The embattled giant kosher meatpacker Agriprocessors was on the verge of hiring a new CEO this week, one week after its owners and managers were charged by the state with violating child labor laws.
And there were new indications this week that Empire Kosher Poultry, the world’s largest kosher chicken producer, was poised to take on Agriprocessors in the kosher beef business. Empire has been working with the Baltimore-based Star-K, a kosher certifying group, to examine the possibility of opening a meatpacking operation in Wichita, Kan.
Elie Rosenfeld, an Empire spokesman, said his company began exploring this option earlier this year.
“We’re talking to different partners and vendors about how we might build a beef program,” he said.
Avrom Pollak, president of Star-K, said Empire Poultry “made their first production” of beef one day last week in Wichita under a lease arrangement with A.D. Rosenblatt Glatt Kosher Beef.
“It was a start,” Pollak said. “They do plan to become a major player in the [meat] market.”
Rosenfeld insisted, however, that no final decisions have been made.
But one knowledgeable source said it was believed that Empire was looking to get even with Agriprocessors for its decision to start kosher poultry slaughtering, cutting into Empire’s market share.
The decision by Agriprocessors to hire a new CEO at its Postville, Iowa, plant came in response to a demand by the Orthodox Union, its kosher certifier. The OU had threatened to withdraw its services in about two weeks unless the owners agree to hire an outsider as CEO. Agriprocessors has been run as a family affair by owner Aaron Rubashkin.
The move came as rumors spread throughout the kosher food industry that Agriprocessors was in its “death throes,” with little likelihood of lasting until the High Holy Days, according to an industry source.
Since a May 12 raid at the plant when nearly 400 illegal immigrant workers (some underage)— about half the workforce — were arrested, the plant’s operation has been crippled. Despite hiring substitute employees, its meat production has remained at only about half its pre-raid levels, according to Menachem Lubinsky, a company spokesman. That has resulted in kosher beef shortages nationwide.
Meanwhile, the kosher meat shortage is driving up the price of meat. Lubinsky said prices have increased by about 15 percent and that “some retailers are taking advantage and putting a premium on everything they sell.” He said he has heard that prices may jump another 15 percent by the end of the month and the start of the High Holy Days.
Lubinsky said Agriprocessors is trying to fulfill its orders nationwide as best as possible.
Butchers in South Florida and parts of California just got their first delivery in two weeks.
Locally, Jerry Feldwood at Woodbury Kosher Meats in Hicksville, L.I., said that since May the price of meat has jumped as much as $1 a pound.
“It’s very scary,” he said, adding that he has to “beg” his Agriprocessor supplier for product.
“I used to buy $2,000 worth of meat five days a week,” Feldwood said. “Now deliveries come once a week. Instead of getting 10,000 pounds a week, I get about 1,000.”
Rabbi Chaim Schwartz of the Vaad Harabonim of Queens, a kosher supervisory organization, described the kosher meat shortage as “severe” and said that butchers tell him they don’t know when supplies will arrive.
Rabbi Meir Goldberg of the Vaad Harabbannim of Flatbush, said that despite the shortage “shelves are not empty but prices are higher.”
“I don’t remember the last time it’s been this acute,” he said.