Store Owners Shift Gears as Meat Prices Rise

By Marissa Brostoff

Published August 07, 2008, issue of August 15, 2008.

As kosher meat prices climb in the wake of the mid-May raid on the Agriprocessors slaughterhouse, at least one purveyor, the online supermarket Kosher.com, is trying to make the best of tough times by getting creative: The store now offers high-end specialty meats in addition to more traditional fare. If consumers balk at higher prices for brisket or chicken, the company reasoned, let them eat organic bison instead.

“When Agriprocessors was providing a large quantity of the meat, the marketplace was strictly priced competitive,” said Ron Katz, director of operations for Kosher.com. “Now there’s room for people to differentiate the prices based on the quality.”

Production is still reduced at the Agriprocessors plant in Postville, Iowa, which lost about half its work force when a federal immigration agency raided the slaughterhouse May 12. And while meat prices in general are jumping in response to the rising costs of animal feed and fuel, butchers and customers who had been accustomed to paying cut-rate prices for Agriprocessors products seem to be feeling the markups more than those who had always bought the higher-priced brands.

“Agriprocessors is the primary driver of discount price,” said Elie Rosenfeld, a spokesman for poultry-production rival Empire Kosher. “If you’re used to buying the value brand, and the value brand’s not in the store, you have to step up to the next brand — which is always more expensive.”

Agriprocessors consultant Menachem Lubinsky, editor of the trade magazine Kosher Today, told the Forward that Agriprocessors’ retail prices had increased by 10% to 15% since early May. By contrast, Rosenfeld said, Empire Kosher prices had not increased at all since the raid. At Vineland Kosher Poultry, a New Jersey-based meat processor, wholesale prices have increased by about 5% since May, according to manager Abe Raab.

Rosenfeld said that Empire’s production and sales have increased between 5% and 12% since the raid, though he would not give precise sales figures.

The retail price of nonkosher beef increased by 3% between April and June of this year (statistics are not yet available for July), and the price of nonkosher chicken rose by 0.5%, according to information provided by the United States Department of Agriculture. (The USDA does not keep statistics of kosher meat prices.) Kosher meat producers and purveyors, like those who produce nonkosher meat, blame the soaring costs of corn and transportation for their price increases.

Yet, buyers who have long patronized non-Agriprocessors brands report having experienced relatively modest price increases since the raid.

“It didn’t affect us,” said Eli Scharf, who works in the meat department at Glatt Mart, a large supermarket in Brooklyn. “We only buy the poultry from [Agriprocessors]. We feel it less, because we don’t buy the meat from them.”

Conversely, Irving Gonzalez, a butcher at Koshermart in Baltimore who once bought most of his meat from Agriprocessors — which sells under such brand names as Aaron’s Best and Rubashkin’s — reported major price increases.

Agriprocessors now “only gives us about 5% of the meat we’re selling,” Gonzalez said. “It used to be about 60%.”

Of the price, he said, “It’s going up a lot.”



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