Customers strive to get scarce kosher meat

Biggest supplier was forced to shut slaughterhouse

Rabbi Moishe Silverman stocked liver last week in a partially empty meat display at South Florida Kosher, a butcher shop in North Miami Beach, Fla. Rabbi Moishe Silverman stocked liver last week in a partially empty meat display at South Florida Kosher, a butcher shop in North Miami Beach, Fla. (Wilfredo lee/associated press)
By Jessica Gresko
Associated Press / December 3, 2008
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MIAMI - Rabbi Moishe Silverman stood taking inventory of a meat freezer at South Florida Kosher, the supermarket and butcher shop where he works. Dressed in a yarmulke and tie and wearing a plastic apron over his butcher jacket, he surveyed the boxes of chicken and beef.

"Normally, this, on a Monday, this would be stacked up to here," he said, pointing to a mark on the wall above his head.

But the cardboard boxes of beef in the freezer mostly reached his knee. It is a scene being repeated in the freezers of kosher butchers and their customers across the nation.

The shortage is the result of the collapse of Agriprocessors Inc., formerly the largest kosher meatpacking company in the nation. In May, nearly 400 workers were arrested in an immigration raid at the company's Postville, Iowa, slaughterhouse.

Since then, the company has struggled, and the plant has closed, leaving a hole in the $12.5 billion-a-year US kosher food market. Agriprocessors stopped shipping beef about three weeks ago and chicken in the last week, customers said. Since there are only a handful of processors nationwide that slaughter animals according to Jewish law and under the supervision of rabbis, the shutdown has cut the kosher meat supply dramatically.

On Monday, a bankruptcy court in New York approved funding that will allow Agri- processors to resume the processing of its inventory of about 750,000 chickens and hens through Jan. 9. Production could begin this week.

Other processors have been swamped with orders, increasing the amount of meat they produce or refusing to take new clients. Some consumers are paying up to 40 percent more for meat. Markets and butchers say they cannot get certain cuts of beef for their customers, largely Orthodox Jews, and some have had to rearrange what they do have to fill display shelves.

"We just spread out the stuff that we do have so it shouldn't look empty, but there's no question there are cuts that are missing," said Yitzie Spalter, manager of the North Miami Beach store where Silverman works.

Previously, 80 percent of the store's meat came from Agriprocessors, Spalter said. Now, he has not been able to get it in the same quantities. On an average Sunday, the store would get 250 cases of meat. On a recent Sunday, the store received just 26 and a promise of 120 more during the week, just over half their normal order.

Spalter fields calls from restaurants and caterers who cannot get meat at all. He tries to supply them, but his previous customers come first. Shoppers said his store did have a greater selection than others.

Smaller communities, where Agriprocessors had a niche market, are among the hardest hit, but cities are not immune. Markets in Miami, Cleveland, and Houston relied on the company.

Customers, meanwhile, are buying what they can and waiting to see what will happen. Chanie Schapiro said her meat store in Florida has not had much selection the past few months, not even ground meat, though chicken is easier to come by than beef.

"I can't buy steak. I can't buy roast," Schapiro said. "I'm stuck with chicken, and chicken."

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