Kosher meat producers are struggling to fill the gap left by Agriprocessors’ suspension of operations, a leading expert in the field of kosher food production says.
And it will probably get worse before it gets better.
Joseph Regenstein, professor of food science in the Department of Food Science and Institute of Food Science at Cornell University, told an audience at Tree of Life Congregation last week that another kosher meat producer, Sara Lee, recently announced plans to close its kosher meat-processing facility in Chicago by the end of January 2009, and to discontinue its kosher meat brands, Best Kosher, Sinai Kosher, Shofar and Wilno.
“The kosher meat business is really a smaller, niche business for us, so it’s not something that we’re going to be able to focus on going forward,” spokesman Mike Cummins told Chicago Public Radio.
The news will only complicate matters further for producers and retailers trying to keep up with the demand for kosher meat.
“Everybody is scrambling,” Regenstein said.
He said there is plenty of nonglatt kosher meat at the meat packing plants (an estimated $11 million worth of product at Postville alone), but it doesn’t always find its way to the retail market.
“The problem is price,” Regenstein said in response to e-mailed questions from The Chronicle. “It is simply impossible for the kosher plants to be as efficient as the gentile plants, and because of something called blood splash (the breaking of small blood capillaries) the meat is often seriously downgraded and the price received even lower.”
Regenstein, a Pittsburgh resident and member of Tree of Life, appeared at the synagogue last week as part of its Rabbi Alvin K. Berkun Lecture Series. Howard Elson organized the program.
Even though the smaller kosher meat plants are trying to ramp up their production, their efforts won’t necessarily relieve the shortages of glatt kosher meat.
“For whatever reason (possibly monopolistic tendencies) the Postville plant was distributed in many smaller towns, often with support from the local Chabad house,” Regenstein said, in the same e-mail. “That is a fairly inefficient system and I doubt that anyone else is likely to undertake that type of distribution. And because of the role of the Chabad houses, the question of which meat would be acceptable remains an issue.”
“And there is the question of whether those ‘ramping’ up can find the workforce to do so,” he added. “Shochets are mostly from overseas — and they need to be acceptable to the “sect” running the plant. So that is also a challenge.”
“Ramping up glatt kosher is not trivial,” Regenstein said, “because you have to go through a lot of politics.”
Agriprocessors produced glatt and nonglatt meat. The nonglatt meat was handled by Rabbi Zelingold and then distributed also by Postville. Trader Joe’s is among the retailers that distributed Zelingold meat, but it stopped before the Postville plant was closed, according to Regenstein.
Founded in 1987 by Aaron Rubashkin, who purchased the meat-packing facility in Postville, Iowa, two-thirds of Agriprocessors’ output is nonkosher and is marketed under the brand Iowa Best Beef. Its kosher products are marketed under the brand names Aaron’s Best, Shor Habor, Supreme Kosher and Rubashkins.
But the company has consistently been in and out of trouble, including a video smuggled out of the factory by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), which showed disturbing methods used to kill animals.
On May 12, U.S. Immigration Customs officials, armed with warrants, raided the plant, arrested nearly 400 workers, and seized documents in what was at that time, the largest raid of its kind in U.S. history.
Eventually, Shlomo Rubashkin, CEO of Agriprocessors, was arrested Oct. 30, for harboring illegal aliens. The company filed for bankruptcy on Nov. 5, following a series of alleged violations of labor law and repeated accusations of mistreatment of cattle.
Regenstein, who has followed developments at Agriprocessors for years, criticized the operation during his talk, pointing to infractions of animal welfare rules, violations of illegal immigration laws and assailing some of the plant’s ritual slaughterers for kills that caused obvious pain and stress for the animals, according to the PETA video.
Causing undue pain to the animal is a clear violation of kashrut.
“If you can figure out a law to break,” Regenstein said of Agriprocessors, “they broke it.”
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)