Agriprocessors supervisor arrested in Israel


A former supervisor of the Agriprocessors kosher meatpacking plant in Iowa was arrested in Israel.

Hosam Amara, 46, was indicted in 2009 on federal charges of fraud and immigration abuses. He is accused of some of the worst worker abuses at the now defunct plant in Postville, according to the Des Moines Register. In 2008, the plant was the site of what at the time was the largest immigration enforcement action in American history.

Extradition proceedings against Amara will begin in Israel on May 2, according to the newspaper.

Amara, who was arrested March 31 and remains jailed, is charged with one count of conspiracy to harbor undocumented aliens for profit; 24 counts of harboring and aiding and abetting the harboring of undocumented aliens for profit; one count of conspiracy to commit document fraud; and one count of aiding and abetting document fraud.

He faces up to 260 years in prison and $6.75 million in fines if convicted, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

Agriprocessors executive Sholom Rubashkin was convicted in 2009 on 86 counts of fraud related to his management of the plant and later sentenced to 27 years in federal prison. He remains in prison while his case is under appeal.

Kosherfest 2008 is heaven on earth for foodies


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Business could not have been better for Ilan Parente, owner of Solomon’s Finest Kosher Meats, the only fresh meat supplier at this year’s Kosherfest 2008, the international kosher food and food service trade show.

Held Nov. 11 and 12 at the Meadowlands Exposition Center in New Jersey, Kosherfest (photo, above) offered exciting new foods and kosher innovations, but also reflected the difficulties in the kosher industry brought about by the growing meat shortage.

With the recent collapse of Agriprocessors, the United States’ leading meat supplier, many businesses came to Kosherfest to find solutions to their empty shelves.

One such restaurateur, Marc Epstein, came to Kosherfest to find more meat and cheese sources. Epstein, who owns Milk Street Café in Boston, was frustrated by the lack of options. “Choice is good, and there is no choice,” he lamented. Epstein also attributed the problem to increased stringencies of the rabbinic establishment over the years.

Parente, on the other hand, who specializes in natural meat products, was reaping the rewards. Traveling to Kosherfest from Dawson, Minn., Parente had been inundated with buyers. They’re under “tremendous pressure,” he said, “trying to get Klal Yisrael as much meat as we can.” Parente’s company sells beef, bison, lamb and elk meat, uses no antibiotics on their animals and feeds them an “all-vegetarian diet.”

Kosherfest was also celebrating its 20th anniversary at a new location in New Jersey (rather than the Javits Center in Manhattan, where it has been held in recent years). The change notwithstanding, regular exhibitors and attendees said it felt like business as usual.

Celebrity Jewish chef Jeff Nathan (“they call me the ‘Jewish Emeril'”), who owns the kosher restaurant, Abigael’s, on Broadway near Times Square in Manhattan, said Kosherfest 2008 seemed on par with previous years.

“Jersey is a little more laid back, that’s why I live here,” he said. Nathan did notice “a little leaning toward lighter and healthier” foods at the show, something he has been hoping to see more of. Some examples included a number of new gluten-free products, soy nut butter — as a peanut butter substitute — and many desserts advertised as “trans-fat free.”

The event continued to be international in flavor, bringing together kosher food purveyors, caterers and distributors from more than 28 countries. Attendees traveled from as far away as Turkey, South Africa, Italy, Panama and Israel and as close to home as Los Angeles, Chicago and New Jersey.

Rabbi Gershon Finesilver, who attended the event on behalf of the London Beit Din (LBD), called the event “amazing.” It was the London-based rabbi’s first time staffing a Kosherfest booth and he likened the event (and the concomitant sampling) to “a very large Kiddush. You’re nibbling all day.”

In addition to educating American consumers about the LBD’s role in supervising ingredients across Europe and Asia, the LBD was showing off its newest heksher, a slightly curvier design than it had before, with a hint of Asian flair. Finesilver said the new design had been in use for a couple of years, even if Americans might not have seen it.

Each year Kosherfest organizers hold a competition for the best new kosher-certified products. This year, Zelda’s Sweet Shoppe of Skokie, Ill., took top honors with a “Southern Pecan Pie.” Zelda’s pie won the Best in Show award, the prize for best dessert, the prize for best packaging design and the prize for best snack food (for its caramel corn series).

After racking up so many awards, Zelda Neiman, the company’s matriarch, couldn’t help but stand at her booth beaming. “The show itself is amazing [as well as] a little overwhelming,” she said.

Neiman, who keeps kosher, said she enjoyed seeing all of the kosher-certified products at the show. She had been planning to come to the event before as an attendee but it just never happened. Then, as a first-time exhibitor, her company won the top awards; “Nothing could be better,” she said.

Other award-winners included Bella Baby organic frozen baby food, which won the prize for best new organic product; Kedem All Natural Premium grape juice for best new beverage, and Davida Aprons & Logo Programs, Inc. for best new food service product — a baby bib that reads, “I’m not crying, I’m davening.”

Exhibitor Linda Hausberg of Brentwood, who founded Linda’s Gourmet Latkes, was attending Kosherfest for the first time. Hausberg called herself a “PTA mom” who started her business after watching her homemade latkes sell out at a fundraising event for her kids. She launched her product at Vicente Foods and now sells her frozen latkes at Whole Foods around the country.

Other highlights of this year’s Kosherfest included a sushi-making competition that pitted sushi chefs from Eden Wok, Milk N’ Honey NYC, Glatt A La Carte and Simply Sushi Café against one another for the title of best sushi. Simply Sushi of Monticello, N.Y., took the prize for best presentation, taste and creativity.

But for many, Kosherfest is all about sampling the food. From a rose-flavored fruit juice to spicy turkey jerky and tomato-basil risotto, and from mouth-watering Danish blue cheese and chocolate crepes to elk-meat sausages, the show was a kosher gastronome’s dream come true. There was also a kosher Scotch by Speyside (for those who need a heksher on their liquor), freestanding vending machines with hot food available in minutes by Kosher Vending Industries, a kosher gelatin (courtesy of Kolatin), parve ice cream bonbons by Nestlé and nougat by Sally Williams (a South African favorite).

Rachelle Lewis of Beverly Hills might as well have been in heaven: “This is so exciting,” she exclaimed; “It’s fabulous!” Lewis works for Grocers Media, Inc., which markets new products with promotions inside supermarkets that use a barcode system. Though she’s been to many different food shows, she said this year’s Kosherfest was “one of the best.”

As someone who keeps kosher, the event was particularly exciting — “It’s uplifting to see so many upscale [products],” Lewis said. She particularly enjoyed some fresh Israeli pita she had tried with falafel as well the Oxygen-brand sauces and glazes. “They have a bottled charosets that I couldn’t imagine would taste good. But it does!”

Agriprocessors closed — now where’s the beef?


NEW YORK (JTA)–A supermarket in New Jersey with a large kosher section has shelves nearly empty of kosher beef. In New York, a kosher steakhouse says its customers are canceling reservations because choice cuts aren’t always available. And the nation’s largest kosher meat producer, reportedly besieged by new orders, is turning away new customers.

The kosher meat market is in a tailspin as production at the Agriprocessors’ meatpacking plant in Postville, Iowa, which had been operating at a fraction of its normal capacity since May, finally ground to a halt this week. The company, whose meat was sold under the labels Rubashkin’s and Aaron’s Best, among others, filed for bankruptcy Nov. 4.

“What I’m hearing all over the country is that one day you can get poultry in some places, one day you can get brisket, the next day you can’t get pastrami,” said Menachem Lubinsky, the publisher of Kosher Today and a former consultant to Agriprocessors. “People are being very innovative in how they’re getting their products.”

Though Agriprocessors officials say they hope to reopen the plant later this week, trouble has long been brewing in Postville and savvy industry folks began looking for alternatives months ago.

In the wake of a federal immigration raid in Postville on May 12, meat buyers began shifting their purchases to other companies, which have struggled to meet the increased demand. Alle Processing, a New York City kosher meat supplier that has become the largest in the United States with the collapse of Agriprocessors, has had to place a moratorium on new customers, according to several industry insiders.

Retailers and restaurants who already had relationships with other suppliers have fared the best, though many report only a portion of their orders are being filled. Those who were more dependent on Agriprocessors are finding themselves in real trouble.

At Heinin’s, a specialty foods supermarket in the greater Cleveland area, the shelves have been without kosher meat for months. A buyer for the company told JTA his efforts to locate an alternative are not going well. An Albertson’s supermarket in the Dallas area also was bereft of beef on Monday.

“I just got back from the supermarket and there was absolutely none,” said kosher consumer Shalom Abrams. “Normally they have an 8-foot section of kosher meat.”

At the ShopRite in Livingston, N.J., on Sunday, the shelves were teeming with glatt kosher beef and lamb from Solomon’s and chicken from Empire Kosher Poultry, which announced this week it would be increasing production by 50 percent beginning Nov. 24. One town over, in West Orange, the situation was vastly different: The most plentiful item in the kosher beef display was the Rubashkin’s signage.

“Overall, it’s a lot less selection,” said Michelle Amin, shopping at the West Orange ShopRite. “For the community who’s here to have this kind of empty shelf, it’s crazy.”

Even large retailers with multiple supply options say their orders are not being fully filled.

Yakov Yarmove, who purchases kosher meat for the Supervalu chain, which operates more than 2,400 stores across the country, estimates he’s getting about 90 percent of what he needs. Several other large supermarket chains with reported supply disruptions did not respond to requests for comment.

Michael Schreiber, the owner of East Side Kosher Deli in Denver and a supplier of kosher meat to customers in seven Rocky Mountain states, told JTA he would have been “in deep trouble” if he had relied solely on Agriprocessors. As it is, he is struggling to keep up his stocks.

“I may order 500 pounds of a certain primal cut for my guys to then break and I may only get 300 pounds, but I am getting the product,” Schreiber said. “Are my stocks as deep as normal? No, not hardly. But I can keep customers in product.”

The decline of Agriprocessors placed fish and poultry center stage last week at Kosherfest, the annual kosher food trade show held Nov. 11-12 at the Meadowlands Exposition Center in New Jersey. While purveyors of kosher poultry and fish were abundant, including many first-time exhibitors from North America and abroad, there were only a handful of meat producers, and those few were besieged by buyers desperate for supplies. None of the major kosher meat producers were there: no Agriprocessors, no International Glatt, no Alle.

With their finances in ruins, Agriprocessors has been courting outside investors and rumors were rife at the show as to who might buy the company’s facility in Postville. Names floated most often were Empire and Alle, as well as the non-kosher giant ConAgra. Costco and Sam’s Club have both reportedly expressed interest.

Empire representatives say the company has investigated the possibility of entering the kosher beef market but has made no decisions. But Empire’s announcement that it plans to expand production of chicken is widely hoped to alleviate pressure on the kosher poultry supply at a crucial moment–the week of Thanksgiving.

“Empire is proud to be able to step up to the plate and be sure that consumers throughout the United States have easy access to kosher poultry at their local supermarkets and butcher shops,” Greg Rosenbaum, Empire’s chairman and CEO, said in a news release. “We are extremely grateful for the cooperation of our kosher certifying agencies, the OU, KAJ and Star-K, as well as the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, to make this rapid expansion possible.”

On Monday, Agriprocessors executives appeared in bankruptcy court in New York where they met their lender, First Bank Business Capital of St. Louis. First Bank initiated foreclosure proceedings against the company for defaulting on a $35 million loan.

According to a report in the Des Moines Register, First Bank had sought a total freeze on spending until Agriprocessors cleared up its debts. The company responded that a freeze would force it to cease all operations. A judge appointed a trustee to oversee the case, and a company spokesperson told the Register that the details would be worked out this week. The company hopes to resume poultry production on Thursday.

In an unrelated legal setback for Agriprocessors, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear its case against the National Labor Relations Board, according to a report in the industry publication Meatingplace. A lower court had rejected the company’s argument that a union vote at its Brooklyn warehouse was invalid because its workers were illegal immigrants and therefore not entitled to organize.

Agriprocessors did not respond to requests for comment.

For kosher beef, problems are likely to remain–a fact that has sparked interest from companies as far afield as Australia. Ephraim Nagar, the owner of Talia’s Steakhouse on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, told JTA he had received an e-mail from a company gauging interest in kosher meat exports from Down Under.

For Nagar, who used to get all his supply from Agriprocessors, any new product would be an enormous relief. Other suppliers have declined to deal with him because he was not a regular customer. To acquire beef, he has had to send drivers to outer borough warehouses, driving up his costs. Some customers are calling in advance to find out if the restaurant has the specialty items for which it is known.

“Assuming they made a reservation of, let’s say a table of 10,” Nagar said, “two or three people are eager to eat these bison buffalo or the baby lamb rack, and if we do not have that, they cancel the reservation.”

(JTA correspondent Sue Fishkoff contributed to this report.)



Troubles at meat plants prompt increased fear of kosher beef shortages


NEW YORK (JTA) — With the kosher meat producer Agriprocessors facing mounting financial problems, and a fire-related shutdown at another major kosher producer, industry insiders say major supply disruptions are inevitable, and kosher consumers should brace themselves for some rough times.

Agriprocessors in the past week or so has endured a cascade of awful news. First, Iowa’s labor commissioner hit the company with nearly $10 million in fines for alleged wage violations. Then, the son of the company’s founder was arrested on charges that he helped purchase false identification for the company’s illegal workers. And on Oct. 31, news broke that a St. Louis bank had initiated foreclosure proceedings after Agriprocessors and its owners defaulted on a $35 million loan.

Kosher industry insiders are predicting that the company will not pull through. Company officials did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Meanwhile, production at the nation’s third-largest slaughterhouse, North Star Beef in Minnesota, has ground to a halt after a fire, the Forward reported Monday. Also according to the newspaper, a smaller Agriprocessors plant in Gordon, Neb., stopped operating in October.

Short-term disruptions in the supply of kosher meat, particularly kosher and glatt kosher beef, are now virtually guaranteed. Rabbi Menachem Genack, the head of kosher supervision for the Orthodox Union, said he already has heard from communities that have no supply.

“There is going to be a sharp decline in availability immediately,” said Genack, adding that the company is trying to survive but that the situation is grim.

Some kosher markets have not felt the crunch, among them Daryl Schwarz, owner of Kosher Club on Pico Boulevard in Los Angeles, a full-service kosher supermarket under RCC supervision. “I’m not having any problems yet,” Schwarz said. “It’s a little early to see what happens. I have plenty of product.”

Farzad Kohanzadeh, co-owner of Livonia Glatt Mart, has so far experienced a steady flow of meat, in part because he deals with a variety of suppliers who meet the approval of their kashrut supervising body, the Rabbinical Council of California (RCC). “Eventually it will affect us, but right now it has not.”

Those who have stricter kosher supervision have been more hard hit. Albert Zadeh, one of three owners at Pico Glatt Mart on Pico Boulevard in Los Angeles, has experienced some shortages, particularly with special cuts of beef. “We’ve been in business for 17 years, but it has never been like this. The cases were always full of meat.

“Because we are under Kehilla [kashrut] supervision, we can’t get a different brand of meat,” he said, adding that Agriprocessors has raised the prices three to four times in the last five months. Last week, to keep up, Pico Glatt raised the price of every meat and chicken item by 29 cents per pound.

Avraham Shamoil, owner of Little Jerusalem on Pico Boulevard and La Peer Drive for 30 years, has also experienced a shortage. His meat falls under Crown Heights kashrut supervision, which he says is even stricter than Kehilla. Quantities don’t reach Los Angeles as they used to.

“Basically we cannot get enough meat, chicken, turkey,” Shamoil told The Journal. “It’s been very difficult for us. We’ve been dealing with [Rubashkin] for years, and now we cannot get.”

Agriprocessors representatives have had virtually nothing to say publicly over the past week as they faced a succession of ominous developments. But Bernard Feldman, the New York tax attorney hired in September as the company’s new chief executive officer, offered one stark prediction to the Des Moines Register.

“I don’t believe we’re going to have substantial production of any kind in the near future,” Feldman said in Monday’s edition.

Agriprocessors has been reeling since May 12, when federal authorities conducted what at the time was the largest immigration raid in U.S. history in Postville, arresting nearly half the company’s workforce. The company’s troubles have only intensified in the last week.

In addition to the foreclosure by First Bank of St. Louis and the arrest of Sholom Rubashkin, the staffing company responsible for approximately half of the labor at the Postville plant suspended its contract. Beef production has been shut down for several days. And reports out of Postville suggest that the company lacks the resources to slaughter and process the chickens in its possession, though some chicken slaughtering reportedly is taking place.

A federal judge placed the company in temporary receivership after First Bank filed a lawsuit alleging that Agriprocessors and its owners defaulted on a $35 million loan. The lawsuit demands the return of the bank’s collateral — a category that includes “virtually all” of the owners’ personal property as well as the company’s accounts receivable, inventory and proceeds.

Agriprocessors also has received a power disconnect notice, the Des Moines Register reported. The company’s electric utility, Alliant Energy, reportedly is working with the company to work out a payment plan. Meanwhile, a relative of the company’s owners has issued a call for the Jewish community to donate funds to help save the company.

Kosher industry insiders, including Agriprocessors’ competitors, uniformly believe that the company’s collapse would be a disaster for the country’s kosher meat supply. Agriprocessors has been a pioneer in the industrial-scale production of kosher beef, and in many smaller Jewish communities its products are the only kosher ones available.

“For the kosher marketplace, there’s no question there’s going to be short-term shortages of kosher and glatt kosher meat and poultry,” said Elie Rosenfeld, a spokesman for Empire Kosher, a poultry producer. “The industry overnight cannot pick up the decreased level of volume that Agriprocessors has been doing over the last couple of months.”

Rosenfeld said his client continues to see growing demand for its product, but he would not comment on reports that Empire has been exploring opportunities to begin producing kosher beef.

Harris reported from New York for Jewish Telegraphic Agency. Jewish Journal contributor Orit Arfa contributed to this article.