(By Rabbi Yair Hoffman for 5tjt.com)
Empire Kosher is the largest producer of kosher poultry in the United States, and one of the oldest. It was founded in Liberty, New York, in 1938 and shechts some 65,000 chickens each day. They have between sixty and seventy shochtim.
Until recently, Empire has had 4 supervising agencies providing its hechsherim:
- The OU
- The Nirbater
- Tartikov of Rabbi Yechiel Babad.
The OU is the oldest hechsher that supervised Empire, followed by KAJ (approximately 15 years ago. This author was present when Rav Yisroel Belsky zt”l called the KAJ to come in and add their supervision). The most recently added supervision was Tartikov which began after this past Sukkos but was announced in April.
However, as of July 20th, KAJ has pulled out. A letter that KAJ had put out to members of its Kehillah, indeed, recommended three alternative chicken products. The full text of the letter is reproduced below. KAJ, in the Litvish, Yekkish, and YU communities enjoys the highest of reputations.
This author reached out to both Rabbi Menachem Genack, CEO of the Orthodox Union Kosher Division as well as others directly on the scene at Empire. Rabbi Genack said, “There is absolutely no change in terms of the quality of the kashrus and of the supervision.” He attributed the egress of KAJ to clashes in style. Rabbi Yechiel Baabad also emphasized the high level of integrity and yiras shamayim of the shochtim and mashgichim. He stated, “The very high standards have been maintained and are constantly being observed to ensure that there are no gaps in the quality of the supervision.” Rabbi Moshe Klarberg, Senior OU Rabbinic Coordinator and head of the OU’s Meat Team was also extremely positive about the high quality of kashrus standards at Empire. He pointed out that Kashrus standards at Empire Kosher Poultry remain unchanged, and continue to be maintained by the OU and Rav Babad and added that the OU certifies and stands behind Empire products. He expressed to this author the OU’s disappointment in the tone of the KAJ community letter. Also, either the Nirbater or his son visit Empire each week to ensure the highest standards of Kashrus.
WHY MULTIPLE HECHSHERIM?
One question that people often ask is why there is a need for multiple supervisions in the first place. The answer to this question is simply economics. Adding a trusted hechsher of a community increases market share. With the growing Chassidish markets in Boro Park, Williamsburg, Monsey, Lakewood and elsewhere– and the fact that large supermarket chains have an ever-growing Kosher food section – it is a positive marketing move to add hechsherim.
WHAT IS THE PROTOCOL WHEN MULTIPLE HECHSHERIM WORK TOGETHER?
Generally speaking, when a new hechsher comes on board to a company, the company checks with the previous supervisions it has in order to ensure that there are no issues. Of course, each hechsher has its own minimum standards and its own set of chumros and kullos, stringencies and leniencies that are unique to its own hechsher.
For example, there is a debate among the Hechsherim about Kashering things that require hagallah within a 24 period when they were last used. The Mechaber, Moreinu Rav Yoseph Karo, writes in YD 95:4 that if one introduces a boiling davar HaPogaim into the item that needs koshering – it can create an “artificial nosain taam lifgam.” The Pischei Teshuva agrees with this position. The Shach, on the other hand (95:21) rules that it is forbidden, stating that this leniency is not cited anywhere and that there is a proof from the Baalei Tosfos otherwise.
The KAJ does not rely on this leniency. Most of the other Hashgachos – including the OU – do rely on it.
“The OU has a long-standing policy that when the OU and the co-certifying agency have a difference of opinion, the more stringent approach is usually adopted,” Rabbi Klarberg told the Five Towns Jewish Times. “This has always been the case at Empire Kosher Poultry.”
This is, of course, necessary because no organization does or ever should lower its standards to accommodate another hechsher.
“The protocol is that each hechsher must agree to the chumros of the other hechsherim. They do not, however, agree to leniencies or kullos,” remarked Rav Avrohom Belsky shlita, Rabbi Belsky zatzal’s son – a well-respected Mashgiach among a number of the hechsherim in his own right.
Thus, whenever another hechsher joins up with the KAJ, they must agree to longer kosherize on the same day that the item being koshered was used. For weddings in a fancy and busy hotel or for the Pesach programs, (aleihem hashalom), in busy and fancy venues – this can cause serious financial costs as the kitchen has to be in non-use for an extra day.
THE SIGN-ON TWEAKS
Whenever a new hechsher comes on board, there is usually a tweak or two that the new hechsher makes. There are no kullos that the new agency can introduce because the other hechsherim will not allow it. The new tweak is usually a chumrah – that improves matters – but it is not to say that the previous standard was unacceptable. According to sources in Empire– when Tartikov came into Empire they did tweak the melicha (salting) process to ensure that every centimeter of the inside of the chicken also get salted by the mechanical process that is used. The tweak met with the approval of the other hechsherim.
All this is in terms of Kashrus standards. There is another issue, however, that can be introduced and that is – managerial style. A Kashrus agency can demand certain things of a company and of some of its employees. In the case of a meat plant – they can make demands of the Shochtim, of the Bodkim, and of the Mashgichim.
One agency can have an attitude of very strict control of its Shochtim and Mashgichim. For example, they can demand that they come in immediately after a holiday. They can have stricter requirements about beards, about not being single, phone types, etc.
Another agency can exercise rigorous standards – but adhere more strictly to another set of standards advocated by Rav Yisroel Salanter in ensuring that each employee be treated with the highest dignity and respect. A story is often related that when asked what chumros should be kept in the baking of Matzah he responded, “Make sure that your words and tone do not cause an iota of pain to the almanah who is baking the Matzah.”
There can also be situations where one agency can eclipse another one and take more of a leadership role. It is possible that the departing of ways is on account of a significant difference in managerial styles between some of the agencies involved. One Kashrus expert was of the opinion that KAJ would not never leave a hechsher unless there was a true Kashrus problem. Given the size of the account, it is difficult to dismiss his thinking.
MISHNA BRURAH THAT MUST BE FOLLOWED
It is this author’s view that everyone involved in kashrus, whether as a mashgiach, as a field repreresentative, or head of an agency, should strictly adhere to the ruling on the Mishna Brurah in Orach Chaim 1:12. There, the Mishna Brurah states the obligation to learn mussar each day, and that it is a greater obligation than learning mishnayos. This will enable the Kashrus agency to fulfill the words of Abaye in the Gemorah in Yuma 86a on the first sentence in the Shma.
“And you shall love Hashem your G-d” (Dvarim 6:5), this means that you shall make shaim shamayim beloved. How should one do so? One should do so in that he should read Torah, and learn Mishna, and serve Talmidei chachomim, and he should be pleasant with people in his business transactions. What do people say about such a person? Fortunate is his father who taught him Torah, fortunate is his Rebbe who taught him Torah..So-and-so, who taught him Torah, see how pleasant are his ways, how proper are his deeds. The verse states about him and others like him: “You are My servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified” (Yishayahu 49:3).”
Once a number of years ago, the shochtim and mashgichim at Empire greeted Rav Yisroel Belsky zt”l with an impromptu tish. He spoke to them with a dvar Torah and chizuk. “They loved him dearly,” remarked a person who was present at the visit.
THE KIDNEY REMOVAL VACUUM
One concern that this author has expressed in the past is the occasional appearance of a chicken kidney in the chicken leg end-product. Boruch Hashem, this is quite rare in Empire.
The kidney is an organ that is attached on one side to bone. Because of its location, when the chicken is salted only one side of the kidney would get salted. The custom in America, therefore, is to vacuum it out before the Melicha process begins. There is a special and very powerful vacuum cleaner with a probe at the end to help vacuum it out.
Most Kashrus organizations tell us that the removal process is so thorough that there is no halachic need to check the chickens that we have purchased from the stores. The tacit assumption is that finding a kidney is extremely rare.
At times, there is a flaw in the system and that it can be more common than we think. In most homes, however, this is not a problem because the woman who is preparing the chicken usually does a pretty good job in cleaning the chickens. They remove all of the “icky” parts.
This author has found that, in the past one of the three alternative chicken companies listed in the letter reproduced below had a chicken kidney problem that was as common as 1 out of 8 on average.
In a chicken plant with 4 lines, if one of the workers who has the vacuuming job is significantly shorter than his other three peers, it is possible that he will not adequately reach all the areas that need to be vacuumed. The one in eight statistic would indicate that this might very well be the problem.
On a retail lever, neither the stores nor its local Vaad have a system in place to check to see if the kidneys were removed, and probably there may be no halachic reason to do so.
HOW DO WE IDENTIFY IT?
Each chicken bottom or thigh on the upper bone side has a hollow groove in it that contains a kidney. It is different in color and size then regular chicken leg meat, and appears similar in color to the liver. When chicken legs are packaged, it is always on the opposite side of the part that faces the plastic.
DOES EVERYONE AGREE THAT IT IS FORBIDDEN?
Not everyone agrees that the kidney is forbidden on account of the salting on one side problem. In Israel, the Rabanut-level hechsher actually leaves them in. The BaDaTz removes the kidneys before the chicken is salted. In America, the prevailing custom among all Shechitas is to remove the kidneys. This author has never seen kidneys in any of the BaDaTz chickens in Israel.
HISTORY OF CHICKEN KIDNEY REMOVAL
The history of chicken kidney removal is rather fascinating (if the topic interests you). We do not find any mention in the Talmud of removing the kidney of the chicken before salting. Nor do we find it in the writings of the Rishonim or the Shulchan Aruch or Ramah.
We first find mention of it in the writings of Rabbi Yoseph Teomim (1727-1792), better known as the author of the Pri Magadim (Yore Deah Siman 69 in his Mishbetzes HaZahav #15.)
The Beis Lechem Yehudah further wrote (#20), “it is proper to split the chicken in two (not like Beis Hillel). The reason is on account of the lung that is hidden between the ribs.”
The Pri Magadim continues:
“He [the Beis Lechem Yehudah] wrote a valid point and I personally conducted in this manner firstly because it is impossible ideally to salt inside in every place and secondly the lung, spleen, and kidneys of the chicken are resting inside and even bdieved they are forbidden if they were not salted at least on one side – the outer side. They are not salted at all and it is a separate organ and not one thick piece. Even in the groove one must remove the lung – as ideally it requires salting on both sides.”
It is interesting to note that the Beis Lechem Yehudah does not actually mention removal of the kidney. It is first mentioned by the Pri Magadim (MZ 69:15). The Yad Yehudah mentions that, notwithstanding the PMG, – he did not see the lungs nor the kidneys being removed before salting.
WHICH AUTHORITIES SAY TO REMOVE IT?
The Darchei Teshuvah 69:85 says that the kidneys must be removed before salting. The Shemen Rokayach (Vol. I #42) and the Divrei Yosef (#456) both write to remove it as well.
The Yad Yehudah and Shaarei Deah both say that you do not have to remove them. The Bris Melach, an early New York Posaik (whom the New York Times called the Chief Rabbi of Brooklyn when he passed away in 1913) writes that the halacha is to follow the Pri Magadim and not follow the Yad Yehudah. The Kaf HaChaim 72:48 makes no mention of kidneys but does mention the lung.
WHAT HAPPENS IF IT WAS LEFT IN AND COOKED?
The Shaivet HaLevi Vol. VII #128 writes that it is permitted post facto, bdieved. The Knei Bosem ruled that it is forbidden and requires a sixty to one ratio. One should check with one’s own Rav, but this author believes that the custom is to rely on the Shaivet HaLevi.
WHAT IS THE STORY WITH EMPIRE’S KIDNEY REMOVAL SYSTEM?
In general, this author has found that Empire’s kidney removal system is generally very effective. There may be, however, a rare chicken kidney that escapes its vacuumized fate. When this author spoke to Rav Yechiel Baabad about it, he said. “We do have our mashgichim keeping an eye on this. You are correct that when a problem happens it is because one of the workers holding the vacuum on that line is shorter. When it is seen, an arrangement would be made that he can reach it better by having him stand on a platform.”
The letter KAJ sent to its kehillah members is reproduced here.
“After many years of giving the highest level of kashrus supervision at Empire Kosher Poultry, we will be removing our Hashgocho effective July 20, 2020. This decision was made after much discussion and deliberation both with Empire and internally. Unfortunately, circumstances have developed that prevent us from being able to guarantee that are our standards of kashrus will continue to be met. Products manufactured through July 20, 2020 and bearing the seal of the KAJ are still under our supervision.
In the meantime, we recommend the following poultry product providers:
- KJ (Kiryas Joel) Poultry (KJ Hashgocho)
- BKP (Birsdsboro Kosher Poultry; CRC, Brooklyn Hashgocho)
- Marvid (CRC, Brooklyn Hashgocho)
Beginning July 20, 2020, Kiryas Joel poultry will be available in Key Food. For questions about the kashrus of any poultry or other product, you may contact Rabbi Moshe Edelstein, our Kashrus Administrator, at ___. Sincerely yours, Rav Yisroel Mantel”
In response to the KAJ letter to its constituents, Empire itself released a statement that said as follows:
“Rabbi Yisroel Weiss, Executive VP of Empire Kosher Poultry adds, “We are so pleased to be able to satisfy the needs of consumers who only purchase products with a chasidish certification. Now even more families can enjoy and benefit from the high-quality poultry that Empire is famous for.”
The press release also stated,
“Empire Kosher Poultry is more committed than ever to being an exemplary kosher operation, and the preservation of our reputation means everything to our people, including the more than 60 chasidic rabbis onsite who have worked tirelessly for decades, making extreme sacrifices, to adhere to the strictest kashrus practices,” said Weiss.
All consumers, including those seeking a chasidisha schechita, can purchase Empire Kosher products with the confidence that it is of the highest quality under the supervision of the OU and Rabbi Babad. Additionally, Rabbi Aaron Teitelbaum, the Nirbatur Rav, serving as rav hamachshir for Alle Processing, has a full partnership with the OU and Rabbi Babad on kashrus operations in the Empire Kosher Poultry plant.”
The KAJ statement “Circumstances have developed that prevent us from being able to guarantee that are our standards of kashrus will continue to be met” indicate a concern about the future – and not per se any problem that exists currently. Although a call to someone in the KAJ revealed that this analysis is not correct and that there are, in fact, current concerns.
There are numerous halachic issues that can come up at a poultry processing plant. Below is a list of a few of them:
Do they check for tzomes hagidin (the back of the knee)? What is that process? [We used to think that this was a pecking problem – now we know that it is actually caused by a virus!] Do they check the lot or each chicken?
How are the chickens (or eggs) vaccinated? Generally, it done on the upper thigh or under the neck skin. If under the neck skin it may create a hole in the esophagus which could render it a treifah. What is the angle that the needle enters? Does it face the food pipe – the veshet? If in the egg (which is standard in the USA), until what day do they allow it? Do they inject it in the rounder part where the air pocket is found?
How do the chickens arrive? Are the workers abusive when they remove the crates? If so, there are questions of Nefula if the crates are thrown down too hard.
How crowded are the chickens at the farm? How much stress do they undergo?
Are the crates checked for blood? If so, does the presence of blood indicate that there may be a headpeck concern?
How tired are the Shochtim? Does the hechsher oversee this at all? [At Empire, the shochtim actually sleep there – except for the Baltimore shochtim].
Although halacha states that the lungs of a chicken do not need to be checked unless there is a problem, in Eretz Yisroel they do check lungs, on account of a virus. Do they check the lots in America?
How is the de-feathering prior to the shechita overseen (called the CD line)? How many mashgichim check it?
This author knows Rav Mantel personally and can attest to his sterling character and reputation. In one case of a m’again situation, where the m’again acted very inappropriately – Rav Mantel stood by the Agunah – facing extraordinary pressure. Unfortunately, the woman still does not have her get.
Whenever there is an issue of Kashrus, there is a chance chalilah that someone could stumble in lashon harah. This is a request to all reader of this article to refrain from doing so.
EMPIRE IN GENERAL
As a company, Empire has a very impressive record of mentchlichkeit. According to an article in the Philadelphia Inquirer, a paper that exposed a poultry processing plant called Bell and Evans that was responsible for the deaths of three people because they had pressured employees who were suffering from Corona to come back to work too early, Empire’s behavior was exemplary.
Empire took a different approach. The company closed voluntarily for two weeks in early April, during the height of the busy Passover season, after multiple employees tested positive for COVID-19. At the time, Wendell Young, president of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1776 Keystone State, told the Lewistown Sentinel that the plant was closing out of an “abundance of caution.” He described Empire as likely the “cleanest poultry plant you’ll find on the planet.”
The CDC visited Empire on May 19, and its overall assessment of the protocols in place there was positive. “The company has implemented many controls at the plant to help reduce and mitigate the spread of SARS-CoV-2 between workers while in the plant,” the agency wrote.
Empire’s cooperation in matters of kashrus has likewise been described by the hechsherim in glowing terms.
The author can be reached at [email protected]
(YWN World Headquarters – NYC)