Maryanne Crager is facing a bit of a problem. The stores she represents as public-affairs manager for Genuardi's supermarkets are known for their sizable kosher departments, but at the Wynnewood and Rockledge locations right now, customers may be disappointed. At the moment, Crager reported, Genuardi's has a "limited supply" of kosher deli meat.
The reason is that the market's kosher-meat supplier, Agriprocessors, Inc. — the nation's largest kosher meat-packing plant — is having a crisis of its own to contend with.
The Postville, Iowa slaughterhouse — which processes kosher beef, chicken, turkey, lamb and veal under brand names like Aaron's Best, Aaron's Choice, David's, Supreme Kosher and Rubashkin's — was raided by federal authorities on the morning of May 12. Almost 400 people, mostly from Guatemala and Mexico, were detained or arrested on charges that included immigration and identity-theft violations; in the following weeks, 297 people were convicted. All this left the plant, started in 1987 by Aaron Rubashkin, with a reduced staff.
Agriprocessors has received multiple citations from the state of Iowa for workplace-safety violations and health standards in the recent past. In light of the raid, employees have been reporting other alleged abuses.
That doesn't help area Genuardi's markets, which use Agriprocessors as a main supplier. While the shelves are not empty, Crager said, "we don't know how long [this disruption] will last."
"We are trying to do the best we can under these circumstances, but it is a supplier issue," she continued, noting that the two stores continue to have kosher lunch meat and chicken, which they receive from other suppliers. Genuardi's is actively seeking an alternate source of kosher meat, she added, but, "unfortunately, there are not many suppliers for kosher beef."
Genuardi's is not alone. Don O'Brien, head of Acme's kosher division, said that the kosher-meat supply chain has been affected as a result of the Iowa situation. While two of Acme's local stores — Jenkintown and Narberth — have considerable kosher sections and carry Agriprocessors items, Acme is "stepping up" the supply it receives from other vendors.
Menachem Lubinsky, editor of Kosher Today and owner of Lubicon Marketing and Consulting, who's serving as spokesman for the Rubashkins, said there should be no shortage "whatsoever," as most of the "process kitchen [is] up and running."
However, he acknowledged "spot shortages here and there" — in Los Angeles; Teaneck, N.J.; and South Florida — but added that the plant resumed production the day after the raid and has increased its output recently as the company continues to hire additional workers.
Several local business owners, such as Arie Lipinsky of Narberth's Main Line Kosher Meats, a glatt-kosher market under Orthodox supervision, report that shoppers have been inquiring if any of their products come from Agriprocessors. Main Line, along with other independent kosher butchers, does not use Agriprocessors, but has tried to field questions from customers.
Jeff Kalinsky, sales manager for Betty the Caterer, said that he's noticed that the price of kosher meat from multiple suppliers has risen 10 percent in the last two weeks, in what he called a "supply-and-demand scenario." He's not sure if it's all due to the Agriprocessors situation — prices for everything have gone up recently, he noted — but does attribute at least a percentage of the increase to fallout from Iowa.
Steven Katz, owner of Max & David's, a kosher restaurant in Elkins Park, said that he does use some Agriprocessors' items, mostly steaks, though he's been looking for additional suppliers.
However, he said that the situation with Agriprocessors "has prioritized it a lot" and "heightened the pace at which we're looking. We are taking no shortcuts from a kashrut perspective," even, he said, if it means buying more expensive meat elsewhere.
The issue raising the most concern may be the heated talk over ethical business practices and kashrut certification, as threats of a boycott linger. For example, the Jewish Labor Committee has sent out the call, citing Agriprocessors alleged "clear pattern of employer negligence and even lawlessness."
Local religious leaders, such as Rabbi Jeff Pivo of Congregation Beth El in Yardley, have also weighed in on the subject. Pivo addressed the issue on Shabbat morning, May 31, and said that he'd like the congregation to further discuss the topic of Jewish ethics and kosher slaughter next week during Shavuot.
Serious concerns exist in Judaism regarding the treatment of animals and workers, said Pivo, and if the Agriprocessors' allegations prove to be true, it would be "profoundly disturbing."
Jewish business owners have an obligation to treat employees humanely, noted Rabbi Jay Stein of Har Zion Temple in Penn Valley. He added that the community should be discussing this issue, and "if the reports are true, it would just be unethical for us to buy" Agriprocessors' products.
Over the last few weeks, Jewish papers, blogs and newsletters have been buzzing with postings regarding Agriprocessors. All of this amounts to nothing more than lashon hara — or gossip — said Jesse Klapholz, owner of Klapholz's Kosher Delicatessen in Jenkintown.
He noted that rumors have run rampant over this issue.
"This is just about immigration, not about kashrut or whatever else may have taken place," he added. "The Jewish community is rushing to judgment."