture (Y.D., 87:10)
Supportive proof for this is the case of skin bottles used for heathen wine (A. Zar. 33a). The Sages ruled that new bottles (that had not absorbed heathen wine) are permissible for kosher use. The Sages were not fearful of moisture from the forbidden skin because the skins used in the making of these bottles are first dried out and rendered unfit for animal consumption. (Y.L. Tzirelson, Atzei Levanon, chs. 43-45.)
In the same vein, Yad Yosef (Jerusalem 5633) writes that he was asked about whiskey transported by merchants in dried-out bladders of unclean or invalidly slaughtered animals. He ruled that the whiskey was permissible on the strength of the above ruling of Rema.
On the basis of the Rema's ruling, Tiferet Tzvi (Y.D., no. 73), allows the use of dried-out worms to redden the color of whiskey.
So, too, Sha'arei Tzedek (Y.D., no. 100) approves dyeing whiskey with red worms after they have become dry as wood with no remaining moisture.
From the 18th century commentary of R. Jacob Culi (Me'am Lo'ez, Pararshat Terumah), we learn that dried worms were used to produce a coloring agent not only to enhance the appearance of whiskey but also that of spices. R. Culi adds that his grandfather, R. Moses ben Solomon Ibn Habib (Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem, 1689), also reached this conclusion.
The rabbinic prohibition of ahashavei, i.e. the status an inedible substance acquires as food by one's intention to eat it, is not applicable because ahashavei only applies when the substance is eaten by itself, not when it is used in a mixture with permitted food.
Nor is the principle, "Forbidden food must not be annulled at the start," applicable. This rule is operative only in situations where the motive is to use forbidden food in its edible state by neutralizing it in 60 times its volume of kosher food. It is not applicable when a prohibited substance is subjected to a process that utterly disqualifies it as food.
Extracted from the cochineal insect after it has become totally inedible, ground into powder and mixed with other food, carmine fully meets the criteria as a kosher food coloring.,
Among the chief rabbinic responsa upon which the approval of carmine is based are: Rabbi Hayyim Ozer Grodzienski, (Ahiezer, vol. 3); Rabbi Yosef Konvitz (Divrei Yosef, vol. 1); Rabbi Ezekiel Abramsky (Tzitz Eliezer, IV); Rabbi Yehudah Leib Seltzer (Vetzot Lihudah); Rabbi Yosef Henkin (Edut LeYisrael); See, especially, recent responsum by Rabbi Ovadia Yosef (in Torah Sheb'al Peh, ed. Y. Rafael).
(Note: Rabbi Sheinkopf was ordained at Mesivta Rabbi Chaim Berlin and earned a doctoral degree in Judaic Studies from Yeshiva University. He is the author of Expositions in Jewish Dietary Laws (Ktav, 2010) which focuses on the annulment of Jewish dietetic prohibitions concerning substances rendered unfit for animal consumption.)