Lessons from the L.A. kosher meat scandal

The kosher scandal that erupted in Los Angeles just before the start of Passover raises interesting questions about the insistence by most Orthodox kosher certifiers that meat be glatt kosher (“Kosher meat scandal hits L.A., April 5).

Glatt, which originated as a stringency practiced exclusively by a subset of Hungarian Jews, is today the industry standard for kosher beef in America. In 2008, the Rabbinical Council of California, which certified the Doheny market, adopted the glatt standard. Some say that is when the trouble started.

Timothy Lytton

Since glatt beef is more expensive than “plain” kosher, Doheny owner Mike Engleman dropped RCC certification and operated under the supervision of Rabbi Meshulom Dov Weiss. The company lost business, so after 18 months, Engleman returned to the RCC and agreed to sell only glatt. When the RCC dropped Engleman on March 24 for covertly smuggling unidentified meat or poultry into Doheny’s back door in boxes marked glatt kosher, Weiss stepped in to keep the store open.

Adoption of the glatt standard is, in part, a response to a long history of rampant fraud in kosher meat slaughter in America.

Rabbi Seth Mandel, a specialist in kosher slaughter at the Orthodox Union, explains that adoption of the glatt standard was a way to address sources of kosher fraud. Kosher meat production requires extensive post-slaughter physical examination of the cow’s lungs for lesions or perforations that indicate serious illness (which would render the animal non-kosher). The process takes time and, in a large industrial plant, stops work along the entire production line.

Pressure to avoid such delays and keep production moving raises the risk that the supervising rabbis will not take the time to do proper inspections and will certify animals as kosher that are, in fact, not.

To reduce this pressure on the supervising rabbi, says Mandel, the OU has insisted that the kosher meat it certifies meets a higher standard — glatt kosher.

Glatt is from the German for “smooth,” referring to the smoothness of the surface of the lungs. In practice, it means that if the supervisor has any doubts about an animal meeting the standard (in terms of the number and size of permitted lesions),  the animal simply is not certified as kosher.

Mandel says the higher glatt standard eliminates pressure on rabbis to cut corners, providing an additional margin of protection for kosher consumers against the   

risk of consuming nonkosher meat. He also attributes the rise of glatt to a desire among supervising rabbis to eliminate corrupt union control over kosher meat production.

While the glatt standard, at least according to Mandel, reduces fraud in kosher meat production, it creates added incentives for fraud in the sale of kosher meat.

Because of the specialized labor involved, kosher meat costs more to produce than nonkosher meat. Passing off nonkosher meat as kosher allows sellers to obtain a premium price without having to pay the cost.

And since the kosher yield — that is, the percentage of cows that satisfy post-slaughter inspection — is lower under the more stringent glatt standard than under the plain kosher standard, the supply of glatt meat consequently is more restricted, and the price of kosher meat goes up. This creates incentives to pass plain kosher meat off as glatt kosher, and even bigger incentives to pass nonkosher meat off as glatt kosher.

In today’s world of high-volume industrial meat production, abandoning the glatt standard would likely increase the risk of fraud in kosher slaughter. At the same time, however, maintaining the higher standard may increase sales fraud of the kind perpetrated by Doheny.

Timothy Lytton is an endowed law professor at Albany Law School and author of “Kosher: Private Regulation in the Age of Industrial Food” (Harvard University Press).