Meat prices may soar: Proposed USDA rules worry kosher industry

WASHINGTON — Kosher Jews across the country may find it nearly impossible to locate properly prepared meat and poultry if proposed U.S. Department of Agriculture regulations are implemented.

The regulations, designed to reduce disease-causing bacteria in meat and poultry, would affect the salting and rinsing processes, or m'lichah and haddachah, according to rabbinic experts.

The new rules would not affect the ritual slaughter, or shechitah, involved in kashrut.

The proposals' impact on the kosher community "could go anywhere from ending certification to making the meat and poultry scarce and higher priced," said Abba Cohen, director and general counsel of the Washington office of Agudath Israel of America, an Orthodox organization.

"If these regulations make it too difficult for the packing plants to comply with, they just may close up," said Avrom Pollak, president of Star K Kosher Certification.

Star K, based in Baltimore, is an international non-profit organization that certifies food as kosher around the world.

Despite the uproar on the East Coast, none of the Bay Area's four kosher butchers had heard of the proposed regulations. But the potential for a scarcity of meat or higher prices raised concerns among them.

Sam Treistman, manager of Tel Aviv Strictly Kosher Meats in San Francisco's Sunset District, generally orders one quarter-section of a steer each week from Minnesota via a Los Angeles distributor.

"If the prices are going to be raised, I'm worried," he said.

Many customers already don't understand why kosher meat — which undergoes rabbinic supervision, ritual slaughtering, soaking and salting — costs more than non-kosher meat, he said. Kosher beef in the Bay Area, for example, can cost twice as much per pound as non-kosher beef.

If the prices go up much more, Treistman believes many of his store's customers would just stop buying kosher meat, especially those who keep kosher out of a sense of tradition rather than out of strict Orthodox observance.

Dan Keleman, who owns the Willow Glen Kosher Market in San Jose, said he would hope that ritually slaughtered meat could receive some type of religious exemption or accommodation.

"I can see the purpose for [such regulation], but it should be done with common sense also," said Keleman, who sells prepackaged kosher meat from Iowa.

Rabbi Abraham Sultan, spiritual leader of San Francisco's Orthodox Congregation Chevra Thilim, said he's not sure what effect the proposed regulations might have on kosher consumers.

But Sultan considers this situation part of the bigger problem surrounding the lack of "reasonably priced" kosher meat, which he believes already keeps many Jews from buying it. Other countries allow for price controls, for example, which means more Jews can afford to keep kosher.

The USDA's proposed directives, introduced in February, call for washing all meat and poultry in an anti-microbial solution and storing the food below 40 degrees Fahrenheit through the handling, holding and shipping process.

Recent outbreaks of food-borne illnesses prompted the new proposals, according to USDA spokeswoman Jacque Knight.

Depending on how the anti-microbial treatments are applied, the wash could "compromise" the ritual salting and rinsing, Cohen said. This is especially true if the anti-microbial wash must be applied before the salting process can begin, he said.

"There's no halachic [remedy] for that. It would make it impossible to certify kosher meat and poultry," he added.

The temperature provisions could affect the salting and rinsing timetable, Cohen said, putting pressure on those who produce kosher meat and poultry.

According to Jewish law, the rinsing and salting must be performed within 72 hours after the slaughter.

The time required to bring the meat and poultry to below 40 degrees, combined with concerns such as shipping and delivery schedules and slaughters on Fridays or before religious holidays, could pose problems, Cohen said.

There is a broad religious exemption in the 1957 Poultry Products Inspection Act for the methods of slaughtering and processing poultry. However, the regulations that govern the meat industry include only an exemption for the slaughtering process, not for the method of handling the meat afterward.

But because the poultry exemption is granted at the discretion of the USDA secretary, it may not be applicable in this case, Cohen said.

In any case, the new regulations are not yet approved.

The USDA is reviewing a letter from Agudah, along with 6,000 other comments on the proposals from the community at large, as part of the approval process, Knight said.

The department will also hold a public forum on the proposals in Washington, D.C., in September so that people can raise their concerns, she said.

The new regulations are expected to be approved by the USDA, after taking into consideration the public comments, in the beginning of 1996, Knight said.

They will be phased in over a three-year period, and would affect about 6,200 federally inspected U.S. meat and poultry plants.

The regulations also would apply to foreign countries that export their products to the United States.

Cohen said Agudah would like an exemption, but would be satisfied with some sort of accommodation.

"What we're looking for is not necessarily an exemption, but some kind of accommodation so as to accommodate our concerns, even if the USDA finds some other way it can ensure the health and safety of the meat and poultry," he said.

According to Agudah and Star K, the salting process itself cuts down on the presence of bacteria in meat and poultry.

Although USDA scientists have not reviewed that possibility, the department is "open to any proposal they can show us that will meet the safety performance standards," Knight said.

Cohen and Knight appeared optimistic that a compromise could be reached.

"We think the rule is flexible enough that we will be able to meet the goal of food safety and performance standards" without intruding on religious practices, Knight said.

"We have every reason to think they're going to be sensitive to our concerns," Cohen said. "They understand the kosher meat and poultry industry has its own procedures and requirements and that accommodation is sometimes appropriate."