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Kosher beef gets rare
Dylan Skriloff
Larry Furspan owner of Ben's One-Stop Kosher in New City.
Many kosher food businesses in Rockland County are feeling the pain from a nationwide kosher beef shortage, caused by the recent bankruptcy and production cessation of the largest kosher beef producer in the country.

Further contributing to the situation, another large kosher processor recently ceased production in one of its slaughterhouses because it had not received compensation from the insurance company after one of its facilities was damaged by fire this summer.

Some stores and caterers in Rockland County are suffering from the turn of events. Steve Bosalavage caters kosher parties in Rockland County. He has a glatt and a regular kosher business, Marc Aaron and Classic Caterer, respectively. He said the situation could mean a grim fate for kosher establishments, especially those that serve glatt meat, which is supervised to a higher standard.

"There is no way the other companies can fill the void," Bosalavage said. "The issue is right now there are no supplies. I've called four other purveyors and they haven't even called me back."

Bosalavage said kosher beef comprised a good 20 percent of his catering business, but that for some kosher delis it might comprise upwards of 80 percent. For these delis if there is a protracted beef shortage they might end up going out of business.

"I actually went to a kosher butcher to buy some beef. I had to buy it retail instead of wholesale," Bosalavage said. "Honestly, I've protected my customers from it to this point, but if it goes any longer I can't."

The genesis of the crisis partially lies in the woes that hit Agriprocessors when federal immigration officials raided  the plant on May 12. At that time, authorities arrested close to half the Agriprocessor workforce, imprisoning them for five months before deporting them to Guatemala. Industry insiders say Agriprocessors had financial troubles even before its legal troubles began, however. Ultimately the company filed for bankruptcy the first week November, not long after receiving a $10 million fine from the Iowa Department of Labor.

Based in Postville, Iowa, Agriprocessors is owned by Aaron Rubashkin and his son Sholom, and supplies more than 50 percent of the nation's kosher beef, and an even higher percentage of the glatt kosher meat.

Since Bosalavage books parties up to a year beforehand, he cannot pass on increased costs for the beef to his customers that have already booked and paid deposits. "I have to eat that. It's not a fun time," he said.

And he isn't alone in asking, "Where's the beef?"

A trip to the meat department at The Pathmark in Monsey found a sign explaining that they were not selling any kosher beef as they were having "supply issues."

At Ben's One Stop Kosher in New City, third generation kosher butcher and shop owner Larry Furspan said wholesale prices for beef had jumped between eight and 30 percent for the different cuts of beef.

Furspan hadn't passed that price on to his customers yet however and was hoping to hold out a couple months and see if the market vacuum was filled by another company. He said he'd been doing his shopping down at the Hunt's Point market. "Somebody is going to buy them [Agriprocessors]. They make too much money there to stay out of business," he said. "If they don't reopen by Passover, when meat orders go up by 300, 400 percent, then you are going to see a big shortage of glatt kosher meat."

However, not all Rockland County kosher meat purveyors said they were feeling the effects of the problem. A manager from Wesley Kosher, a kosher supermarket in Wesley Hills, said that the store had its own producer who was unaffected by the situation. New City Kosher, a deli and restaurant, contracts with Hebrew National, and the manager Donna Held said they haven't seen a price increase or a shortage in supply.

Deli workers at The Shopper's Haven supermarket in Monsey said their store buys meat from a New York company named Alle. Shopper's Haven hadn't raised prices yet, but workers believed they would have to in a matter of weeks if the market didn't change.
The Orthodox Union, which is the country's primary certifier of kosher foods, told the media recently it is working with Agriprocessors' CEO Bernard S. Feldman to find new owners or managers for the slaughterhouse.

Adding to the grim situation for kosher beef-eaters was the problem at North Star Beef in Buffalo Lake, Minnesota, which is a subsidiary of the aforementioned New York company Alle, the second largest purveyor of kosher beef in the country.

The Minnesota slaughterhouse has been closed for the first and second weeks of November, as it waits for an insurance company to pay up on a $3 million business interruption claim filed following a fire in June.

"We're not killing anything right now," Bill Gilger, CEO of North Star Beef, told The Forward. "We're adding to the shortage of kosher beef, having nothing to do with what is going on in Postville, but just to do with our own situation here."

A North Star spokesperson told The Rockland Jewish Reporter on November 10 that "we are hoping to get open any day now. We are facing a couple of issues and it is hard to raise any capital in this market."

After Agriprocessors' declared bankruptcy it was discovered they owed creditors between $50 and $100 million. Now more fines and criminal charges are pending against their ownership and management.

Agriprocessors' Postville plant slaughtered at least 500 beasts a day. Their Gordon, Nebraska plant, which they closed last month, was the fifth largest, slaughtering another 150 a day. They also had another facility in South America which also is now closed. The company's CEO Bernard Feldman told the Des Moines Register he doesn't "believe we're going to have substantial production of any kind in the near future."

JTA also reports that Sholom Rubashkin "was arrested on charges that he helped purchase fake identification for the company's illegal workers.

And on Oct. 31, news broke that a St. Louis bank had initiated foreclosure proceedings after Agriprocessors and its ownersdefaulted on a $35 million loan. Kosher industry insiders are predicting that the company will not pull through. Company officials did not respond to multiple requests for comment."

Mark Grey, a sociology professor at the University of Northern Iowa, told the JTA that he believed Agriprocessors had troubles with the authorities that ran deep. "They left themselves exposed by their utter refusal to play by the rules."

Demand for the company's meat had waned some following the raid in May as a movement of Conservative and Reform Jews began criticizing the practices of Agriprocessors. This group is seeking a new seal for kosher food called "Hekhsher Tzedek." This would signify the company upholds Jewish ethics in their business practices.

While about 300 of Agriprocessors' employees were sent to federal prison and then back home a select few remain and have controversially been detained in an apartment building in Iowa where they are cared for by a local church, as they await to testify against the Rubashkin's.

Additional reporting provided by the JTA.
December 2008