Grounded beef: Raid affecting some Bay Area kosher meat vendors

Shoppers looking for kosher beef at the only two Northern California Lucky stores that sell it have been out of luck this month.

Stung by sagging supplies from the embattled Agriprocessors slaughterhouse, the Lucky markets in Los Altos and west San Jose have been all out of the chops, roasts and ground beef they normally sell to customers who keep kosher.

“Hey, it’s Northern California, so we can just go vegetarian,” joked Rabbi Yisroel Hecht of Chabad of Sunnyvale.

Hecht and others, however, aren’t laughing over the fallout five weeks after the May 12 raid at the mammoth Agriprocessors plant in Postville, Iowa. About 400 of the company’s workers were arrested on immigration and other charges and put in federal custody.

The nation’s largest kosher processing plant has struggled to get production back to normal. Industry observers estimate it at 20 percent of capacity, while an Agriprocessors spokesman told JTA last week that plant output is at 70 percent of capacity on chicken and 33 percent on beef.

Last week the owner of a kosher catering company in Florida said her business was in jeopardy after she didn’t receive her regular weekly box of meat and poultry from Agriprocessors. She said she had to start buying kosher meat at retail, about $6.99 a pound compared to $2.19 wholesale, killing her bottom line.

Retailers around the country, meanwhile, are reporting trouble getting their orders filled, and the Bay Area is no exception.

In addition to the void at Lucky, Mollie Stone’s has been feeling the pinch, and some retailers, such as Trader Joe’s, have switched to Empire brand chicken from the several brands produced by Agriprocessors.

Lucky stores in Los Altos and on Saratoga Avenue in San Jose are the only Save Mart-owned supermarkets in Northern California and Nevada that sell kosher meat. The Los Altos store usually devotes about 16 square feet of its meat case to kosher red meat, but store manager Tom Hamilton said last week he hadn’t received a shipment for two weeks.

However, he said his distributor “was contracting with a new meat supplier, and within days they’ll be able to ramp it up and send us what we need.”

He estimated the first new shipment of kosher beef would arrive Monday, June 23. As for chicken, he said the store’s shipments now arrive haphazardly, but that the amount “seems to be about the same … maybe a little less.”

Hamilton said customers have been “fairly patient and understanding,” a sentiment echoed by Hecht, whose wife and Chabad congregants often shop at the Los Altos Lucky.

“Everyone understands; people realize what happened,” Hecht said. “Also, people realize this situation is temporary.”

The situation seems to be less dire at the Bay Area’s smaller, kosher retail outlets, such as Oakland Kosher Foods and Tel Aviv Strictly Kosher Market in San Francisco.

“There’s been a small shortage of some kinds of meat — rib steaks and short ribs — but we’re trying to get it from other vendors,” said Aviad Laizer, manager at Oakland Kosher Foods. “It’s nothing serious. We don’t have a shortage because we just get it from other plants.”

O.C. Fahima, owner of Tel Aviv Strictly Kosher Market, said she has had “no problem” getting enough meat, as she is dealing with six vendors, including at least one that gets kosher beef from Uruguay. But she did say she is paying 20 to 30 cents more per pound.

Similar stories are being heard around the country, and many kosher meat retailers are passing the costs onto their customers. However, merchants remain vague on whether the rising prices — already higher than regular beef and poultry — are due to Agriprocessors, opportunistic vendors or increased shipping costs due to fuel costs.

“It’s everything together,” said Yuval Mizrahi, the owner of the Sabra Grill in San Francisco. “The prices [of kosher meat] go up every day. We are really struggling to make a living here. We raised our prices one time a few months ago, but we can’t do it every time our costs go up.”

Prices could go up even more if Agriprocessors hires documented workers, thus increasing its production costs and losing its competitive edge, said Joe Regentstein, a food sciences professor at Cornell University.

Fahima said her Tel Aviv market customers are openly curious about the raid’s influence on her prices and products, “But it hasn’t affected our supplies, honest. Whatever I order, I got it [in the store].”

Steve Broadway, manager of the meat department at the Palo Alto Mollie Stone’s, wishes he could say the same. “Trying to fill our needs is getting more difficult, no doubt about it,” he said.

The store’s distributor for kosher meat, Twin City of New Hope, Minn., has historically bought exclusively from Agriprocessors — forcing both distributor and store into scramble mode.

“Poultry products have been extremely difficult to get a hold of,” said Broadway, noting that orders from Agriprocessors used to yield mainly ready-to-sell parts. “Now we’re getting more whole chickens and we have to cut them into packages ourselves.”

Broadway said supermarkets catering to larger communities of Jews that keep kosher are probably having an easier time.

“Being on the West Coast and especially in Northern California, we kind of get what’s left over,” Broadway said. “[Agriprocessors and its distributors] are going to fill their needs back East before they take care of us, and even L.A. comes before us.”

The Associated Press and JTA contributed to this report.

Zionist group calls for Agriprocessors boycott

Ameinu, the U.S. affiliate of the World Labor Zionist Movement, this week called on its members and other Jewish groups to boycott Agriprocessors products “until safe and legal working conditions are restored in the Agriprocessors plant.”

“Unfortunately, this is only the latest of a long list of reports of economic oppression of illegal and undocumented workers leveled against Agriprocessors,” Kenneth Bob, president of Ameinu, said in a press release.

Ameinu called on all Jewish organizations to avoid serving Agriprocessors products at their kosher functions. Agriprocessors’ glatt kosher brands include Aaron’s Best, Aaron’s Choice, Rubashkin’s, European Glatt, Shor Habor, Supreme Kosher and David’s.

At least one Jewish group is on board with the boycott plan. Uri L’tzedek, a social justice group started by students at an Orthodox rabbinical seminary in New York City, said it would stop patronizing Agriprocessors on Monday, June 23, if the company did not agree to abide by certain ethical standards.

Organizers of the group at Yeshivat Chovevei said some 1,300 people, including several leading Jewish figures, had signed a petition asking the company to meet certain standards. Agriprocessors had not responded to the demands as of the j. press deadline.

Palo Alto Rabbi Yitzchok Feldman, who serves on the board of the kosher certification agency Vaad Hakashrus of Northern California, said many Jews and Jewish groups have been considering a boycott.

“That’s been a discussion in the community since the raid, although none of the things turned up by the raid were new,” Feldman said. “Their practices had been an ongoing thing for months. The Forward has been writing about this for years.”

Meanwhile, Rabbi Yisroel Hecht of Chabad of Sunnyvale said there are no hard feelings against Agriprocessors, known simply as Rubashkin’s to many people.

“Most people are happy with the product they get, and on this specific issue, the problem Rubashkin’s had is a problem the entire country is having and it’s not specific to this one Orthodox, kosher company,” Hecht said. “People are not into scapegoating Rubashkin’s.”

Andy Altman-Ohr

Andy Altman-Ohr was J.’s managing editor and Hardly Strictly Bagels columnist until he retired in 2016 to travel and live abroad. He and his wife have a home base in Mexico, where he continues his dalliance with Jewish journalism.