Thursday, January 26, 2012

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Cow Followup – Cowconomics

by Reb Akiva @ Mystical Paths

Commentor Josh asked, “I think a good follow up post would be to describe why some cuts of meat are available in some places and not in others (filet mignon, sirloin, etc...) Are Israeli schohets better than American? Another question is taste. Why do Israeli glatt steaks and hamburgers taste differently than overseas glatt.”

And commentor Neshama asked, “Now what we need (and should demand) is what are the different criteria that make up each of the hecksherim in Israel. What level of kashrus do they hold by, both in meat and chickens.”

Not too many orthodox Jewish consumers are familiar with the economics of the slaughtering and kosher meat production business.  Here’s some factors from my own research and from Reb Shevach…

Kosher beef production outside the U.S. is mostly occurring in Poland, supplying most of Europe, and Uruguay (South America), supplying Israel.  Both are countries plentiful in cattle combined with very low labor rates for supporting meat-packing workers, as well as having no interfering humanitarian slaughter laws requiring pre-stunning of the animal before slaughter (which is not permitted by Jewish religious law – which considers kosher slaughter fully humanitarian due to instant death upon cutting both jugular arteries and veins in one cut).

[ Interestingly kosher slaughter for Israel moved from Argentina to Uruguay 5 years ago, when Argentina first passed a ban on export beef and later a small quota, in an effort to reduce in-country food prices.  This was under the assumption that ranchers would sell their cattle to the higher paying export market over the lower paying local market, if they had that option.  The result of the export ban was the loss of tens of thousands of jobs associated with beef processing for export, and ranchers going bankrupt with the local market unable to cover their large ranch operation costs.  After they finished slaughtering off their herds the first year, prices jumped significantly and availability fell as the remaining ranchers raised local prices to export levels to cover their costs and felt less competition. ]

There are different breeds of cattle that do well in different environments.  There are also different feed regimes: grain fed, corn fed and grass fed.  All are factors in different taste and fattiness of the meat, along with the actual animal size.  The U.S. has been breeding cows for size, larger and larger, and usually provides corn feed (which is not a natural food for cows).  South American cattle are smaller and usually grass fed. 

Israel has no grasslands (except in the Golan), meaning local cows must be sustained on grown hay, corn or grain.  Because of this higher feed cost, the vast majority of Israeli cows are dairy cows.  There’s an additional factor that makes kosher cow slaughter less viable in Israel.

Large (kosher) animals have a few parts that are not permitted to be eaten.  These are the chelev, forbidden fats and associated veins that are only used in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem (which is currently destroyed), and the gid hanasheh or sciatic nerve.  (The process of removing this is known as nikkur or treibbering.)

Here’s the thing.  Treibbering is a complex skill requiring a specialist.  Ashkenazim have generally held that this skill is a somewhat lost art, especially after World War II.  Or from another perspective, it’s just too tricky to get right and therefore best avoided if circumstances allow you to discard that part of the animal.  (Sephardim do not hold this perspective and to perform nikkur.)

Now even if you have an expert menaker (trieberer), it’s still time consuming and therefore expensive.  And the Ashkenazi kashrus agencies prefer to not certify it.

So what do you do with 40% of a cow that you can’t eat because of forbidden fats and nerves?  If you’re outside of Israel, you sell it to the non-Jews at discount wholesale meat prices.  They get meat at a discount price, you get to cover the cost of that part of the cow.

Similarly, what do you do with a cow declared treif (not kosher)?  Same thing, you sell it to the non-Jews at cost.  They’re happily receiving a fresh side of beef at a discount, you’re not taking a loss on the non-kosher cow.

Because of this cost operation basis, Ashkenazim basically don’t slaughter beef in Israel (because they would have to throw the back half away).  Since Sephardim perform nikkur, they don’t have to throw the back half away and do slaughter beef in Israel.  That’s why you can get fresh “Machpud” or “Beit Yosef” supervised beef in Israel but not fresh “Eidat Charedit”, “Rubin” or “Landau” (the first two are top Sephardi ultra-orthodox Israeli kosher supervision agencies, the second three are top Ashkenazi ultra-orthodox Israeli kosher supervision agencies.)

The same point applies to cuts of meat available.  No back half of the cow (Ashkenazi) means a whole set of cuts of meat unavailable.

Regarding the criterium, as Reb Shevach has worked for many different agencies he’s told me all the Ashkenazim are holding almost identical customs and all are following the same religious laws.  There are differences between the Sephardi and Ashkenazi customs and interpretations of some laws, but all the ultra-orthodox agencies are keeping the strictest religious law standards according to the Code of Jewish Law.

The differences come in the intensity of the supervision, the experience of the ritual slaughterers and supervisors (shochtim and mashgicim), how strictly they rule when questionable issues arise, and the production rate of the environment.

For example, is the ritual slaughterer expected to slaughter 250 cows a day or 500 cows a day?  Are the shochtim that are checking the animals after slaughter checking 100 a day or 250 a day?  Is there implied pressure from the business owner to not declare a cow treif?

A recent example:  Reb Shevach was slaughtering in Eastern Europe for a major agency.  200 old cows were brought in and only 18 were kosher after slaughter (the older the cow the more likely to have internal damage, particularly in Eastern Europe that tends to have much higher rates of sharp object ingestion.)

Another kosher slaughtering agency was working at another location 20 miles away.  They received cows from the same source, meaning approximately the same age and condition of cow.  Out of their 200 cows, they had 80 kosher after slaughter.

Either they were tremendously lucky, had tremendous siyata d’shamaya (help from Heaven), were doing less thorough examinations, were less skilled at examination, or felt pressured to ignore all but the most serious findings (or all the above).

How the kosher supervising agency acts regularly in these situations IS it’s criteria.  (While there are no public statements to this effect, known an agency and/or factory’s glatt-chalak, glatt-kosher and kosher statistical percentages over time would let us know.)

How can you tell which kosher supervising agencies and/or which brands (factories) are operating which way?  Unfortunately, there is no direct way without talking to an insider. 

Indirectly, if there’s persistent rumors of problems with a brand or supervising agency, there probably is a real concern. 

Kosher buyer beware.  Consult a knowledgeable informed rabbi on these issues if you have a concern.

5 comments:

Daniela said...

if we are talking about such large percentage of treif cows, and if we are talking about such serious damage, also the milk would be questionable. Can you please comment?

Anonymous said...

Maybe R.Gutman is right after all, the veggies always win!

Akiva said...

Daniela, it's an interesting issue. The basic answer is that seeing the cow in healthy state gives it a presumption of health until it's proven otherwise. But indeed if the majority of cows are regularly not kosher, then that presumption could be lost.

Note that even in the statistics I gave, 50% are kosher - not glatt kosher but kosher.

Daniela said...

TY Akiva, I think what you said is a reason to worry

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A recent example: Reb Shevach was slaughtering in Eastern Europe for a major agency. 200 old cows were brought in and only 18 were kosher after slaughter (the older the cow the more likely to have internal damage, particularly in Eastern Europe that tends to have much higher rates of sharp object ingestion.)

Another kosher slaughtering agency was working at another location 20 miles away. They received cows from the same source, meaning approximately the same age and condition of cow. Out of their 200 cows, they had 80 kosher after slaughter.

Either they were tremendously lucky, had tremendous siyata d’shamaya (help from Heaven), were doing less thorough examinations, were less skilled at examination, or felt pressured to ignore all but the most serious findings (or all the above).
-----------------------

So even if we assume the numbers of the lucky (?) shochet are representative (with all the doubts you expressed), they are in fact lower than 50% and surely not "the vast majority". And if beef could in principle come from a young bull (not in your example, but in general), milk will come from a cow which goes through the production cycle.

Also, in our days, I do not think being treifah / torn necessarily means that the cow dies quickly, due to enormous advancements in veterinary medicine. I am not even sure it is obviously noticeable, given that cows are routinely given antibiotics (as prevention).

Thank you!

josh said...

Yashir koach for the detailed explanation!

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