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June 6, 2008

After raid, kosher meat in short supply

http://www.jewishjournal.com/nation/article/after_raid_kosher_meat_in_short_supply_20080606

As of Tuesday, June 3, 2008 Rubashkin's butcher shop in Brooklyn was still well-stocked, but elsewhere kosher meat was less plentiful.

As of Tuesday, June 3, 2008 Rubashkin's butcher shop in Brooklyn was still well-stocked, but elsewhere kosher meat was less plentiful.

NEW YORK (JTA) -- Jacqueline Lankry doesn't know how she's going to fill her orders.

Owner of her own kosher catering firm in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., Lankry orders a box a week of meat and poultry from Agriprocessors, which runs the nation's largest kosher slaughterhouse, where production has slowed to a crawl since a federal immigration raid last month at the Postville, Iowa plant.

Lankry learned on Wednesday that this week's box isn't coming. "They told me they have no merchandise," she told JTA. "I'm closed for business today. I'm going from store to store, looking for meat to fill my orders."

Instead of buying wholesale chopped meat for $2.19/lb., she's dishing out $6.99 to buy it retail. That's going to hurt her bottom line in a big way. But she's stuck, she says. There are no other kosher meat suppliers in town -- everything comes from Agriprocessors, which she and other caterers refer to as "Rubashkin's," after the family that owns it.

She doesn't know about the raid, she said. She doesn't know about problems with the workers, or PETA's allegations of inhumane slaughter methods. She just knows that if Agriprocessors shuts down, she and a lot of other people will be out of business.

"We don't have a choice," she explains.

The 400 undocumented workers arrested in the May 12 raid, and their families, are living in limbo, out of work and facing deportation. But now the fall-out is beginning to extend beyond those most directly impacted. This week, the production slow-down at the Postville plant finally hit the nation's kosher markets and, by extension, kosher consumers. Retailers from coast to coast report trouble getting orders filled, and many report price hikes, although they're generally vague about whether those increases are coming from Agriprocessors or competing suppliers.

Bottom line is, there is less kosher meat, and it's costing more.

Some retailers aren't even bothering to try ordering from Agriprocessors, which has scrambled in recent weeks to bolster its depleted workforce.

Klara Gottesman, manager of the meat department at Kosher Marketplace in Manhattan, stopped ordering a week ago. "I know they don't have stuff, so I can't rely on him," she explains. "I can't close the business and wait until Rubashkin brings it to me."

She's looking for other meat sources now.

Mordechai Yitzhaky, owner of Kosher Mart in Rockville, Md., says his meat supply is down 80 percent. He hasn't seen any price hike yet, but he expects it if production doesn't get back to normal soon. He won't pass on the increase to his cutomers, however.

"Kosher meat is already more expensive," he says. "We don't want people to stop keeping kosher."

Albert Zadeh, owner of Pico Glatt in Pico-Robertson, buys all his meat and poultry from Agriprocessors, which sells its products under various labels that include Aaron's Best, Rubashkin's, Shor Habor, Iowa's Best Beef and Supreme Kosher. He's seen a sharp decline in supply. "If you order ten boxes of beef shank, you only get four," he says.

There's also less poultry, and it arrives more haphazardly. "They used to send chicken legs, cut up. Now they give you whole chickens, all sizes, whatever they have," he says.

His customers "understand the situation," he says, and are making due with less. Prices have gone up "a few cents," he says, but for now, he's absorbing the difference and charging his customers the same.

Dov Bauman, owner of Glatt Mart in Brooklyn, says his fresh poultry supply from Agriprocessors is down, and he, too, is getting whole chickens instead of ready-to-sell parts. "I don't have the manpower to break it down," he says. Prices have gone up from three to 15 percent, he says, depending on the item.

But Bauman, like other kosher retailers, doesn't blame it all on Agriprocessors. Fuel hikes, which increase shipping costs, are affecting meat prices as well, he says.

And in a way, the tighter supply means more people are eager to stock up on kosher meat and poultry now, in case things get worse. "I'm getting more business," he admits.

Agriprocessors has taken several steps in an effort to boost its image and reassure customers, starting with the removal of the manager of the Postville plant, Sholom Rubashkin, son of the company's owner and founder. The company also issued a statement Thursday announcing that it had retained Jim Martin, a former U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Missouri, to serve as its outside corporate compliance officer. Martin will begin his efforts immediately.

Martin was quoted as saying that the company would be able to meet the needs of consumers.

"Agriprocessors' 800 jobs are important to Postville and northern Iowa, along with the observant Jewish community across the country that relies on them for their kosher meat and poultry," he said. "Agriprocessors can meet the needs of those who depend on the company and operate in compliance with all laws, and I intend to see that happen."

Marketing consultant Menachem Lubinsky, who represents Agriprocessors, admits there are "shortages in many markets," particularly outside New York. "Last week there was enough inventory, but it became depleted and people are buying more than usual," he says.

Prices have gone up "sporadically" he reports. And other kosher suppliers, like Empire Kosher, have stepped up production to try and fill the supply gap.

Part of the problem, he says, is that Agriprocessors dominates the market so heavily, supplying 60 percent of the country's kosher meat and 40 percent of its chicken. Any slowdown in its production affects the entire system, "and this comes at a time when demand for kosher meat is up," Lubinsky adds. "They tell me they're stepping up production, but from what I see, it hasn't happened yet."

Meanwhile, more than 1,000 kosher consumers, including several leading rabbis, have signed a petition being circulated by Uri L'Tzedek, an Orthodox social justice group in New York. The petition calls upon Agriprocessors to treat its workers fairly and abide by all laws pertaining to workers rights and safety. The petition also asks the company to create a transparent monitoring system, open to third-party inspection, "so consumers can have faith that the meat is coming to them in an ethical manner," says Ari Hart, a rabbinical student at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and one of the four founders of Uri L'Tzedek.

The petition states that if these conditions are not met by June 15, those who signed the petition will no longer patronize the company.

Hart says that the petition is not aimed at challenging the kosher system, or hurting any particular supplier.

"We have no interest in hurting the Rubashkin company or in promoting any other company," Hart explains. "We are simply consumers of this meat, and our interest is in having an available supply of kosher meat we are comfortable purchasing."

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