Although food prices have remained relatively steady in recent years, kosher food prices have soared — 6 percent in the last year alone, according to surveys conducted by the city Department of Consumer Affairs.
A price comparison of 17 kosher foods surveyed by the department in March 1992 and again in February found that the price of several of items rose significantly. The price of gefilte fish sold in Manhattan supermarkets, for example, rose 22 percent while the price of mayonnaise jumped 38 percent. Apple cider vinegar nearly doubled in price; cottage cheese rose one-third.
In contrast, the Department of Consumer Affairs’ Thanksgiving surveys taken from 1992 through 1997 found only a 5.8 percent increase in the price of eight popular items. And the Consumer Price Index released in January found a one-year increase in food prices of only 2.2 percent.
“This is real troubling news for kosher consumers,” said the commissioner of the Department of Consumer Affairs, Jules Polonetsky.
The kosher food industry is now a $3 billion a year business. Industry sources say business is growing 10 percent annually.
“It seems that for some manufacturers or stores, the more the kosher market has increased, the higher prices go,” Polonetsky said. “That is a disappointing trend to see.”
He said his office is now watching supermarkets and kosher butcher shops to see if they pass along a price increase Empire Kosher Chicken has announced for the Passover season.
“We are looking closely at the retail price of chicken and meat products, and if it is the distributor who is responsible [for price hikes], we want to point to the real culprits,” said Polonetsky.
Assemblyman Dov Hikind (D-Brooklyn) said he spoke with the president of Empire, David Wiggins, about the company’s practice of raising prices by as much as 25 cents per pound each year before Passover.
“When I asked him if he could keep the prices down, he basically said this is when we make our money,” recalled Hikind. “He said he had slow months and that this was the time of year for him to produce a profit for his investors. He was very honest.”
Hikind said that a number of kosher shop owners showed him notices of price increases from Empire effective March 16. The price of chicken cutlets was raised 25 cents per pound, and the price of broilers was hiked 10 cents.
“If it is not illegal,” Hikind said, “it’s immoral. Empire controls the [chicken] market. It’s unconscionable.”
Some shop owners have absorbed the increases, but Hikind said that those who pass them along to customers especially will hurt those living on Social Security or with large families.
Polonetsky said the only thing he could do about such price hikes was to publicize them when they occur.
Hikind and Polonetsky both said consumers should shop where there is increased competition. Hikind said this is true in such areas as Borough Park and Flatbush in Brooklyn.
“Every store is competing [for customers],” the state lawmaker said. “I went into a place on 13th Avenue and found that apple juice was cheaper than normal.
“Shop around, there are many opportunities to save money. We’re not talking cents but many, many dollars.”
Polonetsky said that for many years his department has been conducting surveys of kosher-for-Passover products several weeks before the holiday, then a week before to check if there has been any holiday price gauging. There has not been, he said, because the “survey has more or less effectively made sure merchants don’t use the pre-Passover shopping rush as an excuse to jack up prices.”
His office has made up cards containing the prices of 31 popular items for Passover. Prices of these items were checked at 50 stores in all five boroughs. Among the items were 10 cuts of meat and four types of fish, including carp and whitefish.
Shoppers in Manhattan will pay the most for items in the department’s 18-item market basket, which includes eggs, sugar, butter, salad dressing and applesauce. Their holiday basket will cost $42.19, a 5 percent increase over last year.
The same items bought in supermarkets in boroughs outside of Manhattan registered a 4 percent price hike.The largest jump for these 18 items occurred for items bought at independent grocers, where the average cost rose to $37.78 — a 9 percent increase.
Kosher meat prices rose 3 percent in the last year. Fish actually declined by the same percentage.
To obtain a copy of the price survey for hundreds of kosher-for-Passover foods, write to the Department of Consumer Affairs, 42 Broadway, New York, NY 10004.