With Meat in Short Supply, Anxiety Abounds at Kosher Convention

By Anthony Weiss

Published November 13, 2008, issue of November 21, 2008.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Secaucus, N.J. — At first glance, the crowded exhibition hall of Kosherfest 2008 seemed to have everything a kosher consumer could want, from candy to blintzes to Jewish-themed toilet covers. But perhaps the most notable item at this year’s annual kosher food industry trade show was one that, on closer inspection, was distinctly lacking — kosher meat.

DISASTER PLANNING: Officials from kosher meat companies and kosher certifiers confer about meat supply during Kosherfest 2008.
DISASTER PLANNING: Officials from kosher meat companies and kosher certifiers confer about meat supply during Kosherfest 2008.

In past years, one of the anchor slots at Kosherfest, the annual convention for industry insiders, was occupied by Agriprocessors, the kosher meat giant that was, until this year, the largest supplier of kosher meat in the United States. Just a week before Kosherfest, however, Agriprocessors filed for bankruptcy amid a torrent of legal and financial troubles at the company’s flagship slaughterhouse in Postville, Iowa. The lack of meat coming from Agriprocessors, combined with financial troubles at one of the main slaughterhouses for Alle Processing, the company that recently took Agriprocessors’ standing as the largest supplier of kosher beef, has left a gaping void in the kosher meat market.

As a result, this year’s Kosherfest was marked by a sense of panic, as people throughout the kosher industry, from suppliers to producers to rabbinical authorities, scrambled to find ways to fill the void.

At the booth for West Side Foods, one of the few meat suppliers to have a presence at the convention, vice president Jerry Abramowitz said that he was being deluged with far more visitors than he had seen at conventions past, all looking to secure meat.

“People are saying, ‘How can you take care of me?’” Abramowitz said. “It’s almost like a fear factor.”

All over the convention hall, there were signs of the anxiety: Rabbis from certification agencies huddled with slaughterhouse owners to gauge their output; owners of kosher meat markets pleaded with distributors to provide them with more meat. Other food producers reassured customers that their supplies were holding steady.

Asher Amar, proprietor of 5th Street Deli and Market in Tucson, Ariz., roamed the convention floor chatting with suppliers, collecting phone numbers and placing calls, all in an effort to secure meat for his customers. Amar said that he had placed an order the previous week for 20 cases of kosher meat, but when the order arrived, there was only one case.

“Right now, if I can get meat anywhere, I want to get it, just to make my customers happy,” Amar said.

Smaller meat suppliers say they are stepping in to fill the void as quickly as they can. One West Coast meat distributor, who asked not to be identified for fear of angering suppliers, said it was looking into setting up its own slaughtering operations. Ilan Parente, owner of Noah’s Ark slaughterhouse in Dawson, Minn., said he had stepped up his production and expected to increase it further. But he also said that contracting for new cattle to slaughter would take time, and besides, the demand for meat was far beyond what his firm could provide.

“We could double and quadruple [production] and still not provide enough product,” Parente said.

Where meat supply cannot be found, other kosher food producers were talking about finding substitutes for meat, ranging from fish to poultry to soy products. Robert Friedman, a manufacturer of beef jerky, said he was thinking of expanding his lines of turkey and soy jerky. Food providers and caterers said they were replacing beef meals with chicken and fish.

But the problems with meat supply are extending out beyond the question of supply and demand, as other kosher food producers worry that the lack of meat could damage the kosher industry overall.

“It’s devastating,” pickle manufacturer Stephen Leibowitz said. “If a kosher deli can’t get enough veal chops, corned beef and pastrami because of what the government’s doing in Iowa, my pickle consumption is down. No one’s going into the restaurants.”

Others worried about the damage that Agriprocessors’ highly publicized troubles would cause to the reputation of the kosher industry.

“It’s very hurtful to the industry,” said Henry Ender, CEO of Israeli food products distributor Foodfest International. “The trust itself, the perception of kosher, the perception of the higher authority — we all have to digest it and heal it again, basically.”

In general, people from the kosher food industry said they expected that the problems with the meat supply would be worked out in the next few months to a year, but many were bracing for more trouble in the short term.

“They’ve been an institution, Agriprocessors,” said Sondra Richmond of Duso Food Distributors, a New York-based company that provides meals to nursing homes, hospitals and other institutions. “It’s very, very scary for our industry.”

Find us on Facebook!
  • Lusia Horowitz left pre-state Israel to fight fascism in Spain — and wound up being captured by the Nazis and sent to die at Auschwitz. Share her remarkable story — told in her letters.
  • Vered Guttman doesn't usually get nervous about cooking for 20 people, even for Passover. But last night was a bit different. She was cooking for the Obamas at the White House Seder.
  • A grumpy Jewish grandfather is wary of his granddaughter's celebrating Easter with the in-laws. But the Seesaw says it might just make her appreciate Judaism more. What do you think?
  • “Twist and Shout.” “Under the Boardwalk.” “Brown-Eyed Girl.” What do these great songs have in common? A forgotten Jewish songwriter. We tracked him down.
  • What can we learn from tragedies like the rampage in suburban Kansas City? For one thing, we must keep our eyes on the real threats that we as Jews face.
  • When is a legume not necessarily a legume? Philologos has the answer.
  • "Sometime in my childhood, I realized that the Exodus wasn’t as remote or as faceless as I thought it was, because I knew a former slave. His name was Hersh Nemes, and he was my grandfather." Share this moving Passover essay!
  • Getting ready for Seder? Chag Sameach! http://jd.fo/q3LO2
  • "We are not so far removed from the tragedies of the past, and as Jews sit down to the Seder meal, this event is a teachable moment of how the hatred of Jews-as-Other is still alive and well. It is not realistic to be complacent."
  • Aperitif Cocktail, Tequila Shot, Tom Collins or Vodka Soda — Which son do you relate to?
  • Elvis craved bacon on tour. Michael Jackson craved matzo ball soup. We've got the recipe.
  • This is the face of hatred.
  • What could be wrong with a bunch of guys kicking back with a steak and a couple of beers and talking about the Seder? Try everything. #ManSeder
  • BREAKING: Smirking killer singled out Jews for death in suburban Kansas City rampage. 3 die in bloody rampage at JCC and retirement home.
  • Real exodus? For Mimi Minsky, it's screaming kids and demanding hubby on way down to Miami, not matzo in the desert.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.