The scandal over one small New York butcher selling non-kosher chickens is having repercussions in Jewish communities in South Florida and around the nation.
A butcher in Monsey, N.Y. — a primarily orthodox Jewish community one hour north of Manhattan — was caught selling non-kosher chicken, labeled as kosher, to hundreds of customers last month.
The problem meat was confined to the upstate New York area, but the fallout is not. A team of 40 rabbis for the Orthodox Union, the nation’s largest kosher supervision agency, met earlier this month to discuss how to prevent the problem from happening again anywhere in the country.
It’s a big topic of conversation in South Florida, which is home to about 600,000 Jews and is the third-largest Jewish community in the United States.
The Orthodox Union is planning new ways to regulate kosher meat from slaughter to sale, which would affect the distribution and packaging of meat sold here. Kosher is a set of standards on what foods can be eaten, and how those foods must be prepared and eaten.
Some ideas include putting holograms or computer chips on containers used to transport chicken or using dye to mark kosher products, so butchers and consumers can verify the sources of the meat.
“Ultimately, Florida is an important market. Chicago, Los Angeles, those are the places we want to set up a system,” said Rabbi Menachem Genack, head of Kashrut supervision for the New York City-based Orthodox Union.
Also in the plan: sending undercover scouts to butchers in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut to check the meat.
One of the country’s major suppliers of kosher chickens, Empire Kosher, which has nothing to do with the rogue butcher, is responding to consumer fears by considering changing the way it packages chickens, Genack said.
The company currently sells 30 chickens in a box of ice, but Empire is considering selling only chickens wrapped individually and not allowing butchers to open them, he said. Then the customer will buy the chicken, and the butcher can unwrap and cut it in front of the customer, he said.
Danny Wasserman, owner of Mary L’s store in Lauderhill, sells several brands of kosher chicken. His orthodox customers have been talking to him about the Monsey controversy, and Wasserman said he would like more guarantees in the process.
“No matter what the situation is, if somebody wants to cheat, there’s a way for them to do the wrong thing,” he said. “More precautions are for the benefit of everybody.”
At the Joseph L. Morse Geriatric Center in West Palm Beach, Marty Katz, vice president of Culinary Services, said nursing home residents and their families would be devastated if they discovered their food was not kosher. He supports putting extra protections in the kosher food chain to ensure the food is reliable.
“We’ve always been known as a kosher center, and it’s very important for us to maintain that commitment,” Katz said. If non-kosher food were ever served, he said, “there would be a loss of trust that the commitment we made was meaningless.”
The question now is how the Orthodox Union will introduce the new measures.
“It presents significant challenges in technology,” Genack said. “[The scandal] was devastating for the people who live there. The sense of betrayal: The person was somebody from the community itself.”
Kosher laws are complicated and date back to biblical times. The word kosher means fit or proper to eat. Put simply, kosher laws govern the preparation and handling of foods. Certain foods cannot be mixed or are prohibited. A kosher chicken must be slaughtered according to religious law and have no anatomical defects. The extra processing requirements and specially trained handlers mean kosher meat and poultry are more costly.
The scandal in New York rocked the community. The butcher sold cheaper, non-kosher chicken that he repackaged and labeled as kosher. Once he was found out, he granted his wife a divorce and fled the area, according to Jewish newspapers.
“It was very painful, I was so upset,” said Shaindy Mermelstein, a secretary who lives in Monsey. Because Mermelstein bought from that grocer, she had to make her pots, pans and silverware kosher again by cleaning them in boiling water.
Still, some products cannot be made kosher again, such as the china owned by Mermelstein’s daughter. “I was in a store and people were buying brand new pots. We do what we have to do,” she said.
Hundreds of people prayed for repentance or gave money to charity, and the men even fasted for a day, Mermelstein said.
Palm Beach County bans false advertising of kosher food under its unfair trade practices ordinance. That law bans the advertising of food as kosher “if such food is not in fact kosher as sanctioned by orthodox Hebrew religious requirements.”
Scandals that force changes in the marketplace are not limited to New York.
In Broward County in 1981, a grocer advertising kosher meats created an uproar when it was discovered the owners were selling non-kosher meat.
Broward Clerk of the Courts Howard Forman, then a county commissioner, helped pass a county ordinance that year that mandates restaurants and grocers advertising kosher products really have kosher-certified food.
The Broward County Consumer Affairs Division requires that any dealer who prepares, distributes or sells any food represented to be “Kosher” or “Kosher for Passover” must register with the Consumer Affairs Division and follow county rules.
“People were angry, and so was I,” said Forman. “For the people this mattered to, kosher is an absolute issue. It is, or it is not. It does not have shades of gray.”
Today, an inspector still makes the rounds and requires restaurants and grocers to prove their certification.
Mona Fandel, the director of the Broward County Consumer Affairs Division, said the county forces businesses to stop advertising kosher if they are not.
“There’s been one within the last year where the ice cream was kosher but the cones weren’t and he was representing that it was kosher,” Fandel said. “We go in to make sure the representations are true and accurate and it’s to prevent deceptive trade practices.”