November 10, 2008

Notable Absence

When Kosherfest ’08 opens tomorrow at the Meadowlands Exposition Center, visitors will no doubt notice the absence of Agriprocessors. The embattled and now bankrupt kosher meat producer has been put out of business for the moment, creating a critical shortage of glatt kosher meat. I purposely held my fire for a week (which prompted several e-mails inquiring why I chose to ignore the story in my column last week) to assess the impact on the market and it turned out exactly as I had feared. Supermarkets throughout the country with empty kosher meat shelves, kosher caterers scrambling to find meat, prices on the rise, Jewish communities without meat for Shabbos, Jews who proudly switched to kosher meat opting instead for treife meat (as one rabbi reported from the Midwest).

So I have finally come to grips with the fact that while the clock was turned back about two decades for Jewish communities throughout America in terms of the supply of kosher meat, the events in Postville led to a much larger human tragedy. An entire community has been devastated economically, cattle suppliers and others who did business with Agri were severely impacted, hundreds are out of jobs, unable to pay their bills, entire families have been separated, and so it goes. Just when the reports of severe kosher meat shortages were coming in, I pulled out an old e-mail of the many I received since the infamous PETA video, which many consider the turning point that led to the demise of the Rubashkin empire: “Stop creating this hysteria. It won’t take a day and the market will take care of itself.” Several blogs insisted that they were certain that the market would ultimately fill the void. At this juncture, I too chose to be hopeful although not as optimistic as some of these anti-Agri forces. Ironically, those who led the charge against Agriprocessors, will not be victims of the shortage. Neither the unions, animal rights activists, left wing Jews, or even those leading the charge for a new kosher certification (Hekhsher Tzedek) eat glatt kosher meat (or any meat for some). In an ironic twist, those reporters who relentlessly attacked Agriprocessors for its alleged practices were now covering the shortages of kosher meat.

Agriprocessors was in large measure responsible for the huge expansion of supermarkets offering full kosher sections. With fresh meat, bakery, and fish, the kosher store within a store became a major attraction and contributed to the explosion of kosher. There are many rumors about a reorganization of Agri under different owners, new initiatives by investors, and even expansion into glatt kosher meat by existing kosher food companies. It is difficult to see how anyone will fill the void in the short term, but I certainly hope that the supermarkets will continue to provide the vital service and that ultimately somehow someday they will once again be able to offer kosher meat as well.