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A recent case of retail fraud could lead to wholesale changes in the kosher meat industry.
The changes were discussed at two recent meetings of high-level rabbis and kashrut supervisors, one at the Orthodox Union headquarters in Manhattan and another in the heavily Orthodox neighborhood of Borough Park in Brooklyn. The meetings came after a kosher grocery in Monsey, NY, was found selling non-kosher chickens under a kosher label in early September.
According to reports, wholesaler Shevach Meats was stocking the shelves of its Hatzlocha Grocery with cheaper, non-kosher chicken that it repackaged and labeled as kosher.
The owner of Shevach Meats was outed after a slaughterhouse that was one of his suppliers realized Shevach Meats was still selling its product - even though the slaughterhouse had stopped supplying Shevach, according to Rabbi Menachem Genack, head of kashrut supervision for the Orthodox Union. Shevach Meats is supervised by a private rabbi in Monsey, not by the Orthodox Union.
The discovery caused a panic in areas that Shevach serves, ranging from Rockland County, a half-hour outside New York City, to upstate New York.
But what happened in Monsey could lead to tighter supervision at kosher retailers across the country - and that added supervision could end up costing consumers at the checkout line.
Orthodox rabbis in Monsey and nearby Spring Valley told everyone in the community to re-kasher any silverware that could have come in contact with meat from Shevach for the past 10 years. Leaders of the area's Orthodox community also called for a public fast before Yom Kippur as atonement for eating treif, or unkosher, meat, even though if community members ate the meat they did so unknowingly.
"For these people, it's a terrible tragedy," Genack said. "Keeping kosher is a basic tenet of their faith, and people compromised that by using other people in this terrible fashion. And if it happened once, it could happen again."
The implications of the supervision breakdown that allowed the Shevach Meats mishap have rocked the kosher world, said Rabbi Chaim Fogelman, head of kashrut supervision for OK Kosher, which supervises some 240,000 kosher products in 68 countries.
"This is probably the biggest kashrut disaster since Mount Sinai," Fogelman said.
The problem is that supposedly credible merchants took advantage of a system built on trust.
"In Monsey, it was a respectable person in the community," Fogelman said. "And in general, even though it wasn't our supervision, it could have happened under our watch. It's an extremely painful story in kashrut."
The only way to ensure that such fraud doesn't happen again is to have a full-time mashgiach, or kashrut supervisor, on hand whenever any store, supplier or wholesaler operates - even though that would cost $40,000-$50,000 per year and could put some smaller retailers out of business, Fogelman said.
Genack stressed that it was not a problem of kosher slaughterhouses providing non-kosher meat, but a lack of supervision along the distribution chain from slaughterhouse to store.
While the Orthodox Union supervises slaughterhouses, the middlemen in the distribution chain and the retail stores fall under the auspices of local kashrut organizations.
Genack attended the Yiddish-language meeting in Brooklyn - held the week after Shevach Meats was outed - which included representatives from numerous Chasidic kashrut supervising organizations. Another meeting, at O.U. headquarters, included the owners of several kosher slaughterhouses, including Empire Chickens, Aaron's Rubashkin and International Glatt, as well as the rabbis that supervise their plants, Genack said.
Participants discussed how to ensure that meat sold in stores is the same kosher meat that comes out of the slaughterhouse.
Genack said they discussed creating better ways to identify a product as kosher, providing better supervision of after-slaughterhouse distributors - many of whom are not supervised at all - and creating some kind of accounting system by which slaughterhouses can figure out if the amount of meat their retailers sell matches the amount the slaughterhouses produce.
"We have to create some kind of global accounting system so that we can verify the source of the product," said Genack, who has consulted with several large corporations about how they avoid retail fraud. But, he noted, "This isn't going to take a week to fix."
One head of a local kashrut organization in the New York metropolitan area, who wished to remain anonymous, said his agency has started detailing what each of the 12 kosher butchers it oversees has bought from wholesalers and sold to the public in recent years.
The agency started the laborious process of checking invoice receipts against sales receipts the week after the Shevach Meat scandal was exposed, the rabbi said, adding that it could take several months to complete the initial check and that its stores would be subject to rolling, random checks in the future.
Barry Rosenbaum of Empire Chickens said his company long has been concerned about product counterfeiting.
"We're well aware that buyers buy just a little" Empire chicken, "then buy cheaper" kosher "products from our competitors, just to put our sticker in their window," Rosenbaum said. He said Empire receives reports nearly every week of such fraud, especially as many retailers unpack the whole chickens Empire sells them so they can cut them into smaller pieces that are sold separately.
Rosenbaum said he doesn't know how widespread is the problem of substituting treif meat for kosher meat, having heard "anecdotal stories" but having "no first-hand knowledge" of other incidents. The problem, he said, is that "one incident is enough to affect thousands of people and shake the faith of people that have put their trust in the system."
The aftershocks rumbled through the kashrut community, said Rabbi Binyoman Lisbon, kashrut administrator of Kosher Supervision of America, a California-based organization that supervises more than 400 manufacturers.
"This was a shockwave that reverberated all over the world," he said. "It really shook the foundations of the kosher world. Here was a set-up of people who were trusted and who had an impeccable reputation, and yet you have a tragedy of this sort happen under one's own eyes. It's a wake-up call telling the system to take a look at every single store that we certify."