Kosher Meat in the Marketplace

RabbiHeinemannBW

Published Winter 2016

Keeping kosher does not preclude being a locavore,[1] but it definitely presents substantial challenges, particularly for omnivores. Barely a handful of communities in the world today still host facilities where kosher meat is processed from slaughter to salting, and sold from steak to salami, all within close proximity to a kosher consumer base. Like most items in the modern marketplace, it’s much more common to find beef and poultry products traveling vast distances from slaughterhouse to processor, and from distributor to retailer, before reaching the dinner table.

The Old Way
This very untraditional configuration has uprooted the once prominent communal fixtures of shochet and bodek (one who checks for abnormalities that render meat treifah). It’s also a complete departure from an extreme version of locavorism that was practiced in many pre-war European kehilos, which legislated bans on ‘sh’chutay chutz’, not allowing meat slaughtered in a different city to be sold in town. Besides protecting a major source of municipal income through meat taxes, such a policy also served to allow the local rabbinate to closely monitor and uphold kashrus standards.
The first generations of immigrants to America maintained this personal relationship with their meat sources. Up until the 1940s, at least 5,000[2] meat purveyors making a kosher claim blanketed New York City;[3] even smaller Jewish communities accommodated hundreds of stores advertising kosher meat.[4] Every neighborhood was served by multiple butchers who were entrusted to provide kosher meat.[5] Trust was key because disorganized and fragmented certification regimes opened the door to rampant fraud.  The temptation to cheat has always been strong, due to the higher price fetched by kosher meat and the limited methods of detecting kosher status of the final product.[6] Systems from the Old World that effectively ensured kosher integrity no longer worked in a land of democracy and religious freedom.[7]

A Current Snapshot
With the development of refrigeration and transportation networks, economic exigencies dramatically altered the shechitah landscape. It is easier and more cost-effective to deliver large amounts of post-slaughter meat packed into a truck or railcar than to transport livestock with its attendant needs for adequate spacing, food and shelter. Therefore, major beef production eventually consolidated into the Midwestern heartland,[8] where the majority of cattle is raised and then transferred to modern feedlots containing over 100,000 head of cattle. Feedlots, which proliferated alongside the growth of the fast-food industry post-WWII, are designed to ‘finish’ cattle (usually 12-18 month old) by feeding them high protein mixtures consisting of grain, corn, hormones and antibiotics. A few months of this diet rapidly increases their weight and gives their meat the taste and texture consumers crave.[9]
Today, a few large plants with the capacity to shecht hundreds every day have replaced the formerly ubiquitous city slaughterhouses.[10] Similarly, cattle-raising regions in Argentina, Australia, Chile, Costa Rica, Mexico, and Uruguay export kosher beef to markets in Eretz Yisroel and North America. Despite the struggle to remain viable, smaller beef operations still exist in Baltimore, Detroit (lamb), New Jersey, St. Louis, Toronto and Montreal. Eretz Yisroel, England, Poland, Ireland and France also sport operations for local consumption.
Commercial poultry growing is concentrated in the Northeast,[11] so the large kosher processors are located in Pennsylvania and New York, but there is also one in Iowa. Eretz Yisroel, Mexico, and Canada also have significant kosher poultry industries.
In the few localities which still maintain local shechitah, as well as a central recognized rabbinic authority in the realm of kashrus, an interesting phenomenon occurs when outside companies contract with slaughtering facilities and want to import their own shochtim and bodkim. Rav Yitzchok Elchonon Spector of Kovno, the eminent 19th century posek, issued strong rulings that require visiting shechitah teams to first present their credentials and gain approval from the local rabbinate before operating.[12] Even if all the meat will be exported and sold in other markets, they must adhere to the kashrus standards of that community. This occurs regularly in Baltimore, where shechitah teams arrive weekly from Lakewood and Brooklyn to work alongside the local professionals, all under the auspices of Rav Heinemann, shlit”a, STAR-K Rabbinic Adminstrator.[13]

Changes Abound!
Outside companies and agencies sometimes undertake the expense of sending their own teams, even though qualified and experienced shochtim and bodkim already work in the plant. They believe their target market prefers to purchase meat produced by people who conform to their own distinctive modes of religious practice and custom. Some Chassidic communities take this demand further by insisting that even the wives and families of team members must follow their societal norms. As a result of this insistence, large kosher processors who seek wide-range marketability have stopped employing non-Chassidic shochtim over the past 15 years.[14]
Other changes to the way kosher meat is sold came from the drive for consumer convenience. Formerly, the most arduous and time-consuming task performed in a kosher kitchen was the process of kashering meat by soaking, salting, and rinsing – a process that could take a few hours. A few decades ago, the kashering board went the way of the clothing washboard when kosher meat began to arrive in the kitchen as a ready-to-cook item.[15]  On-site kashering also benefits transportation from remote slaughtering locations because it relieves the pressure to reach the destination before the 72-hour maximum time allotment between shechitah and the pre-salting soak.
Another household routine that has been largely forgotten involves frequent trips to the neighborhood rabbi when abnormalities were discovered while cleaning a chicken. Someone had to be dispatched immediately to present the shai’loh to a rov, who would determine if the bird was treifah. Today, such bedikos are done in the processing plant. Rabbis lost this source of supplemental income, and consumers lost a chance to appreciate what kosher meat processing entails.[16]
In the educational realm, ordination curriculum has shifted with the times and most rabbonim are no longer qualified to make halachic decisions on the topics of shechitah or treifos. The inability of communal rabbis to navigate a slaughterhouse, let alone perform basic functions such as checking knives for smoothness and sharpness or examining lungs, is a major departure from the classic rabbinic model. In bygone eras, pulmonary knowledge was part of a rabbi’s basic knowledge set with pedagogical skills just an added benefit. The kashrus expertise of contemporary rabbis primarily focuses on common issues that arise in the kitchen.
Job availability has also been severely affected by these changes. Procuring steady well-paying employment as a shochet or bodek often involves leaving one’s family for the entire work week, or traveling across the country or overseas for weeks or months at a time. The alternative is to live in rural locations, isolated from the conveniences of cities with well-developed Jewish infrastructure.
Other jobs have been lost from the community of kosher consumers, as well. Many people are astonished to learn that the labor-intensive processes of salting to extract the blood and traiboring (also called nikur), which entails skillfully removing the forbidden fats, blood vessels and veins, is widely performed by non-Jews whose work is merely verified by a mashgiach. Nikur itself is becoming a lost art; unique customs formerly upheld by various communities are now disregarded, even in plants that otherwise maintain meticulous standards of kashrus.[17]

Agency Acceptability
We have witnessed the evolution of kosher certification over the past half century. The responsibility of ascertaining kashrus has unwittingly been wrested away from local rabbonim and entrusted to capable kashrus organizations. A faint precedent for such an institutional modification can be found in Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh Dei’ah 18:17), which records how communities in medieval times relieved local scholars of their obligation to periodically check on the local shechitos by appointing special inspectors for this task. The proffered justification for this divergence from the Talmudic system is that checking knives for the slightest nick requires a rare combination of qualities, including: diligence, alertness, patience, calm, and fear of Heaven, besides halachic knowledge. Certifying a meat processor today goes well beyond checking knives, especially in beef slaughterhouses where the kosher animals and their many pieces must be tracked and kept separate from their non-kosher counterparts. Kashrus organizations are charged with engaging professionals who meet all the Shulchan Aruchs qualifications at a minimum.
When determining the acceptability of an agency’s certification on meat, it’s important to distinguish between the level of competence needed to certify retail establishments or simple food processors, and a meat producer. Ne’emanus, a presumption of honesty and trustworthiness in someone who personally adheres to kosher regulations, has limits. For example, a regular mashgiach in a retail establishment can be relied upon to verify that the meat arrives from approved sources with requisite stamps and seals. However, without specialized training and experience in kosher meat production, he will be oblivious to the systems and nuances which must be observed during slaughter and meat preparation.[18] Likewise, not all agencies are equipped to properly certify meat production.
The qualification for Yiras Shomayim, fear of Heaven, is applied generally to all aspects of kashrus but has greater emphasis with regard to kosher meat production.[19] Subtle mishaps, such as vertical pressure on the knife or a slight pause while making the cut, can invalidate a shechitah. Rubbing a lung with too much vigor can rip off a sirchah (adhesion), making it appear glatt (smooth) when it is really just ‘regular’ kosher or actually treif. Since these mistakes are imperceptible to an onlooker, all involved personnel must be vetted to possess impeccable moral fortitude and not be swayed by any outside pressures, financial or otherwise.
Another element critical to quality kosher meat certification is transparency. The halachic system allows for variances in legal rulings and policy implementations. Therefore, it’s important for an organization to be open to questions about its stances on relevant issues and how they implement and monitor their policies. STAR-K commended an outside kosher certifier when they were forthcoming about the leniencies they employ when grading meat according to the Beis Yosef Chalak standard (which is sought out by Sefardim and some Ashkenazim), with which we strongly disagree. Likewise, STAR-K welcomes well-meaning visitations from outside authorities who are interested in our certification standards.

The STAR-K System
All of these considerations together form the backbone of STAR-K’s meat policy. Working under Rav Heinemann, shlit”a, there is an understood missive that preserving the kosher integrity of meat is the cornerstone of all kashrus. We recognize that kashrus organizations have replaced the role formerly assumed by local rabbonim. It’s our solemn responsibility to ensure that only bona fide kosher meat is available to the consumer and that the label accurately represents the product (i.e., Glatt or Beis Yosef chalak).
In order to fulfill that role, every single slaughterhouse and meat processor that serves as a vendor to STAR-K certified companies, restaurants, caterers, and stores is subject to regular audits, regardless of where it is located. This is performed by either Rav Heinemann or one of a select group of kosher meat specialists who report directly to the Rov. Companies that market their products with a STAR-K symbol are, of course, scrutinized much more frequently. Even when a plant is certified by another reputable Rav haMachshir or organization, STAR-K continually evaluates the strength of the kosher system and maintains regular contact with the Rosh haShochtim, or other responsible worker at the plant. This policy is not, chalilah, motivated by distrust; indeed, there is a great deal of cooperation among leading agencies; rather, this policy is unique to shechitah and meat production. It attests to the fundamental role of kosher meat in kashrus as well as STAR-K’s responsibility to its consumer constituency.
Given the far flung nature of the modern meat industry and the somewhat complicated chain of supply, considerable attention and resources are allocated to this mission. At times, due to the internecine politics that seemingly have always infected the meat business, it takes a large measure of resilience and determination to uphold this policy. Following the Rov’s direction, shechitah and its associated domains, form the integral core of a kashrus agency’s Avodas HaKodesh so corners cannot be cut.

The German statesman, Otto von Bismark, purportedly remarked, “Laws are like sausages, it is better not to see them being made.” Even in times like ours, when there is distrust of the political process, kosher consumers and rabbonim must have full confidence that they can rely on their kosher certification to know how their “sausages” are made.[20]

Rabbi Zvi Holland, a STAR-K Kashurs Administrator with expertise in the meat industry, contributed to this article.

STAR-K Meat Team: Humane Standards Accreditation
While the act of shechitah itself is an exquisitely humane form of animal slaughter, the manner in which an animal is handled prior to reaching the shochet should also conform with the Torah’s sensitivity for tza’ar ba’alei chaim (the prohibition against causing unnecessary pain and harm to creatures). Our mission to certify meat products of the highest quality was recently enhanced when two prominent members of our meat team, Rabbi Zvi Holland and Rabbi Tzvi Shaul Goldberg, traveled to Iowa in order to take part in an accredited certification program through PAACO (Professional Animal Auditor Certification Organization). Instructors included world-renowned experts in the field of animal welfare such as Dr. Temple Grandin, professor of animal science at Colorado State University and consultant to the livestock industry. She is considered a leading authority on animal welfare.

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[1] The definition of a locavore is “one who eats food grown locally whenever possible.” According to the 2008 Farm Act, the total distance that a product can be transported and still considered a “locally or regionally produced agricultural food product” is less than 400 miles from its origin, or within the state in which it is produced. Reflecting the growing trend, the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture reports that local farmer’s markets have quintupled in the past 20 years.

[2] This figure is mentioned in The Butcher Workmen: A Study of Unionization by David Brody, Harvard University Press, 1964. Prof. Timothy Lytton in Kosher: Private Regulation in the Age of Industrial Food (p.27) writes there were 6000 NYC butchers in 1915 advertising kosher meat, of which, 3600 sold non-kosher too. Numbers of kosher butcher shops were tabulated under President Roosevelt’s National Industrial Recovery Act (1933) which attempted to directly interfere with the kosher meat trade. In 1935, the Supreme Court struck down the Act as unconstitutional when Schechter Poultry, a kosher business in Brooklyn, successfully sued the government.

[3] The site of the UN building in NYC was formerly a slaughterhouse with kosher production!

[4] Chicago Jewish Chronicle, Dec. 1, 1933 (flps.newberry.org), notes 370 Chicago area kosher meat markets systematically inspected by the Central Vaad Ha-Kashruth. In that same decade, about 300 Baltimore butchers made a kosher claim.

[5] The 1935 banquet journal of the fledgling Yeshivas Ner Yisroel in Baltimore (founded 1933), contains an ad thanking the 34 butcher shops who each donated half a calf once a year. (Reprinted in Yeshurun Journal 18, Kisleiv 5767, p. 170) By mapping the printed addresses one can appreciate the high density of kosher butchers, especially considering that this list represented just 1/9 of the total number in the city.

[6] Albeit, spiritually sensitive people are known to possess an innate aversion to non-kosher meat. See Chullin 5b. Rav Chaim Soloveitchik recounted an incident with his father, Rav Yoshe Ber (the Beis HaLevi) who once visited Rav Yehoshua Leib Diskin, rabbi of Brisk, during Aseres Yemei Teshuvah. Before departing, R’ Yehoshua Leib provided his distinguished visitor with half a chicken to eat during his journey for the se’udah hamafsekes prior to the Yom Kippur fast. When the time came to eat, R’Yoshe Ber felt something was wrong and did not partake of the chicken. Later on, he received a telegram from R’ Yehoshua Leib informing him that a question arose concerning the chicken’s kosher status. R’ Chaim remarked that this episode does not demonstrate that his father was endowed with prophecy or even ru’ach haKodesh. Rather, it’s a matter of course for someone who is always meticulous to avoid foods with even a questionable kosher status that non-kosher food will never cross his lips! (See Toras Chaim, R’ Y. Herskovitz, p. 185)

[7] Prof. Lytton outlines various attempts to regulate the kosher meat industry in America throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and explains why each failed.

[8] Domestic shechitah now takes place in Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, and Texas. There is also shechitah in California.

[9] High quality beef is derived from Black Angus steer, slaughtered at 2 years and weighing up to 1500 lbs. Cull beef is used for ground and processed meats (deli, hot dogs) and comes from milking cows, mother cows, and breeder bulls that are past their useful prime. Treifos are more prevalent in cull animals. Grass-fed beef that avoids the feedlot system is also available.

[10] Unlike chicken facilities, beef slaughterhouses are rarely Jewish owned. Non-Jewish ownership alleviates the burden of selling off treifos and the hindquarters; it also circumvents questions of Matnos Kehunah.

[11] The time from when a chick is hatched until it’s shechted is usually 6-8 weeks. Kosher birds are taken at 3-4 lbs; non-kosher is often heavier.

[12] Teshuvos Rabbeinu Yitzchok Elchonon (Machon Yerushalayim 5770),  siman 33. See also Teshuvos v’Hanhagos II:365.

[13] The classic expression of a shochet’s respect for a rabbi is to submit his knife for review when requested. The Talmud (Chullin 18a) records that a shochet who does not comply is subject to excommunication and banishment from working with meat.

[14] The original difference between Chassidic and traditional shechitah was regarding the knife. For generations, knives were fashioned from forged steel. However, for various reasons, 18th century leaders of the nascent Chassidic movement introduced knives made from molten steel. Each type has its halachic merits. Prolonged and heated disputes on this topic split communities, although the Alter Rebbe of Lubavitch (teshuvos printed in the end of Shulchan Aruch HaRav, siman 7) wrote that each side has legitimate basis and neither should impugn the other’s kashrus. Eventually, all shochtim uniformly adopted today’s stainless steel knives. Chassidic shechitah nowadays is distinguished by the shochet’s outward appearance (i.e., growing a beard and peyos, clothing style) and practices (i.e., immersing in a mikvah every day). There are no differences relating to the requisite piety of the shochet or the act of shechitah per se.

[15] A few medakdikim are still particular to kasher meat themselves at home. For the general public, unkashered meat is largely unavailable.

[16] Mashgichim in the plant check each chicken, but things do infrequently slip by. STAR-K KOSHER CLASSROOM’s free full color poster titled ‘Common Shailos On Packaged Chicken’ can be downloaded at www.star-k.org

[17] Some hechsherim in Eretz Yisroel accept untraibored meat from the forequarters. A rabbanut Rav haMachshir once told Rav Heinemann that this laxity stems from the practice in some Sephardic communities to focus on the hindquarters, which contains the gid hanashe and cheilev d’oraysa, while being lenient in the forequarter where the concern is with dam, which can be remedied by making incisions in the veins. Ashkenazic custom is to be menaker the forequarters and discard the hindquarters entirely. Rabbi Yirmiyahu Kaganoff makes an interesting observation: an early source for not using the hindquarters is the Radbaz (#162), who was Chief Rabbi of Egypt in the 16th century, and he was Sefardi.

[18] This principle is discussed in Aruch HaShulchan, Yoreh Dei’ah 119:2. Ne’emanus is further eroded when financial interests are involved. An illustration of this principle (in a different context) is found in Rambam, Hilchos Eidus 9:8 about a 13 year old boy who is legally acceptable as a witness while his testimony in real estate matters is inadmissible, because without business experience one is unable to notice or comprehend details and nuances relating to the transaction.

[19] See Rabbeinu Yonah, Sha’arei Teshuva III:96, cited in Beis Yosef Y.D. end of siman 18.

[20] In every generation, a handful of pious individuals exist who, unpretentiously, only consume meat if they personally investigated the shechitah and processing. See Sh’lah HaKodesh, Sha’ar Ha’osisosK’dushas Ho’Achilah # 7 and Teshuvos v’Hanhagos II:359. Obviously, this lofty standard is reserved for accomplished Talmidei Chachamim who maintain a similar level of piety in all areas of life.