BROOKLYN, N.Y. – A short-term shutdown of the United States' largest processor of Kosher chickens this week could have a devastating ripple effect for Americans' Passover Seder meals.
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Empire Kosher, the United States’ single largest kosher poultry producer, closed down production Thursday, just as the pre-Passover rush season is gearing up. At this time of year, when the privately held company is usually adding workdays to its standard Monday through Thursday schedule, even a work stoppage of a few hours can have a long-term effect on output.
“I believe there will be an actual shortage” of kosher chicken for Passover, one source in the heavily Jewish Brooklyn neighborhood of Borough Park said. He asked that his name be withheld due to his prominence within the community.
Ashkenazi Orthodox Jews rely heavily on poultry during Pesach and its many festive meals, making shortage fears more acute. Since Ashkenazim do not eat kitniyot, or legumes, on Passover, and Haredi communities have a custom of not eating fish during the holiday, “during Pesach the only protein is poultry or meat,” the source said, adding that despite the price hike for chicken and other kosher products before Passover, customers would still buy them.
Empire, which produces kosher poultry under several brand names in addition to Empire at its Mifflintown, Penn., plant, plans to return to processing on Monday. The company, which processes about 60,000 chickens a day, controls as much as 60 percent of the market, kosher industry experts say.
Sources differed on the reason for the shutdown.
“Today’s decision not to process is based on approximately half the birds coming in today not meeting the weights customers are looking for,” company spokesperson Elie Rosenfeld said Thursday. While Empire Kosher was expecting to slaughter two or three flocks of 20,000 to 30,000 chickens each, “they decided to hold them until Monday when they will process them,” after the chickens have had another three to four days to grow larger.
Another source, however, said that the plant shut down because too many of the birds have snapped leg tendons, rendering them unfit for kosher consumption. Empire, like all other kosher poultry processors, has in the last couple of years been struggling with large numbers of chickens contracting a reovirus. The virus causes chickens’ tendons to tighten in an arthritis-like condition. And if any one of a chicken’s tightened tendons snaps, according to the kosher principle of tzomet hagiddin, the bird becomes treif.
The problem has increased recently because the poultry industry overall now breeds chickens to quickly grow to desired weights in crowded conditions. Their tendons don’t develop properly and are left vulnerable to tearing, according to an article by Jerusalem Kosher News blog author Yechiel Spira.
The tendon issue peaked at Empire in late January and early February, said Rosenfeld, when “they were seeing larger amounts of flocks with these snapped tendons. It took a number of weeks to figure out how to manage the issue.”
The virus is not monitored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, he said, because it poses no threat to humans. “Nor is it a kashrus issue until it affects the tendon,” Rosenfeld added.
While typically 95 percent of the chickens processed by Empire are deemed fit to sell to the kosher market, in late January and early February the company’s yield decreased to about 90 percent, the spokesman said.
And while it’s a small change in percentage terms, it still adds up to a lot of chickens for a plant that processes tens of thousands of chickens a day. That led to Empire taking the unusual step of selling the affected treif chickens to a non-kosher food service supplier in early February, Rosenfeld said.
The “sweet spot” for chicken production is three weeks before Pesach, Rosenfeld said. That period begins on Monday. Rosenfeld said that Empire plans to re-start production then and process chickens six days a week until the holiday begins on March 25.
Rabbi Menachem Genack, CEO of OU Kashrus, however, dismissed the fears. “I don’t think there will be a shortage of chickens” for Passover because of the Empire shutdown, he said.
But even before Empire Kosher's temporary Thursday shutdown, “there were shortages in the last couple of weeks, since they started checking the tendons,” said the manager of Gourmet Glatt’s meat department, who also asked that his name be withheld. “In high season we were short,” he said. “But there are a couple of other slaughterhouses” to which Gourmet Glatt has turned.
In addition to the Empire label, Empire Kosher produces poultry under different brand names, including Whole Foods’ brand Kosher Valley, and Nirbater, which is a Hasidic hecksher named for the Nirbater Rav. The Nirbater Rav is a Satmar rabbi named Aron Teitelbaum, who “supervises the process and overall systems for all slaughter at the plant,” Rosenfeld said. While for years he had been supervising the Nirbater production line at Empire Kosher, about a year ago the company consolidated that with its non-Hasidic production line into a single process under his oversight.
The Orthodox Union and KAJ also supervise the Empire Kosher slaughterhouse.
Though there are differing opinions on the shutdown’s impact, no one is denying that it is peak kosher chicken season. Fully 40 percent of all the kosher chicken sold in the U.S. each year is sold in the few weeks before Passover, said kosher industry expert Menachem Lubinsky, president and CEO of Brooklyn-based Lubicom Marketing Consulting.
Lubinsky said that chicken sales will peak in another week or two. “People have to clean out their freezers first,” he said. Until then, “a lot more cleaning supplies get sold now than perishable food.”
Still, that doesn't stop community members from being concerned.
When butcher Leon Yerukhimovitch heard that Empire had shut down its plant during the busiest holiday season of the year, his mouth fell open in surprise.
“They’re going to lose a lot of business,” said Yerukhimovitch. “It’s going to affect us too. It’s the worst time of year, with less than a month to Passover.”