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Lack of Meat Choices Not Kosher, Say Conservative Shuls in St. Paul

When Amy Markon set out to find a cheaper source of kosher meat for her family, the mother of four had no idea what she was in for.

Since moving to St. Paul, Minn., seven years ago, Markon had grown increasingly bothered by her limited choices when it came to buying kosher beef. The woman, who belongs to a conservative synagogue, could find only meat that was certified glatt kosher, a more stringent — and ultimately more expensive — standard embraced in recent decades by most Orthodox authorities and consumers.

Like most congregants at Conservative synagogues, the glatt label meant little to Markon, so earlier this year she helped kick off her synagogue’s campaign to increase the availability of non-glatt kosher meat, dubbed “Choice in Kashruth.” This was easier said than done.

First, Markon and the Conservative rabbis she worked with ran up against the Orthodox supervision board, or Vaad, which would not allow non-glatt meat into the existing kosher supermarkets, according to Conservative rabbis. Next, Markon and the Conservative rabbis enlisted a new store — not under the supervision of the Orthodox Vaad — to order non-glatt meat from the local kosher distributor. The only problem, Markon said, was that after putting in orders for non-glatt meat, it rarely arrived; the manager of the store, a SuperValu, says she was told that the distributor was “pushing” glatt meat.

Finally, Markon and the SuperValu she enlisted went directly to AgriProcessors, the Postville, Iowa-based company that is the country’s largest producer of glatt and non-glatt fresh meat. When the first shipment came in last week, there was no non-glatt meat inside — and no explanation.

“We’ve been in a sort of stranglehold,” said Markon, who works at the local Jewish day school. “If we want to have the most people eating kosher food, and we don’t allow them the least expensive way to achieve that — that’s a great disservice.”

The local kosher distributor, Twin City Poultry, said that the Conservative community could have had non-glatt meat if it had placed its order properly. But representatives of the SuperValu that has worked with the Conservative Jews said that the store has tried to do just that, but has run up against unusual roadblocks.

“Some of my smaller distributors — like Asian specialties — have higher out-of-stock rates,” said Sarah Cooper, one of the owners of Cooper’s SuperValu. “But it’s not usually this bad, and it’s never been to the point where they can’t give you any of a product. That’s what’s been most frustrating.”

The struggle in Minnesota illuminates the current state of the kosher-meat market, in which consumers are captive to a few big companies. It used to be that every town with a sizable Jewish population — including St. Paul — had its own kosher butcher, or schochet. Now there are only four meat-packing companies that supply any significant volume of kosher beef to American consumers, and only one of those, AgriProcessors, produces fresh non-glatt meat (Hebrew National offers processed non-glatt kosher products, like hot dogs and bologna). The lone kosher distributor serving St. Paul is the only one for some 20 states, shipping all the way to Texas.

An expert on kashrut within the Conservative movement, Rabbi Paul Plotkin, says the consolidation of the industry has helped Conservative Jews in many ways by driving down prices and making kosher certification more reliable.

But a hint of the sorts of problems that can arise when a single market contains a small number of players could be seen a few weeks ago in an article in New York’s Jewish Week. The newspaper reported that kosher meat producers had been subpoenaed by a federal agency as part of an investigation into alleged antitrust issues. The subjects of those inquiries is still not known, and there is no evidence that the issues in Minnesota are related. What is clear is that the Conservative Jews in the Twin Cities-area have struggled to have access to meat that is cheaper and readily available to Jews as nearby as the local Conservative camp in Wisconsin, according to rabbis in Minnesota.

“There are people who are closing our choice in kashrut and unless we are vigilant about it, it ain’t going to be,” said Morris Allen, the religious leader of Beth Jacob Congregation in St. Paul. Allen is the rabbi who has brought together local Conservative congregations to address the lack of non-glatt kosher meat.

According to research that Allen did, in recent weeks non-glatt meat in nearby areas of the Midwest has been as much as 48% cheaper when it comes to Swiss steak, 23% for bologna and 15% for knockwurst.

In addition to the price issues, the struggles in Minnesota are a sign of a growing concern among Conservative rabbis about the lack of influence they exert in the kosher world, despite having congregants who eat kosher food.

“What Rabbi Allen is doing may be the next wave,” said Plotkin, who is chair of the kashruth subcommittee of the Conservative movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards. “We’ve decided that for our communities, we need to be a little more involved.”

Plotkin said that the reason Conservative rabbis have not been involved is because Orthodox rabbis have provided expert certification for many years. But as Orthodox and Conservative standards have diverged somewhat, the Conservative movement has looked to gain more authority. Two years ago, the kashrut subcommittee worked with Hebrew National — the largest producer of kosher non-glatt beef — to make sure the product could be recommended to Conservative congregants.

In Minnesota, the current struggle began with a butting of heads over doughnuts. Krispy Kreme Doughnuts stores have been certified as kosher in many states, and when an outlet opened in Minnesota, a Conservative rabbi made sure that it hewed to the same standard. But a batch of doughnuts was brought to a local Jewish Community Center, Orthodox rabbis balked. They pointed to a barely noticed provision in state law — dating from the early 20th century — stating that kosher food would be determined by “Orthodox Hebrew standards.”

In New York, New Jersey and Maryland similar statutes were struck down as unconstitutional. But at least 10 states — including California and Massachusetts — still have the “Orthodox Hebrew” language. When the state legislature in Minnesota held hearings on whether to change the state’s kosher law, two Orthodox rabbis and two Conservative rabbis weighed in on opposite sides. The “Orthodox” language was eventually struck and replaced with a clause requiring that kosher labels specify the certifying rabbinic authority.

The doughnuts could now be declared kosher by Conservative rabbis, but the meat situation remained unchanged.

The two kosher stores in the Twin Cities are overseen by the local Orthodox Vaad, and both of them sold only glatt meat.

The word glatt refers to the smoothness of a cow’s lung. If the lung is free of lesions, it can be certified glatt; if lesions are detected, removed and found not to have punctured the lung, then meat can be considered kosher but not glatt. Industry insiders say that less than half of all cows end up qualifying as glatt, a relatively low ratio that accounts for the higher prices.

For centuries, Sephardic sages have ruled that Jewish law requires them to eat glatt. Ashkenazic authorities, on the other hand, ruled that though glatt was not required, adopting such a standard would help an individual avoid committing a possible transgression. In recent years, most Orthodox rabbis and consumers have taken this approach, but Conservative authorities have not.

Markon’s concern about the lack of non-glatt meat was a concern for was shared by Rabbi Paul Drazen, director of the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism’s regional office. On trips to Chicago, Drazen noted that he could buy non-glatt brisket for $6.99 a pound, while in Minnesota glatt brisket was $14.99 a pound. He says he asked the head of the local Vaad, known as Minnesota Kosher, if the kosher stores could stock prepackaged non-glatt meat. Drazen says he was told it wouldn’t happen. The Orthodox rabbi who heads the Vaad, Moshe Lieff, could not be reached for comment.

Allen tackled the issue head on after St. Paul’s only kosher meat outlet went out of business last December. He held a meeting at his congregation in February, at which 100 people showed up and the “Choice in Kashruth” campaign was launched. He also met with the rabbis from the four other Conservative synagogues in the Twin Cities.

In the first experiment, Allen’s congregation ordered about 20 cases of non-glatt meat for Passover through the Cooper’s SuperValu in St. Paul. A few days before the holiday, word came back from the local distributor, Twin City Poultry, that none of the meat would come in. A mad rush ensued, in which a local Chabad-Lubavitch rabbi made a personal delivery of non-glatt meat from the Iowa plant of AgriProcessors.

The CEO of Twin City Poultry, Steve Cohen, said that the Passover mishap occurred because “meat is in such short supply around holidays.”

After the holidays, the SuperValu says it continued to have problems getting its non-glatt orders filled. Conservative rabbis and congregants say that they wonder whether the problems with Twin City Poultry came because two of the company’s owners — two brothers — are members of the synagogue led by Lieff, who had denied the earlier requests for non-glatt meat.

Sarah Cooper, the ordering director for SuperValu, says that when she asked Twin City Poultry about the difficulty getting non-glatt meat, she was told that the distributor was “trying to push glatt.”

Cohen denied that his company ever has pushed glatt meat over non-glatt meat. He declined to identify the other owners of the company, but did say that his company would supply whatever customers ordered.

“We’re here to sell, and we don’t make choices for our customers,” Cohen said.

SuperValu eventually gave up on Twin City as a source for non-glatt meat. With Allen’s help, it bypassed the distributor and made contact with AgriProcessors, the largest kosher slaughterhouse in the country. The Iowa-based company sells glatt meat under the Aaron’s Best label, and non-glatt meat under the David’s label. One of the ironies of the current situation is that the David’s brand is certified kosher by a Chabad-Lubavitch rabbi in St. Paul. That rabbi will not eat the meat himself, but so far even the Jewish Minnesotans who are willing to eat it have not been able to purchase any.

A few weeks ago SuperValu placed an order directly with AgriProcessors for David’s meat. After a number of delays, a shipment finally came in — but according to Cooper, the non-glatt meat was missing. “It’s really strange,” she said.

A spokesman for AgriProcessors, Mike Thomas, said that the company had “not been contacted by SuperValu about any problems fulfilling its orders.”

Since a Trader Joe’s opened in May in the suburbs of Minneapolis, the Jews of Minnesota have had one source for non-glatt meat. Trader Joe’s carries the David’s brand, which is ordered through corporate headquarters. But Drazen said that the store is far from where most Jews in the Twin Cities live, and it offers a relatively small selection of non-glatt meat. It was sold out when he last visited.

“I would think that with a free market,” Drazen said, “if there were people who wanted non-glatt meat, they would have that choice.”

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