Kosher Goes High Tech in Fraud Fight

By Nathaniel Popper

Published November 24, 2006, issue of November 24, 2006.
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Kosher consumers already have to worry about whether their meat came from a cloven-hoofed animal that chews its cud, has no lung adhesions, had its blood vessels removed and received a proper salt bath within 72 hours of the slaughter. But soon there will be something else to fret about: the authenticity of the meat’s hologram.

In fact, the hologram is only one of several new technologies being developed in the wake of a meat scandal that set the entire kosher industry running for new measures of quality control.

This past August, an Orthodox meat distributor just north of New York City was discovered to be using fraudulent labels to pass off nonkosher chicken as kosher. Since then, companies that produce kosher meat — along with the rabbis who oversee it — have been scrambling to find technology that will ensure customers that the meat under the deli window is, indeed, kosher.

Some of the newest advances were unveiled last week at Kosherfest, the annual gathering for the kosher industry. Empire Kosher Poultry, one of the largest kosher meat producers in the country, announced that its birds would now be available only in factory-packed bags with unique holograms (no more loose chicken breasts). There was a poster board displaying how the rabbinical council, or Vaad, in Montreal is using new technology to string holograms onto every animal it oversees in the slaughterhouse. And an Israeli company was hawking a microfiber clip that would go under the bird’s wing, verifiable with a small remote-control sensor.

The head of the Montreal Vaad, Rabbi Saul Emanuel, said that the scrupulous numbering of chicken parts and beef bits is exactly what is needed.

“In order to avoid such a thing recurring in the future, one has to react similar to the way we reacted when we had 9/11,” Emanuel said. “The way you do that is by putting in total control at every point where meat is being dealt with, or else one cannot be sure that it is not going to reoccur.”

The severity of Samuel’s terrorism metaphor indicates just how shaken kosher consumers and producers were by the events at Shevach Quality Meats in Monsey, N.Y. Last August, the local Orthodox authorities discovered unkosher chicken in the storage freezers of one of the town’s major kosher meat sellers. The discovery set off days of panic in Monsey, as housewives, in keeping with rabbinic law, rushed to restore the kosher status of their homes by re-painting their kitchens and burying silverware.

“There is a feeling of sacredness when somebody eats a chicken or meat that was slaughtered by a kosher slaughterer,” said Menachem Lubinsky, head of Lubicom Marketing, which organizes Kosherfest. “When this gets violated it sends greater shockwaves than if it was a cracker, for example.”

Empire Poultry employees said that they actually have been working for more than a year to develop technological safeguards, in response to a number of instances in which stores were selling non-Empire chickens under an Empire label. Such fraud was possible because Empire’s poultry used to come in Styrofoam iceboxes that were then repackaged at stores.

“At least once a month we would get a call from a customer complaining,” said Barry Rosenbaum, Empire’s vice president of sales and marketing. “We could tell by the cut- marks or the coloration.”

Many of those at the top of the kosher food industry say that fraud is an aberration in an industry generally characterized for its tight control. But the incident in Monsey appeared to frighten many groups into stepping up their precautionary measures. The largest kosher-certifying agency in the world, the Orthodox Union, called a series of meetings with producers and the other certifying agencies and began formulating a series of large-scale industrywide reforms. Among the first changes announced by the O.U. was the decision to require kosher meat distributors to have some form of kosher certification, or hashgachah. Until now, only the supermarkets and slaughterhouses were under such obligation, not the middlemen.

The Chicago Rabbinical Council, which oversees kosher plants and stores in the Midwest, is developing something called “forensic hashgachah,” which will involve accountants looking at the amount of kosher meat going in and out of stores and distributors.

But in addition to these behind-the-scenes changes, many of the companies acknowledge that they must provide customers with guarantees they can actually see — and it is here that they hope the new technologies will come to their aid.

In years past, kosher meat came with a metal or plastic tag known as a “plumba.” But as Rabbi Menachem Genack, CEO of the O.U.’s Kosher Division, put it: “The existing plumbas that have been used are completely inadequate. They don’t always close, and they can be switched around.”

To address this, the O.U. has been working with a company that is developing a DNA-encoded spray that can be traced over the entirety of an animal’s lifespan. In addition, a former Israeli air force pilot, now working for a company called ACS, developed a micro-fiber clip, an encoded wire embedded in a glass coating, that it is marketing under the name KoSure.

The ACS booth at Kosherfest had a steady stream of visitors looking at the gun that implants the clip in a skinned animal carcass.

“You can hear my voice — it’s sore,” said Mike Gross, head of marketing for ACS. “Yesterday it was just a tsunami. People are definitely worried.”

The technology that is already being adopted most widely is the hologram. At his booth, Samuels, the Montreal Vaad representative, explained that his group is using a tamper-proof hologram. The hologram will add a few cents to the price of every chicken, but, Samuels said, “we can sleep at night knowing what’s happening out there.”

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