A local rabbi is using his Facebook page to urge the Jewish community to boycott several local kosher supermarkets, alleging they and their suppliers are involved in a “scheme of price fixing” over the cost of kosher fish and meat, including cow tongue.
In a Sept. 14 post, Rabbi Netanel Louie, founder and director of Hebrew Discovery Center in Woodland Hills, said the recent price of kosher cow tongue “has exceeded a ridiculous $20 per pound in certain stores.” Louie also called for Los Angeles rabbis and local Jews to “boycott buying meat from all kosher markets in L.A. until prices drop.”
Most Iranian Jews consume cow tongue as a Rosh Hashanah siman, or sign to be “at the head and not the tail,” according to a passage in Deuteronomy.
Asked if he has verifiable evidence of price fixing, Louie said he knows people who can confirm it but declined to identify them.
Louie did not mention specific stores, but at least two are selling tongue at $19.99 per pound, citing low supply. At Elat Market on Pico Boulevard, a representative of the meat department, who asked not to be identified, said although he understood customer frustration, his distributors “don’t always have the supply. And when they do have it, they usually give it to clients who purchase more of it during the course of the year.”
Cow tongue has sold at lower prices at other times of the year.
Glatt Mart, also on Pico, claims to have lowered the costs of beef and chicken to make products more affordable during the Jewish High Holy Days. Elat Market says it has done the same.
Representatives from both stores offered to make their recent invoices of tongue purchases from suppliers available to the public to demonstrate that they have not engaged in price fixing.
Meir Davidpour, a partner at Glatt Mart, called Louie’s allegations “false” and said they could be challenged “in a legal manner.”
Glatt Mart co-partner Aaron Nourollah said the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has cut imports from what they claim to be “any inside parts of the animal, such as tongue, liver, and brain,” particularly from Uruguay and Costa Rica. One of Glatt Mart’s primary meat suppliers, a company that asked not to be identified, also claimed that there is a “major shortage” of cow tongue available this year.
USDA import-export representatives could not be reached for comment.
Drew Alyeshmerni Leach, 32, a resident of San Pedro who runs an educational nonprofit, said she drove three hours round-trip last week to the Pico-Robertson area to purchase Glatt kosher cow tongue for Rosh Hashanah. An Iranian married to an Ashkenazi Jew, she said she enjoys sharing Persian-Jewish customs with her husband and his family.
“When I took the tongue off the shelf, my heart sunk — the tongues were priced at $40 to $50 [whole] or even more! Performing a mitzvah shouldn’t have to be a luxury,” she said. Instead of tongue, Alyeshmerni Leach bought a package of turkey necks for $6.
“We are hosting our very first Rosh Hashanah as a married couple and I’m sad that because of the high price, I won’t be able to continue this Persian tradition with my husband as we build our new home together,” she said.
Eman Esmailzadeh, a 35-year-old entrepreneur from Westwood, said he has decided to adopt the Ashkenazi custom of displaying a fish head at his family’s Rosh Hashanah table this year.
“To my dismay, there are many that take Rabbi Louie’s claims of price fixing as another reason to bash kashrut altogether. The fact is that if you truly want to be kosher, you could keep kosher without ever buying a pound of meat,” he said.
Louie and representatives from Elat Market and Glatt Mart are expressing concern that the controversy will deter many Jews from adhering to kosher meat standards.
“When I took the tongue off the shelf, my heart sunk — the tongues were priced at $40 to $50 [whole] or even more! Performing a mitzvah shouldn’t have to be a luxury.”
“Such shameful actions over greed for money are examples of what perpetuate the community to wrongly criticize Judaism and in some cases even stop eating kosher,” Louie said on Facebook, adding in an interview, “It has to be very clear to the community that in no shape or form does boycotting kosher meat mean that they are encouraged or allowed to purchase nonkosher meat. All it means is do not eat meat for a short amount of time till the industry feels the pain and regulates itself.”
At Glatt Mart, Nourollah says that rather than high prices, accusations of corruption such as those by Louie are deterrents that turn people away from kosher practice.
Louie, who says he has received “99.99 percent positive feedback” for his call to boycott, is open to speaking with both markets and distributors. He would, however, like the supermarkets and distributors to agree “to an open audit of their books.”
He also is passionate about reminding Iranian Jews that enjoying cow tongue on Rosh Hashanah is only a custom and not a formal halachah, or Jewish law.
“I must inform the community that there is no halachic obligation, neither from the Torah or the Rabbis, to eat cow tongue on Rosh Hashanah,” according to his Facebook statement. Louie has encouraged Iranian Jews to display fish heads, instead. “If you can’t afford it [tongue], don’t buy it.”
Sam Yebri, a 36-year-old attorney from Westwood and board member of Builders of Jewish Education and the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles, also has joined the boycott.
“To me, the issue is not about allegations of price fixing, price gouging or supply-and-demand economics, and it certainly goes beyond cow’s tongue,” Yebri said. “I am hopeful that this debate reflects a tipping point for the Jewish community. The crisis of affordability of Jewish life is real and is as serious a threat to the future of American Jewry as any our people face, anti-Semitism and assimilation included.”