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Raid on kosher meat plant may spike prices

| 11/06/2008 | Reply

NEW YORK – Kosher meat, always more expensive
than regular beef and poultry, may grow even pricier this summer,
following the arrests of nearly half the work force in an immigration
raid at the nation’s largest kosher meat processor.

Any
price increases would affect not only observant Jews, but Muslims who
often buy kosher meat because it meets halal guidelines, as well as
people who simply buy kosher food for health and safety reasons — and
who make up the majority of the $12.5 billion market. A rise would add
to the already steep climb in kosher food prices over the last year.

Immigration
and Customs Enforcement agents on May 12 raided Agriprocessors Inc.’s
Postville, Iowa plant, arresting nearly 400 workers on immigration,
identity theft and other charges. The company produces about half the
country’s kosher beef and roughly 40 percent of its kosher chicken; the
plant was temporarily shut by the raid, but has since reopened. The
arrests were quickly followed by almost 300 plea deals by workers, most
of whom were charged with using false identification

If the company can maintain production at the
plant, its prices may still rise as it hires documented workers after
the largest immigration raid in history, said Joe Regenstein, a food
sciences professor at Cornell University.

“I
suspect prices will rise disproportionately as the real costs of
production will have to get factored in,” Regenstein said. “The
particular competitive advantage of Agri is likely to be lost. If they
end up in further trouble, there could be a shortage of (kosher) meat
sometime over the summer.”

Agriprocessors
said Friday it hired Jim Martin, a former U.S. Attorney for the Eastern
District of Missouri, as its outside corporate compliance officer.

“Agriprocessors’
800 jobs are important to Postville and northern Iowa, along with the
observant Jewish community across the country that relies on them for
their kosher meat and poultry,” Martin said. “Agriprocessors can meet
the needs of those who depend on the company and operate in compliance
with all laws, and I intend to see that happen.”

Even
before the raid, Yehuda Shain at the Kosher Consumers Union said there
was a bigger spike in kosher meat prices this year than in the past —
and he expects more to come. While no separate data on kosher food
inflation was available, overall meat prices increased nearly 4 percent
in 2007, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Most
kosher meats have gone up between $2 and $3 a pound in the last year,
said Linda Berns, a personal chef in Bethesda, Md. who specializes in
kosher meals for people with chronic illnesses.

“The
situation is impossible,” said Ricardo Bosich, owner of Gordon and
Alperin kosher butcher in Newton, Mass. “Kosher food is so expensive,
middle-class people can’t even afford it.”

Rising
feed and fuel prices, the same factors pushing overall food prices
higher, are adding to kosher inflation — but there are also challenges
specific to kosher food.

Food
purchased because it’s kosher is a $12.5 billion industry, according to
market researcher Mintel International Group. Observant Jews make up
one-fifth of kosher food shoppers, while religious Muslims comprise 15
percent, according to data from Menachem Lubinsky, a kosher industry
consultant based in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Kosher and halal meat are nearly identical,
but observant Muslims often buy kosher food because it’s easier to
find. According to Mintel, there are 400 kosher certification agencies
in the United States, but only about a half-dozen halal certifiers.

“Everything
we order, we see a rise. Not just a small rise, double. We’ve been
forced to raise prices. We hate to do it, but we have no choice,” said
Mohsin Alsubai, manager of the Yemen Cafe, a halal restaurant in
Brooklyn, N.Y.

Fatmeh
Bakri of Dearborn, Mich., said she has cut back on the amount of meat
dishes she makes. A family favorite, laham mishwe, or shish kabob,
might make the grill once a week as opposed to two or three times.

While religious cooks are the most visible
kosher buyers, they’re the minority of the market compared to shoppers
who cite health and safety reasons. Hence, Hebrew National’s “We answer
to a higher authority” tagline.

One
reason kosher meat costs more is that producing it is more
labor-intensive. The laws of keeping kosher, outlined in the Bible, are
extensive. A few: Animals’ feed can’t include animal byproducts.
Animals must be killed by a trained kosher slaughterer, under
rabbinical supervision, and handled in a separate plant from non-kosher
meat. People who keep kosher are forbidden to eat blood, so the meat is
soaked and salted to remove it. Kosher Jews from Eastern Europe don’t
eat the back half of the cow.

“All the price from the back goes to the front,” said Bosich at the Newton kosher butcher.

Kosher companies are also smaller than many
other meat producers, so they lack economies of scale in marketing and
logistics, Cornell’s Regenstein said.

“There
are a number of factors that lead to higher prices — the same types of
questions can be asked of folks selling natural meat at Whole Foods
versus buying Tyson’s products at Wal-Mart,” he said.

A
handful of meat producers, including Agriprocessors, Alle Processing
and Aurora Packing Company Inc., dominate the North American kosher
beef industry — giving the few players pricing power. The poultry
market is similar. Empire Kosher Inc. and Marvid Poultry Canada, are
the top chicken sellers. Marvid raised wholesale prices for a pound of
regular chicken from $1.30 to $1.62 in mid-May as the U.S. dollar
remained weak against the Canadian currency.

While
many grocery stores carry some packaged kosher meat, shoppers looking
for fresh cuts depend on kosher butchers. Many cities and towns have
one or none.

That
sends some observant Jews on hours-long car trips to buy meat. Jamie
Pletter, who works for an oral surgeon in Ithaca, N.Y., drives 200
miles to Monsey, N.Y., which has a large Orthodox Jewish community,
once every two months or so to stock up.

“I like being able to see what it is I’m getting,” she said.

Beyond
the possibility that the Agriprocessors raid will make kosher meat more
expensive, the arrests have revived questions about labor practices and
kosher meat within the Jewish community. The Forward, a Jewish weekly,
has been investigating the company’s labor practices for years, raising
questions about whether meat can truly be kosher if it is produced by
abused workers.

A search warrant for the raid stated that a
former Agriprocessors supervisor said weapons were carried at the plant
and the supervisor had discovered a methamphetamine lab there. The
warrant also said a rabbi at the plant berated workers and threw meat
at them, and a supervisor had taped a Guatemalan man’s eyes shut with
duct tape, then struck him with a meat hook.

Some Jewish groups, including the Jewish Labor Committee, have called for a boycott of the company’s meat.

The
United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, which represents conservative
congregations, said that as kosher laws seek “to diminish animal
suffering and offer a humane method of slaughter, it is bitterly ironic
that a plant producing kosher meat be guilty of inflicting any kind of
human suffering.”


Category: The Americas

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