Where’s the beef? Fire, disease create shortage of kosher brisket for Pesach

While the nation has yet to be blighted with locusts, legions of frogs or rampaging hordes of wild beasts, worries are high about another biblical plague — bovine disease.

The combination of prohibitions on importing potentially diseased overseas cattle and last December’s huge fire at the nation’s largest kosher beef processing plant have added up to create a kosher butcher’s Passover nightmare: the endangered brisket.

“Our distributor is shorting us on what we ordered. They can’t give us as much as we want,” said Miriam Klein, the co-owner of San Jose’s Willow Glen Kosher Market. “I’m not sure we’ll have enough for our orders.”

While most Bay Area kosher butchers ordered briskets well ahead of time, anticipating the annual Passover rush, the scarcity of the traditional seder headliner has driven up prices.

Michael Creistam, the owner of San Francisco’s Tel Aviv Strictly Kosher Market, found himself paying his Los Angeles meat distributor more than a dollar extra per pound than last year for brisket he claimed was of poorer quality.

“I have no choice; they tell me to pay and I pay. This is a problem,” said Creistam. “And this year it is not too good, the quality. Last year and before the quality was better. It was not too fat and this is too fat. And the shipping is too expensive now. What once was $100 now is $225.”

Creistam isn’t the only Bay Area butcher who was shelling out more for meat. Alex Avrutin of San Francisco’s Israel Kosher Meat, Poultry and Deli said his store’s distributor has upped its prices from 20 cents to $1.40 a pound on various kosher items.

At Mollie Stone’s in Palo Alto, which has a kosher-certified meat area, meat manager Steve Broadway affirmed that the chain’s kosher distributor raised its brisket prices 50 to 60 cents a pound since last year.

“We don’t want to gouge anybody, but we have to make our margin too,” said Broadway. “It’s going to reflect on the retail costs; there’s no doubt about it.”

While Mollie Stone’s charged $8.99 a pound for brisket last year, this year the price is up to $9.29. Other kosher butchers charge between $5.99 and $9.99 for a pound of fresh brisket.

The well-publicized outbreaks of mad cow and foot-and-mouth diseases that helped create the nation’s brisket shortfall have also worried some Bay Area kosher customers. Area butchers, however, stress that diseased beef would never slip past the watchful eye of a kosher meat inspector.

“With kosher meat, cleanliness is guaranteed because of the way it’s processed,” said Ed Halwani, co-owner of Belmont’s Kosher Deli, which sells pre-packaged kosher meat but does not have a kosher overseer. “Everything is inspected by certified beef handlers.”

Oakland Kosher owner Yuval Atias toured an Israeli abattoir last year and came away more convinced than ever that kosher meat is the world’s safest.

“It was really, really thorough. They checked everything, inside the lungs, the liver. Veterinarians with mirrors were able to look in the chickens’ eyes and at the same time look at the back of the animal,” recalled Atias. “If there was some suspicion an animal was sick, they’d throw it on the side and sell it as non-kosher.”

Atias also pointed out that kashrut restrictions limit kosher animals’ diets to only grain, not the mixtures of ground-up animal products and grain fed to English cattle that some believe may have been a factor in mad cow disease.

While a 5-pound brisket simmered with onion, prunes and carrots may be gracing far fewer seder tables this year, odds are the shortage will not lead to another biblical plague — famine. In fact, Bay Area butchers say that there are viable alternatives for the brisket-deprived.

For those hosting smaller gatherings, Creistam says a round filet or “a bit of the shoulder” will serve nicely.

Atias, meanwhile, feels a cut of beef like the French roast is as good or better than even first-cut brisket.

“A lot of people know the name ‘first-cut brisket’ just because of their parents and grandparents and never tried anything else but cooking the same way,” he said. “The French roast comes from the chuck, which is a big piece of meat, feeds a lot of people and slices really nicely. You cook it the same way you cook a brisket and it comes out just as nice.”

While shortages and price hikes at this point are only affecting kosher butchers and their customers — aggravated by the fire at the ConAgra Beef processing plant in Garden City, Kansas — frustration may be just around the corner for other U.S. beefeaters.

“We may be having to export some of our beef over to Europe to cover some of their losses,” predicted Chris Paiz, meat manager for Oakland’s Village Market. “Being a cynic like I am, I have a feeling someone’s going to raise the prices just because it’s a chance to. The percentage rate will probably be 5 or 10 percent. You can almost bet on that.”


Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.