Mad for Kosher Beef


“Don’t Get ‘Mad,’ Get Kosher. Kosher Meat Is Safe,” reads an enormous red-and-yellow banner hanging in front of Santa Monica Glatt Market on Santa Monica Boulevard near Sawtelle Boulevard.

Well, maybe not completely safe, but certainly safer from mad cow disease.

“It’s not foolproof 100 percent. It’s more that mad cow is incredibly unlikely to be in the kosher food supply,” said Rabbi Eliezer Eidlitz, founder of the Kosher Information Bureau (kosherquest.com) and a leading national authority in matters of kashrut.

The jury is still out on how the kosher beef industry will be affected by
mad cow – which turned up in a Washington state Holstein in late December. Kosher consumers have not cut back on brisket or corned beef. And while anecdotal evidence from a few retailers suggests a slight increase in the volume of kosher meat being sold, the paranoid masses do not seem to be turning to ritually slaughtered beef to protect themselves from mad cow.

“My sense is that the one in five Americans who said they are somewhat apprehensive about mad cow are not going kosher, they are going to poultry or fish or vegetarian,” said Menachem Lubinsky, president and CEO of Integrated Marketing Services, which tracks the kosher food industry.

That is not stopping purveyors of kosher beef from trying to capitalize on the scare and on the notion that people consider kosher food in general to be more wholesome.

“A lot of people want somebody to watch over their food. They don’t trust the FDA, they don’t trust the government, so they are trusting the Jews,” said Eidlitz, explaining why about one-third of the products on supermarket shelves are certified kosher.

The idea that kosher food is more wholesome may or may not be earned for products like Coors or Oreos, but there might be something to it when it comes to beef.

No kosher beef has tested positive with mad cow, as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) is colloquially called, even during the epidemic in England in the 1990s. One cow with the disease was found in the Golan in Israel in 2002, but it never made it into the food supply. An infected cow can transmit the disease to humans as the variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, a highly debilitating and always fatal brain-wasting disease.

Cattle for a kosher facility are purchased on the open market, and thus may have consumed feed contaminated with bovine protein, thought to be the primary transmitter of BSE. Although including cow parts in cow feed is now illegal in the United States, there are many loopholes through which the banned matter can slip.

While Jewish law technically permits cattle destined for a kosher slaughterhouse to feed on bovine protein, there are several factors that make it highly unlikely that an infected cow would end up in the Shabbos cholent.

Cows must be in excellent health if their beef is to be kosher. Even in a healthy herd, only about 40 percent of the cows end up being kosher.

“There are 24 things that we check for that could make meat nonkosher,” Eidlitz explained. “The primary objective is a very healthy steer, and to get a healthy steer it has to be raised right.”

Kosher cattle are slaughtered young — 18 to 24 months — before they can acquire any illnesses or blemishes that would render them treif (nonkosher). All cases of mad cow have been discovered in cattle over 3 years old (though the prions — the abnormal protein that cause BSE — might be present in an incubative state in younger cattle).

Dairy cows — where most cases of mad cow have appeared — are not used for kosher beef, because during their milk-producing years they have been subjected to lactation-increasing procedures that make them more likely to have a health issue that will disqualify them as kosher meat.

“Downers” — animals that are too sick to walk to the slaughter — have never been considered kosher. The Department of Agriculture’s new regulation banning downers from slaughter for beef (the infected cow in the U.S. herd was a downer) was a moot point for the kosher industry.

Kosher slaughter precludes the use of stun guns to the head, a preslaughter procedure that could loosen and spread brain or nerve matter — where BSE is most likely to reside. The stripping devices used in nonkosher meat processing make it likely that spinal chord or other nerve tissue will end up in ground or processed beef, while kosher processors do not use such mechanisms.

While parts most likely to harbor BSE — such as the brain, sciatic nerve and spinal chord — could technically be kashered, they aren’t in the United States, because the labor and costs are just too high.

“It is not the intent of kashrut, but there are all these ancillary benefits that are incredible,” said Rabbi Asher Brander, who was present at a news conference on the topic held Jan. 12 at The All American Sausage Co. in The Grove.

In another boon to kashrut, the mad cow scare has exposed just how many grocery products have beef in them, even when it is not listed in the ingredients. If something is marked as kosher-pareve, however, you can be certain there is no trace of beef in it.

It’s something those who are severely intolerant of dairy, wheat or gluten have known for a long time, as they look for products that are pareve or kosher for Passover.

“We’re allowed to eat a lot of junk in kosher food — oils and sugars — but at least a person knows what’s in it,” said Eidlitz, who is also the director of development at Emek Hebrew Academy in North Hollywood.

So far, that idea seems to have had only a small effect on the beef industry following the mad cow scare.

A handful of local kosher butchers and markets polled said they had not seen an increase in nonkosher consumers seeking out kosher products.

One exception is Marty Katz, owner of The All-American Sausage Co. He said sales have increased over the past couple of weeks.

“Our hot dogs are pricey compared to a regular hot dog that you can buy for $1.50, but I think people realize that if they are buying a kosher hot dog they are getting something for their money,” Katz said.

Katz estimated that about 90 percent of his customers do not keep kosher, a figure that has been a key to his success.

In fact, business has been so good that Katz is opening up a stand this month in The Village at Moorpark in Thousand Oaks, next month in Fashion Square in Sherman Oaks and soon in Century City. He hopes to have 20 gourmet sausage stands, all certified kosher, in the next few years.

Of course, if the mad cow furor gets any worse than it is now, people who have gotten a quick and not-so-pleasant education in the meat industry might opt for something even safer than keeping kosher — vegetarianism.

The Orthodox Union will present a new kosher awareness program on Feb. 7 at Congregation Mogen David, 10:45 a.m., and at Shaarey Tefilla Synagogue, 8:15 p.m; and on Feb. 8 at the Yeshiva of Los Angeles, Sephardic Beit Midrash, 10 a.m. For more information, please call (310) 229-9000 ext. 3.

Bye-Bye Buys


In the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the resulting weak economy and high unemployment have been affecting Los Angeles Jewish businesses in a variety of ways.

There are no official statistics yet, but a random sampling of local businesses revealed that many have experienced a drastic drop in business. Others have seen an increase in the sale of certain items. All are watching the market closely.

“A lot of people are in danger of going out of business. The small entrepreneur running small profit margins is vulnerable,” said Claudia Finkel, vice president of Programs and Services for Jewish Vocational Service, a beneficiary agency of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. “All you have to do is look down Wilshire or San Vicente and see lots of ‘for lease’ signs. That signifies loss of jobs. Those people are no longer going out to lunch or to the dry cleaners. It’s a neighborhood ripple effect.”

Consumers are watching their pocketbooks, even if both husband and wife are employed and maintaining their income levels. Major purchases, such as travel plans or a new car, are being put on hold, and going out to dinner means a less pricey restaurant than they might normally go to.

“They may be feeling anxious watching the changes in the economy,” Finkel said. “There’s no question in my mind that things will get better, but in the meantime, all of these businesses are at risk and will continue to be if things keep going the way they are.”

In the food sector, the prognosis is mixed, with most seeing a marked decline. At Pico Kosher Deli, on Pico, the lunch and dinner crowd has been holding steady, said waitress Elizabeth Panamino. But down the street at Little Jerusalem, sales are usually slower after the High Holy Day rush, but not by this much, manager Avraham Shamoil said.

“Business is down, for sure, by maybe 40 percent. I think it’s a combination of people scared to come out and not wanting to spend money when things are unsure,” Shamoil said.

Simon Elmaleh, owner of Simon’s Cafe, in Encino, believes that part of the reason his business is down by almost 50 percent is because it is a Mediterranean restaurant.

“There may be some fear. Maybe people will go to what they see as the safest place. They are also watching what they’re spending. They are worried about the future,” Elmaleh said.

On the catering side, things are slow as well, although weddings and bar and bat mitzvahs remain on schedule.

“People are still having events, but I think they are a little bit more cost-conscious, perhaps not spending as much as they have in the past,” said Kim Cartaino, director of hotel sales for the Warner Center Marriott Hotel, in Woodland Hills.

Loss of corporate business for local caterers has been staggering, amounting to hundreds of thousands of dollars, according to Joann Roth-Oseary, owner of Someone’s in the Kitchen, in Tarzana. Immediately after Sept. 11, 13 corporate events were canceled.

“My kind of business is hard hit because people don’t have to have a party. Everyone’s struggling: musicians, florists, limo services,” said Roth-Oseary, who does a lot of work for the entertainment industry. “We’re scrambling to try to hold everything together. But we’re Jews, so we’re tough. We cannot lay down to this. We have to pick ourselves up and go on.”

When the Emmy Awards were twice-canceled and rescheduled on a smaller scale, Michael Stern, the president of Regal Rents, Inc., in El Segundo, one of the largest party rental businesses in the country, saw his biggest job disappear. The wedding and b’nai mitzvah business has remained intact, he said, but a large part of his business, which comes from the studios, has been slow.

“Things are uncertain at the moment because who knows what’s going to happen next, but it’s definitely getting better,” Stern said. “In my experience with recessions, the first thing people do when they start feeling better is to go to sporting events and have parties.”

With Chanukah quickly approaching, there is hope that customers will return for what is traditionally one of the busiest sales seasons for many Jewish businesses. Some businesses are coming up with imaginative incentives to entice reluctant shoppers. At Abi’s Judaica, in Agoura Hills and Tarzana, business has slowed by about 50 percent. Manager Bobbi Benjamin came up with the idea to donate 5 percent of store sales, from the 11th of each month, to the families of victims of the terrorist attacks. She also asked the owner of the Agoura Hills strip mall where Abi’s Judaica is located to match the store’s donation.

“It would give us one special day each month where we could relate to what happened and feel like we’re making a difference,” Benjamin said. “The owners of these strip malls have to come up with something to help us, especially going into the holiday season.”

Kosher Take-Out in Encino was struggling even before Sept. 11, but business does seem to be worse than before, according to owner Yossi Rabinov. To boost sales, Rabinov has begun to sell family packages for Shabbat dinner, entire meals including everything from challah to dessert.

“The mood around is that everything is slow, including Jewish business,” Rabinov said. “I had the idea for the Shabbat packages even before all of this was going on, but maybe this will help,” he said.

Other businesses have noticed a change in what customers are buying. At Shalom House Fine Judaica, in Woodland Hills, owner David Cooperman has seen an increase in purchases of home-based activity items including Shabbat kiddush cups and challah trays. Books on basic Judaism and Bibles have also been in demand.

“I think people are going back to their roots, looking for some spirituality in these uncertain times,” Cooperman said.

At Atara’s Hebrew Book & Gift Center on Fairfax, sales of the Torah, Zohar, Chumash and Talmud, have been brisk, among both Jews and non-Jews.

“We’re seeing a lot of interest in Judaism,” said a salesperson named Devora who declined to give her last name. “We’re seeing more newly religious people, but also Spanish and Chinese customers coming in to buy the ‘Tanakh.'”

Some stores have served as meeting places for support and comfort. In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, customers came in to talk.

“Several friends called on me to close the store on Sept. 11. But as a Jewish store, it was important to stay open. This is what Israel lives through everyday and their stores stay open. I got a tremendous amount of support, with people coming in and hugging each other,” said Tina Oberman, owner of Gallery Judaica, on Westwood Boulevard.

It has been the same at Shalom House Fine Judaica.

“Customers are running into friends and family here, coming into the store to talk, kibitz,” Cooperman said.

One business owner suggests that the loss of business is media inspired.

“There’s a way of reporting something and making it worse,” said Simon Rutberg, owner of Hatikvah Music International on Fairfax Avenue. “Instead, we should look at what we’re not stopping doing as a result of everything that’s going on and give people hope.”

Out of Dough


America’s largest bagel chain finds itself in the hole.
The Einstein/Noah Bagel Corp., which owns 539 bagel shops across the United States, announced last month that it won’t be able to pay off a $125 million debt and may haveto shut down unless it finds new financing. Other bagel makers are in similar straits, victims partly of overexpansion but mainly of changing American tastes, according to the Los Angeles Times.

The popularity of bagels took off about a decade ago, when health and weight-conscious consumers soughta substitute for the high-fat doughnut. An average sized plain bagel has only 1 gram of fat but 300 calories compared to a chocolate glazed doughnut’s 14 grams of fat and 260 calories.

bagels

Shawn Kearns, manager of research for Einstein Bros. Bagels in Golden, Colo., inspects a batch of freshly baked beauties. As supermarkets, doughnut chains and coffeehouses offer bagels and consumers quit worrying about fat grams, bagel bakery chains are finding themselves with more storesdoing less business.

With booming economic times, however, and few signs that past diet regimens have notably slimmed theAmerican figure, consumers are ready to live it up, say the experts. “Americans are either tired of experts telling them what’s good or bad for them, or they’re just too tired to care,” notes the Times.Giving weight to the analysis is the fact that while Noah shut down 14 of its stores last year, doughnut chains such as Krispy Kreme and Winchell’s are opening up new locations at a record pace.

To some extent, the chain’s stores became victims of their own success, with convenient supermarkets, doughnut shops, and coffee joints like Starbucks jumping in and offering bagels to their customers.The company was formed in March 1995 through the combination of four leading regional bagel retailers Brackman Brothers Bagel Bakery in Salt Lake City, Bagel & Bagel in Kansas City, Offerdahl’s BagelGourmet in Fort Lauderdale and Baltimore Bagel Co. of San Diego.