September 22, 2008

5768: A look back at a tumultuous year for kosher

In less than a week, Jews around the world will usher in the New Year of 5769 with a great deal of hope for peace, tranquility and prosperity. The year of 5768 was a memorable one, not only because it was a Shmittah year, a year in which many farmers observed the once in seven years Sabbatical for their fields, but for the turmoil, uncertainty and change in the kosher food industry. Agriprocessors, of course, was in the news for a good part of the year, resulting in many changes in the industry. The supply of kosher meat which seemed to be taken for granted prior to the May 12th immigration raid on Agri’s Postville raid was all but certain by year’s end. Shortages, price hikes, and new entrants were the order of the day. Many smaller markets that had struggled for years to secure a steady supply of meat suddenly found themselves without product. Newcomer A.D. Rosenblatt was making some inroads and Empire laid out plans for its entry into the meat market, but they were all no match for full production at Agriprocessors, which Bernard S. Feldman, the company’s new CEO is committed to address quickly. In addition to the general rise in world commodity prices, which also affected the supply of kosher meats to the U.S. and Israel from South America, many more Jews were in need of food because of the downturn in the economy. According to William Rapfogel, of the Met Council on Jewish Poverty, the recession is throwing many middle class Jewish families into poverty or near poverty.

In Israel, the Charedi (very religious) were flexing their muscle with a boycott to force the AM:PM supermarket chain to close on Shabbat. That muscle has resulted in new supermarkets targeting the Charedim, including several upscale marts, and a chain of 48 new stores by Supersol. In this country, many kosher stores were upgrading and one, the Pomegranate in Flatbush, was making national news, because of its being an exclusive kosher market with a slight Whole Foods flare. It was a good year for new kosher products, with an estimated 500 new items, including many snack, frozen, and convenience items. New kosher wines continued to attract younger sophisticated consumers.

Sadly, the onslaught against Agriprocessors overshadowed many of the positive improvements and growth in the kosher market (i.e. new kitchens in major hotels, new markets, new upscale restaurants as is constantly reviewed by Great Kosher Restaurants maven Elan Kornblum etc.). Perhaps the most disappointing development was that the news out of Postville had shattered a form of Jewish unity that did not seem to exist anywhere else. Irrespective of their differences, Jews always seemed to come together around food, whether it be at a Jewish festival or a Seder. At the annual Kosherfest, Jews of all backgrounds freely mingle, communicate and do business with one another. This year’s 20th annual kosher food trade show (November 11-12) moves back to the Meadowlands Exposition Center, where kosher will dominate the entire building and many of the surrounding hotels in Secaucus, NJ. My best wishes for a much better 5769!