“Personally, I eat kosher,” says Abir Kara, the deputy minister of economic reforms at the Prime Minister’s Office. “I travel all over the world and eat meat certified as kosher by the [New York-based] Orthodox Union. Why is it that only in Israel this kashrut standard isn’t good enough?”
Kara has become famous over the last two weeks as yet another Knesset member from Naftali Bennett’s Yamina party who could knock his governing coalition out of power, giving Kara great bargaining power. He plans to leverage this to promote reforms dear to his heart, including greater competition in the meat industry.
But there’s an obstacle: the Chief Rabbinate. Under current law, nonkosher meat can’t be imported, and it’s doubtful there’s demand for it in Israel anyway. But the definition of kosher meat is very narrow, covering only meat certified by the Israeli rabbinate.
Foreign kosher certificates aren’t valid in Israel – not even those of the Orthodox Union, the world’s largest organization for certifying food as kosher. So meat declared kosher by the Orthodox Union in the United States can’t be imported to Israel unless it’s also approved by kashrut supervisors trained by Israel’s rabbinate.
The rabbinate’s approval has two stages. First, it grants approval to an overseas slaughterhouse. This means supervisors from the rabbinate have to go abroad to inspect the site. This can take a long time, but it’s the easy part of the process.
The second stage is the day-to-day butchering. This happens overseas – in Poland, France, Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay – but the butchers are Israelis who abide by the strictest kashrut standard (known as mehadrin).
This means that teams of nine to 20 butchers are flown abroad for two to five months. Their expenses are paid for by the importers and they receive salaries in dollars.
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The importers Haaretz spoke with declined to say what those salaries were, but any figure between $8,000 and $20,000 a month seems likely. Relocation wasn’t invented by the high-tech industry. The Chief Rabbinate preceded high-tech by decades.
Only half complete the training
The Chief Rabbinate’s acting director general, Harel Goldberg, says the rabbinate doesn’t earn anything from the kosher-certificate process and doesn’t take part in it. It merely trains the butchers and grants preliminary approval to the slaughterhouses, for which it sends supervisors from the rabbinate.
The rabbinate maintains a database of approved butchers; importers can choose any butcher from that list to send overseas. The importers also determine the butcher’s salary.
The rabbinate isn’t involved in the relationship between the importers and the butchers aside from one restriction it imposes: The two senior butchers on each team must rotate.
This means that after four seasons of working for an importer, the senior butchers are barred from working for that importer for the next year. The goal is to prevent them from developing such a close relationship with the importer that they might be tempted to cut corners to serve the importer’s interests.
One issue that greatly concerns the rabbinate is the enormous price difference between ordinary kosher meat and so-called glatt kosher meat. The butcher on the scene decides where a given cut falls; the difference is based on whether there are any blemishes on the cow’s lungs.
Goldberg is proud of a reform he recently introduced – a new school for training butchers – after it became clear that a shortage of butchers was slowing the kosher certification of imported meat. The school, set up with support from the Finance Ministry, will increase the number of licensed butchers.
Until now, only half of butchers applying for a license have completed the training, maybe because the teachers have protected their guild by limiting the number of new entrants. But Goldberg has pledged that the number of graduates will eventually reach 95 percent and that within a few months there will be hundreds of new butchers. The state will cover two-thirds of the course’s cost – 5,000 shekels ($1,550) per person.
‘We don’t cut corners’
Still, all butchers who slaughter meat imported to Israel have received their training from Israel’s Chief Rabbinate. There are local butchers in the countries that export to Israel, but they can slaughter meat destined for Israel only if they fly here and undergo the rabbinate’s training. The suspicion that butchering is a source of good jobs for the rabbinate stares you in the face.
This suspicion is increased by the fact that Jews who keep kosher in other countries suffice with local kosher certificates, like those of the Orthodox Union. So what’s wrong with the Orthodox Union, and why is it necessary to send butchers from Israel at a salary up to $20,000 a month, not including living expenses?
Goldberg says slaughter by the Orthodox Union is inferior to Israel’s because it allows many compromises. Since most overseas Jewish communities are small compared to Israel’s, they have to compromise on kosher requirements at slaughterhouses and dairies.
For instance, Jews abroad drink milk obtained without a Jewish milker present, something forbidden in Israel. Compromises are also made in butchering, but I’ll spare you the details.
The Israeli market, however, has millions of consumers, and it uses this size to brook no compromises. Slaughterhouses make all the necessary changes because the big Israeli market is worth it. “It could be that for 80 percent of the people here, it doesn’t matter whether it’s Orthodox Union kashrut or rabbinate kashrut,” Goldberg said.
“But it’s a matter of policy. The Chief Rabbinate is authorized to set kashrut policy, and we set stringent standards. We don’t have to compromise or cut corners in our slaughtering, and slaughterhouses have to submit because of my purchasing power.”
Entrecôte to blame?
Goldberg rejects responsibility for high meat prices in Israel, saying the rabbinate’s kashrut standards have never been proved to be linked to the price of kosher meat. And it’s true that nobody has calculated how much the price of imported meat rises by sending 20 butchers overseas for many months at high salaries. But we can safely assume it’s significant.
Some meat importers defend Goldberg; they praise his move to increase the number of butchers and say it helped keep him from becoming the rabbinate’s permanent director general. (A candidate with ties to Shas party chief Arye Dery got the job.)
They also defend the entire system. The strictness of Israeli butchers ensures especially clean butchering, they say, noting that there are even non-Jews who eat kosher meat for this reason.
More generally, the importers deny that meat prices are high in Israel, though they say certain cuts like entrecôte are expensive because Israelis turn their noses up at cheaper options. And if there is a problem with the price of imported meat, they blame the Health Ministry’s draconian regulations that permit too short a shelf life.
Still, one might suspect that importers are benefiting from the existing system because the need to fly butchers abroad for importing meat is obviously a significant barrier to players entering the market. This is the basis for Kara’s proposal to amend the law so that meat certified by the Orthodox Union will be imported to Israel without needing to fly Israeli butchers to America.
But since the governing coalition to which Kara belongs is falling apart, it’s hard to believe this will happen.