More Than Meats the Eye / Is the Steak in the Window Kosher?

One of the central articles in the Kashrut Law states that Israel will only import kosher meat.

In April 1994, Shas made a deal with the Labor Party, which led the government at the time, and together the two pushed through the "Kashrut Law" in the dead of night. It isn't that Labor thought the law was a good idea. But its leaders liked the idea of being in opposition even less, and quailed before the usual Haredi threat - pass the law or they'd bring down the government.

One of the central articles in the Kashrut Law states that Israel will only import kosher meat. Israel's importers subsequently send hundreds of kashrut inspectors - with their families in tow - to slaughterhouses and processing plants around the world.

Eyal Toueg

Their job: to enforce the mitzvah of kosher slaughter.

In parallel with enacting the law, the Knesset agreed to let Palestinian meat importers import halal (the Islamic version of kosher ) meat through Israeli ports. That meat is of course designated for the Palestinian Authority area. But does it actually go there?

In a recent report, the state comptroller wrote that the cost to Palestinian importers of importing refrigerated fresh meat is about 10% of the cost to their Israeli counterparts. What is the reason for that gigantic difference? Two reasons, says the comptroller: the high cost of kosher slaughter abroad, and a 190% tax Israel imposes on imported fresh meat. No such tax is applied to meat imported into the Palestinian Authority.

For instance, a Palestinian importer pays $1.55 per kilo of fresh fillet, while the Israeli importer pays $11.80 for the same cut of meat: 7.6 times more.

The state comptroller translated these eye-popping numbers into enlightening statistics. Out of 35,000 tons of fresh meat unloaded at Israel's ports during 2007 to 2009 for sale in the Palestinian Authority, only 15,600 tons reached their stated destinations. No less than 56% of the amount, or 19,400 tons, "disappeared."

One can guess where it went. "There is concern that the meat was smuggled into Israel and sold to the public without veterinary supervision," State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss wrote. The state loses tax income and people who keep kosher may be unwittingly consuming unkosher meat, Lindenstrauss added.

Stepping up supervision would reduce the scope of smuggling, but not eradicate it. When the temptation is that great, no army of inspectors could stop it entirely. The smuggling methods just get cleverer.

The meat passes from truck to truck en route, drivers change, shipment certificates designating destinations are faked and the meat for Palestinians finds its way to butcher shops in Israel. The recipients stick on labels attesting that the meat is as kosher as kosher can be. Sometimes they fake the labels, sometimes the smugglers buy perfectly authentic kashrut certificates from kashrut inspectors gone bad. In any case this illicitly kosherized meat finds its way to butcher shops throughout the land.

The price of the law pushed through by Shas is being paid by consumers of kosher meat, not least in the Haredi community that Shas serves. On the grounds of their strict adherence to the laws of kashrut, Haredim tend not to buy frozen imported meat: They insist on fresh meat slaughtered locally, or imported fresh meat. But they cannot be sure that the meat they bought really is kosher. Usually the butcher himself doesn't even know.