Pot Bust, Meat Scam Hit Kosher Companies

By Nathaniel Popper

Published September 08, 2006, issue of September 08, 2006.

The evening of August 30 was a dark one for the kosher food industry.

First, a group of rabbis in New York discovered boxes upon boxes of nonkosher meat in the warehouse of a major kosher meat distributor. At roughly the same time, in Pennsylvania, federal agents seized 726 pounds of marijuana at a kosher slaughterhouse.

The drug bust occurred in Birdsboro at the G & G Poultry facility, which produces kosher chicken under the strictest rabbinic supervision. According to an affidavit from a federal customs agent, the authorities tracked the movement of marijuana in and out of the factory’s parking lot for more than a week before moving in. Of the four people who were arrested during the raid, three appeared to be G & G employees; however, none of them was Jewish. Two of the men arrested in the bust, which was first reported by the Reading Eagle, were undocumented Mexican immigrants, authorities said in a statement.

For kosher consumers, the more disconcerting news came from Monsey, N.Y., where rabbis found packages of nonkosher meat in the storeroom of a local kosher meat distributor. There was no immediate announcement about how long the nonkosher meat had been on the shelves, but Monsey, a heavily Orthodox town, has been plastered with handbills and letters warning residents to ritually cleanse, or kasher, any kitchen supplies that may have touched meat from the wholesaler, Shevach Quality Meats.

Giving voice to the gravity of the issue, Rabbi Meir Weissmandel, a local eminence, wrote a letter to locals Sunday, September 3, speaking of “this appalling transgression: the conspiracy of betrayers who misled the many and deceived in order to mislead Jewish souls and make them impure.”

In both of the current cases, the transgressions appear to have slipped by the rabbis who are supposed to keep careful watch over the kosher production process, which demands strict quality control. Some kosher authorities said that this week’s incidents point to the difficulties faced by the rabbinical community as it copes with the increasing industrialization of the kosher meat business.

“Kosher meat was done in a little store — or by a slaughterer — 50 years ago,” said Rabbi Yaakov Spivak, rabbinic administrator of Monsey-based United Kosher Supervision. Spivak’s agency had no supervisory authority over the tainted meat.

“When you have mass-produced meat products, there are more links in the chain — and the chain is as strong as its weakest link,” Spivak added.

In the case of the G & G Poultry plant, where the drug bust took place, the problems seem to have been restricted to a few of the plant’s 120 some employees. In the affidavit, federal agent Rebecca Lafferty said that her agency began tracking the shipment of marijuana when it arrived in Baltimore in a cargo container from Mexico. Customs officials opened the container and found blocks of marijuana inside “handy crafts [sic] made of pottery, wood and plaster.”

The authorities allowed the container to pass through so that they could track its movement, and in mid-August it was shipped to the G & G facilities, which are near Reading, Pa. The affidavit describes Hispanic men driving in and out of the factory parking lot with rental trucks after a Saturday delivery date, when the kosher factory would have been closed.

Federal agents finally raided the plant after seeing three men unloading the cargo container during business hours and placing the pottery-encased marijuana outside the fence surrounding G & G. The owner of G & G, Meir Grunbaum, said that he knew nothing of the problems until the raid.

“The truck came in the middle of the night, with nobody knowing about it,” Grunbaum said. He added that the two men who actually had been responsible for bringing the container onto the property had fled the country and were never arrested. According to Grunbaum, the two employees who were taken in were wrongly arrested, having done nothing more than obey orders to remove the contents of the cargo container from the G & G property.

“The federal agents were embarrassed to go away from here with no arrest, so they just made a false arrest, and that’s not right,” Grunbaum said.

Grunbaum said that one of the men, who is still being held in Philadelphia, had been on his first day of work at G & G when the raid occurred. Grunbaum’s explanation is not contradicted by the affidavit, which makes no mention of any role played by the four arrested men in the pot plot before the morning of the raid. Moreover, the person who was listed as the recipient of the cargo container was not among those arrested.

This is not the first time that attention is being drawn to the employment of Hispanic immigrants at America’s kosher slaughterhouses. The Conservative synagogue movement is currently investigating the working conditions of Hispanic immigrants in Postville, Iowa, at the nation’s largest kosher slaughterhouse, AgriProcessors, where some 800 people are employed.

The G & G plant receives its kosher supervision from both the Orthodox Union and the Central Rabbinical Congress, a Brooklyn-based agency affiliated with the ultra-Orthodox Satmar sect. Neither supervisory agency had any comment on the busts.

In Monsey, it was the kosher supervisory authorities who were called in to confirm the problem at Shevach, a distributor that had rented space in the back of one of Monsey’s biggest kosher supermarkets, Hatzlocha. Shevach sold to local caterers, but also was the meat supplier for the Hatzlocha supermarket.

According to a manager at Hatzlocha, who declined to give his name, the problems with the Shevach distributor’s meat were uncovered only by chance. The manager says the owners of Hatzlocha were tipped off after noticing meat on the shelves that was labeled as coming from a slaughterhouse that had long before stopped selling to the wholesaler. Suspicious, the owner of the grocery store called in local rabbis, who broke into the cooler room of Shevach meats. After some basic tests, it was determined that the meat being sold was not kosher.

“The kidneys were in there,” the manager said. “This was a very obvious giveaway.” One veteran kosher administrator, Rabbi Yudel Shain, said that 20 local rabbis had met Sunday to discuss what to do about the situation. That same day, the rabbi who provided kosher supervision to Shevach, Shlomo Breslauer, released an announcement that he was withdrawing his supervision of Shevach and warning people to purify their kitchens.

Efforts to reach Breslauer were unsuccessful.

There has been no unified communal response to the news in Monsey, but one of the local kosher supervisors, Weissmandel, released his letter giving instructions on how to clean house. This included 20 steps, such as laundering tablecloths and turning ovens to 500 degrees for at least one hour.

“One must take severe measures [with] all dishes including pots, covers, gloves, forks and knives, ovens, table counters, blenders, microwaves, porcelain bowls of various sorts, glass dishes and anything that was used hot or with spicy matters,” Weissmandel wrote.

Spivak, another local kosher authority, said that the larger issue the community needed to deal with was the “spiritual damage” to local Orthodox residents who believe that eating nonkosher meat … contaminates the heart.”

The incident in Monsey also has brought to light the fact that for all the careful kosher supervision in the meat industry, many distributors — the middlemen in the food chain — are not required to secure the kosher supervision that must be maintained by stores and slaughterhouses. Rabbi Moshe Elefant, a kosher administrator at the Orthodox Union, said that while his organization had nothing to do with the situation in Monsey, the current incident could provoke all supervising agencies to begin requiring supervision of distributors.

Shain, the veteran kosher administrator, said that he had pointed out problems with Shevach meats a number of years ago but no steps had been taken to rectify the situation. Shain said he is certain that Monsey is not the only place with such problems.

“If you think that I have a doubt that this kind of game is going on in other places — I’m telling you that it is,” Shain said.

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