[Former Jew explains how the kosher scam works and who pays.]
[Former Jew explains how the kosher scam works and who pays.]
[Kosher food and its subsequent “tax scam” is a religious matter, and therefore a religious tax imposed by a minority group of less than 2% of the population.]
08 Feb 2013
By Debra Rubin · June 19, 2012
WASHINGTON (JTA) – Hebrew National boasts of “answering to a higher authority,” but several class-action lawyers are hoping to take one of the country’s largest kosher meat producers to an earthly court.
A class-action lawsuit filed recently alleges that Hebrew National’s iconic hot dogs and other meats do not comport with the brand’s claim to be kosher “as defined by the most stringent Jews who follow Orthodox Jewish law.” The suit filed May 18 in a Minnesota state court accuses ConAgra Foods, Inc., which owns the Hebrew National brand, of consumer fraud.
ConAgra, which has rejected the claims unequivocally, asked on June 6 that the suit be moved to the U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota. The company has until July 13 to respond to the complaint.
Lawyers from firms in Scottsdale, Ariz.; Long Beach, Calif.; and Minneapolis, Minn., submitted the complaint on behalf of 11 named plaintiffs.
The lead attorney for the plaintiffs, Hart L. Robinovitch of Zimmerman Reed, is based in Scottsdale but his firm has offices in Minnesota. Robinovitch would not say how the suit was initiated.
Zimmerman Reed, however, solicited consumers through its website, where a page until recently announced a Hebrew National investigation.
“Our firm has received troubling reports that some slaughterhouse plants supplying Hebrew National with its beef may not be upholding the strict kosher standards Hebrew National promises,” the page stated. “Workers are threatened with losing their job, or demotion, if they speak up and try to point out violations of the kosher food laws.”
The firm advertised a free case review for anyone who purchased Hebrew National hot dogs in the past two years or had information about the preparation of the products.
“The lawsuit contends that ConAgra marketed, labeled and sold Hebrew National according to the strictest standards defined by Orthodox Jews. We allege that it does not meet those standards,” Robinovitch said. “We’re certainly not alleging that they’re using pork products, or anything as blatant as that.”
The lawsuit’s 11 named plaintiffs live in various states, including California, Minnesota, New York and Arizona. JTA was unable to reach any of the individuals.
The suit, which was reported originally by the American Jewish World newspaper, is seeking monetary damages equal to the total amount of monies that consumers in the class paid for Hebrew National meat products.
Triangle-K, the Brooklyn, N.Y.-based supervising agency that certifies Hebrew National products as kosher and the company that processes the kosher meat, also unequivocally rejected the allegations and contended that disgruntled former employees might be behind them.
Rabbi Aryeh Ralbag, the owner of Triangle-K, said in a statement that the claims in the lawsuit were “outrageously false and defamatory.”
He added, “Those who make the false allegations know full well that because their identities are concealed and their false statements are made in a court pleading, Triangle-K and its principals cannot sue them for defamation.”
AER, which provides the kosher slaughtering services at Hebrew National facilities in the Midwest, including in Minnesota, rejected the charges as well.
“The company intends to defend its reputation and good name,” AER’s president, Shlomo Ben-David, said in a statement.
Teresa Paulson, a ConAgra spokesperson, said she could not comment on pending litigation, but that the company stood by Hebrew National’s kosher status.
Neither AER nor Triangle-K is named as a defendant in the suit.
Triangle-K has been supervising Hebrew National products since 2004. The Conservative movement accepts the Triangle-K kashrut certification.
Kosher consumers choose among hundreds of companies nationwide as to which certifications they trust.
There are about 750 Orthodox kosher certifying organizations in the United States, according to Rabbi Yosef Wikler, editor of Kashrus magazine, which also maintains a website for non-Orthodox certifiers.
“Almost no kosher organization accepts 100 percent of any other kosher organization 100 percent of the time,” Wikler said.
The suit, which does not attribute the allegations to anyone by name, alleges that the Hebrew National brand was not, as the company advertises, kosher “as defined by the most stringent Jews who follow Orthodox law.” As result, plaintiffs, who paid a premium price “believing the kosher title and certification made them a higher quality product than other meat products on the market” were “deprived of the value of the goods they purchased,” the complaint states.
Among the suit’s allegations:
* Knives used in the slaughtering process were nicked, preventing a clean cut mandated by kosher law;
* Organ meat was not consistently inspected after slaughter, as required for kashrut;
* The blood of slaughtered animals was not consistently removed within 72 hours, as required by kosher law;
* Managers took certificates that had been issued to trained slaughterers and replaced their names with individuals who had not been trained;
* Kosher meat was not consistently kept separate from non-kosher meat.
In his statement, Rabbi Aryeh Ralbag said, point by point, that all the allegations are false.
The suit also alleges that workers at some AER facilities, including in St. Paul, Minn., kept kosher, but would not eat the Hebrew National products. Those workers, according to the complaint, were allowed to purchase meats from “specifically selected cows [that] would be slaughtered and checked in strict accordance with all kosher laws, unlike the cows that routinely slaughtered for sale to Defendant and use in Hebrew National Products.”
AER said the allegation is misleading. According to AER, employees who eat only glatt kosher were provided meat to comply with their personal preferences.
Glatt is a higher standard of kosher and means that the lungs of the slaughtered animal are free of any blemishes. If the lungs are blemished, the meat is still considered kosher, but not glatt. Triangle-K does not claim that the products it certifies are glatt kosher.
Additionally, the suit alleges that employees involved in the kosher slaughtering process complained to AER supervisor Rabbi Moshe Fyzakov and Rabbi Aryeh Ralbag, but those officials “did little or nothing to correct the transgressions. Rather, the persons making the complaints were terminated or otherwise threatened with adverse retaliation, such as job transfers to other facilities or states. In turn, non-kosher meat was delivered to ConAgra and packaged, labeled and sold to the public [including the plaintiffs in the lawsuit] as strictly 100 percent kosher.”
A Triangle-K spokesman said, “Every complaint was followed up on, and no one was disciplined for making a complaint.”
The spokesman also said it is “totally false” that non-kosher meat was delivered to ConAgra to be sold as kosher and that “We have clear distinctions in place to prevent such happenings.”
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Local franchises of sandwich chain were touted as next big kosher thing. What happened?
Less than 1 percent of all new Subway restaurants fail, according to statements from the popular sandwich chain. But in the New York area all five kosher Subway outposts — once described as the next big fad in kosher dining — have closed in the last few years, leading many to wonder if what was once the largest U.S. kosher restaurant chain was just a passing fad.
In 2008, a kosher Subway store opened on Water Street in Lower Manhattan. Six months later, it closed, and reopened as a non-kosher Subway. Locations in Westchester, Brooklyn, Long Island and, most recently, on Jewel Avenue in Kew Gardens Hills, Queens, suffered a similar fate. A storefront in Livingston, N.J., closed after 15 months of operation. Locations planned for the Upper West Side and Teaneck, N.J., never came to fruition. At their peak, 12 kosher Subway locations were open in the U.S.; today only five remain.
Owners at several of the closed locations said that operating a kosher establishment within the Subway parameters proved frustrating and that added expenses made it difficult to turn a profit.
Liron Shamsiav, former owner of the Queens location, said “a combination of factors” led to his store’s closing several months ago.
In addition to other fees, franchisees pay 4.5 percent of their sales to headquarters for advertising, but “you don’t get anything from it [in] the Jewish area and the Jewish crowd,” Shamsiav said, since many of the traditional promotions (like the $5 foot-long sandwich) and menu items are not available in kosher stores.
“We had to add more advertising from our own budget,” he said, which cut in to profits already weakened by the high cost of kosher meat and New York City rent. Shamsiav said that while initially Subway headquarters were more flexible and willing to aid the kosher franchisees, they became more difficult and uncompromising as time went on.
Even outside New York, Joan Fogel had great difficulties managing her kosher Subway outpost in a suburb of Kansas City, Kan., and ultimately sold it at the end of 2010, when it reopened as a non-kosher establishment.
“We were invisible to HQ,” she wrote in an e-mail to The Jewish Week. “We were never able to get Subway to do any advertising or marketing for us, even though we paid in to the fund monthly,” she said.
Fogel, who owned and managed the restaurant with her husband Roger, said that Subway did not allow them to serve any specialty items — unlike many New York stores, which offered shwarma or other dishes not found on the traditional Subway menu. They also suffered from difficulties in acquiring kosher meat, and wildly fluctuating prices for supplies.
“We had ongoing supply problems and had no purchasing power through Subway, which we were told we would have,” said Fogel. Ultimately, though their franchise was the only kosher restaurant in the area, the couple “got tired of the uphill battles and the lack of support from Subway.”
The Chicago kosher location announced on Sept. 1 that it too was closing its doors.
“Unfortunately, Walgreens bought the strip mall where we were located,” the restaurant posted on its Facebook page. “We considered moving locations, but it took us two years to find this location and we did not want to go through the process again.” The restaurant stated that a non-kosher franchise will replace it.
Though none of the New York locations remain open, along with the Chicago and Kansas City ones, the kosher Subway experiment appears to be working in some places. Locations in Cleveland, Miami, Los Angeles and two stores in Maryland have thrived in their communities.
After watching the five New York locations come and go, Dani Klein, editor and founder of YeahThatsKosher.com, has his own theory on what doomed the metro area’s restaurants.
“It’s not just one reason; I think it probably has to do with multiple factors,” said Klein, whose website compiles kosher travel information from around the globe.
“New York has a plethora of kosher options; it takes a lot to keep a kosher establishment in business,” he said, citing three main reasons for struggles of the locations there. First, a disconnect for consumers between Subway’s national advertising versus the higher prices in kosher franchises; second, the excitement wearing off after the initial thrill of being able to eat there; and third, the fact “New York Jews know deli,” and the Subway chains pale in comparison.
Klein has eaten in the former Manhattan location and the Los Angeles store, which remains open, and said he “didn’t really see the appeal to why it was so exciting … it was OK.”
Explaining why kosher Subways are difficult to maintain, owners cite the higher cost of kosher ingredients and kosher supervision, the inability to remain open on Saturdays and the alienating of some non-kosher customers who prefer the original menu and prices.
Many of the surviving kosher locations avoid unsatisfied non-kosher consumers, since they are housed in Jewish community centers. The Cleveland, Miami and Rockville, Md., franchises all opened inside existing JCCs, guaranteeing them a steady stream of kosher-observant customers and a smaller chance of irate lunchers looking for a ham and cheese sandwich.
Housed in the Mandel JCC, in the suburb of Beachwood, business is good at the Cleveland location — the first kosher Subway in the nation.
“We get a lot of traffic from both the Jewish community and also members who are here to use the gym facilities and the pool,” said Joe Faddoul, manager of the store. “We have a lot of repeat customers, a lot of people that we see on a daily basis.”
While Faddoul was “surprised to hear” that so many stores in New York had closed, he recognizes that “there is a lot more competition there as far as kosher restaurants go.” In the Cleveland community, “there is just a handful” of kosher restaurants, he said, and several have closed over the past couple years.
A representative for Subway refused to speak to The Jewish Week about anything concerning the kosher stores, citing an ongoing lawsuit that he declined to name.
Last year, Les Winograd, a spokesman for Subway, told this reporter that while many of the kosher locations have opened and closed, each one shuts down for individual reasons, without an overarching trend. In addition, he said “we try to get [the owners] to understand that you might see a huge boost in business when you open,” he said, “but once the novelty dies away things are going to level out.”
Do you have a handicapped child to feed but your income can’t afford kosher food? Too bad, this rabbi says low income is not a reason to eat non-kosher food!
Name@Withheld from the UK wrote:
Dear Rabbi,How does a Jew like myself feed my disabled daughter kosher food on such a low income? The place where they sell kosher food is usually one place in a community. This is true here where I live in the UK. All kosher food is always extensively more expensive then non-kosher food. I therefore will suffer in eternal afterlife as the greed of the people who sell kosher meat know quite well that we can only get kosher meat at their place, so they charge extra, as do their wholesalers, and the Rabbis whom charge for doubling the price of sugar at Pesach (Passover) just to say a blessing.
The price of kosher products can be frustrating, and your anger is understandable. And if one is indeed in great financial difficulty, G-d takes that into account in judging the person. A low-income, however, is not a reason to eat non-kosher food. Perhaps a reader willing to offer you some concrete help or advice could contact us via e-mail: email@example.com.
The economic reality is such that in order to produce kosher food, greater care, supervision and manpower is required, as well as different and sometimes more expensive ingredients and processes.
Here’s one example: Gelatin is made from non-kosher animal bones – very available, and very cheap. Kosher food substitutes “agar-agar,” a seaweed extract that is not as common and therefore more expensive. In addition, a supervisor must be paid to make sure no unkosher ingredients are “snuck” in.
Another factor is the small size of the kosher market relative to the greater market. Producing in bulk brings down costs, so unkosher products can sometimes be produced for less.
Kosher meat has its own special requirements, from the specially trained slaughterer to the inspection for treifot (lesions, etc.) These inspections are stricter than government standards, and animals that don’t pass inspection cause a monetary loss. A special process is required for the removal of many parts, as well as salting to remove the blood. All these processes require salaried manpower.
Regarding Passover, the Rabbi does not bless the sugar. What actually happens is that a Rabbi or a supervisor oversees the production to ensure that no leavened products come in contact with the sugar. Or the machines at the sugar plant (which may also be used to process other substances not kosher for Passover) may need to be cleaned. Again, such supervision requires paying someone a salary to do it.
Furthermore, since Passover is only once a year, many Passover supervision jobs are short term, for only a few weeks or months, and require long hours. As such, few people want such jobs, so owners must offer higher salaries.
There are many foods that are kosher on the general market that can be bought at any supermarket and are not more expensive than regular products. For a complete list, I suggest that you contact the London Beth Din for their “Really Kosher Food Guide,” which should be available in any Jewish bookstore.
By The Expert · October 30, 2009
Question: Why is kosher meat more expensive than non-kosher meat? Is it all a scam or is there actually justification for the prices?
— James, Montreal
Answer: I feel your pain, James. Kosher meat is not cheap. So what accounts for the hefty price tag on your steak?
I spoke with Alan Kaufman, owner of the Kosher Marketplace on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Alan explained that there are a number of factors that drive the price of kosher meat higher than its non-kosher counterparts.
The first thing Alan mentioned is supervision. Kosher meat is supervised from the time the animal is slaughtered until it is packaged and sold. Kosher slaughterhouses must employ shochtim — those trained in the laws of shechita, ritual slaughter — as well as supervisors who can be consulted on unusual or contentious circumstances.
Jewish law also requires that kosher meat be soaked in water for half an hour, salted, and then washed thoroughly three times. In non-kosher meat plants where these extra steps aren’t taken, much more meat can be processed and shipped out. The more meat a company sells, the lower it can afford to set its prices. Because the nature of kosher processing requires more inefficient time for soaking and salting, kosher plants produce less meat and cannot set their prices as low as their non-kosher competitors.
Finally, Alan reminded me that kosher meat isn’t so easy to come by. To be kosher, an animal must be healthy, and must have no broken bones, no diseases, and no scarred or punctured organs. Downer cattle, or cows that are unable to stand on their own, are never used.
Alan estimated that only 20 percent of the cows in any given slaughterhouse pass the inspection that is required for them to be kosher. I’ve seen other estimates from 30 percent to 40 percent. Either way, it’s much lower than at facilities where every cow that comes in gets slaughtered and sold. Screening the kosher from the treif also takes time and money.
So there are some reasons why the consumer is charged top dollar for your kosher hamburger. Ensuring that something is done in a kosher way is a pricey endeavor, and this means that the base price for kosher meat is going to be higher than non-kosher meat.
Does it mean that the meat is cleaner or better quality? It might, but as we learned from the Postville scandal last year, kosher meat can still be produced under very problematic circumstances.
Still, a major advantage of eating kosher meat in this day and age is the ability to easily trace its whereabouts and origins. As we learn more about the dangers of contemporary meat distribution, including a real risk of E. coli contamination, it becomes increasingly important to know where our food comes from and what’s in it. E. coli is a bacteria found in the feces of both humans and animals. In America, kosher slaughterhouses do not deal with the hindquarters of cows — they’re usually sold to non-kosher plants, which decreases but does not completely eliminate — the likelihood of kosher meat coming in contact with cow feces and thus E. coli.
Sukkot is almost upon us, and as a people, we are reminded to give thanks for the harvest we receive. Sadly, however, this season may not be as thankful for many Jews.
The internet is replete with posts from exasperated Yidden who simply can’t afford what has become a luxury. Although it is understandable that kosher food necessitates additional, costly supervision, and kosher businesses – like all businesses – seek to maximize process, the exorbitant price of kosher products has reached an inexcusable extreme.
The cost of food is on the rise all over the world, and kosher food is no exception. Many Jews simply cannot afford a kosher celebration of the Feast of the Tabernacles.
Controversies about kosher facilities, coupled with an overall economic downturn, have made keeping Jewish dietary laws a growing challenge, and action must be taken to enable Jews to keep kosher without breaking the bank.
In most U.S. grocery stores, the kosher section is small, providing basic staples and traditional foods needed for Jewish holidays. But these items are often too pricey for many Diaspora Jews, who , like many other Americans, are struggling during these difficult economic times.
The cost of food is rising at an alarming rate worldwide. Wholesale food prices have jumped by approximately 3.9%, and kosher food is even pricier; by Passover 2010, kosher meat cost some 20 percent more than non-kosher meat, according to Slate.
The cost of maintaining a kosher facility is significant, and obtaining the Orthodox Union’s kosher certification is expensive as well, further inflating the price.
Is there justification for soaring kosher food prices? How is it ethical to charge so much for kosher products, that many Jewish families simply cannot afford to keep the dietary laws?
This above-and-beyond competitive pricing is a cheap way to gouge Jews committed to upholding Jewish traditions, while depriving many from doing so. It often seems like the price isn’t worth the product, and oftentimes, the quality is poorer than the less costly non-kosher equivalent.
Why buy kosher if it is both more expensive and inferior?
There may be hope yet for hard-on-their luck Jews who want to keep kosher. Hazon, a leading Jewish food organization, sponsors Community Supported Agriculture (CSAs) in the U.S., Canada, and Israel. These programs provide access to healthy, local produce, connecting recipients with their Jewish community. Jewish food banks provide sustenance for hungry families.
Although these programs are a great start, more initiatives are needed to keep the kosher food movement alive. Community food banks that provide kosher products, kosher food stamps, or discount savings programs would make buying kosher food easier and more viable option for people who don’t have the means to purchase kosher foods at retail price.
In addition to making kosher food more affordable, facilities must be made more sustainable, environmentally sound, and labor-friendly to ensure the quality of its products and its practices. Online programs can be used to promote healthy and budget-friendly kosher food.
Sukkot is meant to be a celebration of bountiful harvest and health, and there is no reason for Jews to go without kosher food on this joyous holiday. We must take action to sustain not only ethical business practices and fair pricing, but our cultural heritage as well.
Yael Miller is a graduate student at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.