Thursday, September 07, 2006

meat scandall & (drug bust at chicken plant)

Nathaniel Popper | Fri. Sep 08, 2006 FORWARD
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.

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.

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.

“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 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.

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.

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.

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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