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US faces kosher meat shortage

By Dumeetha Luthra
BBC News, New York

A man shops at a kosher grocery in New York
The decline in production has caused a shortage of kosher meat in groceries

The Orthodox Jewish community in the United States is facing a shortage of kosher meat after the country's biggest producer was forced to halt operations.

In some communities shops have been out of kosher beef for weeks.

LD Itzkowitz looks at his meat counter and grimaces in resignation. The shelves at the KRM grocery store in Brooklyn he manages are half empty, and prices have increased by as much as 25%.

"We're scrambling. I don't know how we're going to manage. There's a major shortage. Prices have gone up astronomically because we've lost a major supplier," he said.

Early this month, Agriprocessor in Postville, Iowa, filed for bankruptcy. It had supplied more than half of the country's kosher meat until May when a raid by customs officials found hundreds of illegal immigrants employed there.

Following the raid, production declined and the company has now halted work at this and another plant.

Added to this, a third separate meat producer has been hit by fire.

I have to survive, it is difficult but I will survive. The competition is so big I have to sell some things at cost.
LD Itzkowitz
Manager, KRM grocery in New York

Customers are feeling the pinch. Prices had already increased because of the general economic malaise. The sharp cut in supply - in the case of kosher beef down by more than 65% - has pushed them even further.

No choice

Kosher meat is becoming, for some, a luxury item.

"Meat is just too expensive - first because of the gas prices, and then because of Agriprocessor. I've stopped buying it altogether," said Kraisil Spitzer, a customer at KRM.

KOSHER FOOD
Defined in Five Books of Moses
Meat must be separate from milk
Permitted red meats: animals with cloven hooves that chew the cud, eg goats, sheep, cattle, deer
Slaughter by cut to throat with sharp knife to allow blood to drain
Several veins and forbidden fats also removed
Consumption of blood is strictly forbidden in the Torah

"I go to the deli counter and the choice isn't there anymore. Not all the items are there. I've noticed it, especially in this last month," said Yakob Schwarz, who was doing his regular shop in the store along with his wife, Yenty.

Orthodox Jewish communities across the US are struggling.

New York has the largest Jewish population so the shortages here are not as harshly felt as in smaller communities.

Even so, Mr Itzkowitz has had to make his own arrangements three times for animal slaughter to try to bolster the supply of kosher meat.

"If I didn't my showcases would be empty. But this is only a temporary and sporadic solution," he said.

KRM got its supply almost entirely from Agriprocessor. Another smaller butcher in Brooklyn, Yossi Lisauer, used a different supplier but because this distributor is now selling to so many more customers, Mr Lisauer's shelves are also bare.

The economic downturn had already squeezed his profits and he cannot afford to lose customers by raising prices, Mr Lisauer says.

"I have to survive, it is difficult but I will survive. The competition is so big I have to sell some things at cost."

Kosher meat shelf at a New York grocery
Kosher beef supply is down by 65%, forcing prices to go up at the store

There is no clear certainty when the problem will be resolved. Other producers have started increasing output, but the logistics of producing kosher meat does not make that an easy task.

"There is a potential for a tremendous shortage. You need a religious workforce and a regular workforce. It's no easy task," says Professor Joe Reigenstein, who specialises in kosher food at Cornell University.

Distribution is spotty, meaning while some places are relatively untouched, others are suffering severe shortages.

The fear is that production will not be back to normal for a couple of months at least and perhaps not until the Passover holiday next April.

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SEE ALSO
US factory raid splits small town
07 Aug 08 |  Americas
Statement from Agriprocessors
06 Aug 08 |  Special Reports
Local man's view of the raid
06 Aug 08 |  Special Reports
Protests in Postville
06 Aug 08 |  Special Reports

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