Disease Threatens U.S. Kosher Chicken Supply at Empire Kosher and Other Plants

Vaccine Available, But Outbreaks Persist

Courtesy of Empire

By Josh Nathan-Kazis

Published March 01, 2013.
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A large percentage of the chickens killed at kosher slaughterhouses in recent months were unfit for kosher consumption due to a mutated chicken virus that has threatened the entire kosher poultry industry.

Industry officials say that the virus has been brought under control, yet the country’s biggest poultry producer was battling a major outbreak as recently as six weeks ago, just as the high-volume Passover holiday season neared.

The disease, a new strain of a common poultry malady called the avian reovirus, cannot harm humans. But the damage it causes to the tendons of infected birds makes those birds unkosher under Jewish law.

Up to a quarter of the birds slaughtered at some kosher plants were rendered unkosher by the virus at the height of the outbreak, according to the Orthodox Union, a major kosher certification agency.

“For a few weeks, there was a concern about a shortage and also prices going up,” said Rabbi Menachem Genack, CEO of the Orthodox Union Kosher Division, a major kosher certification agency. “But that’s been resolved.”

The outbreak has particularly affected chickens bred in Pennsylvania, a state that supplies a large proportion of the kosher poultry in North America. A vaccine has been available to treat the mutated virus since October 2012, according to Patricia Dunn, a professor and avian veterinarian at Pennsylvania State University. Birds bred in flocks treated with the vaccine were available for slaughter in January.

The virus hit Empire Kosher, the state’s largest chicken producer, in late January and early February. A representative of the company said that 10% of chickens slaughtered at its Pennsylvania plant were found to be unkosher at the outbreak’s peak.

The plant’s production was halted for the day on February 28. Empire spokesman Elie Rosenfeld said that the holdup was due not to the reovirus, but rather to underweight chickens being delivered to the plant. In a March 1 report, Haaretz cited unnamed sources claiming that the plant was closed because of high rates of reovirus-afflicted birds. Rosenfeld explicitly denied this in conversations with the Forward on February 28.


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