Friday, May 30, 2008

Putting All Your Eggs in One Basket

Regarding the problems at the Agriprocessors meat facility, let me state up front that I know only what I've read in the papers or what has been discussed on the various blogs. How much is fact and how much is speculation or opinion I cannot tell you. Stories are popping up all over and the discussion has dissolved into bashing of the principals involved and their religious affiliation. Leave me out of that. I admire Lubavitch for the kiruv work it does all over the world, for actually getting out there when others either don't talk about the situation of losing Jews or talk and don't do. I have yet to travel anywhere in this known world that I could not arrange for Shabbos or kashrut thanks to Lubavitch. I know Mr. Rubashkin not at all. So what am I going to talk about?

If the following fact that has been printed is indeed correct, the Agriprocessor facility shechts 55% of the kosher meat available in the US. Also reported is that for many of the small towns and cities in the US they are the only source of kosher meat. If correct, those are facts that should cause us some thought.

What if the Agriprocessor facility had had a major fire? What if the plant had been severely damaged? What if the workers had staged a walk-out? What would the affect be on kosher meat supply in the US? There would have been less than half of the meat supply available for kosher consumers. That is not a small number. One way to look at it is that we all would have had to cut our meat consumption in half. Another way to look at it is that only less than 1 in 2 consumers would have had meat available to them.

If the "MunchaMuncha" kosher company, producing pretzel snacks, were to undergo the same problem with their production facilities, the impact on kosher consumers would be negligible. Pretzel snacks are not a major part of the kosher diet and we could do without them. Even if "MunchaMuncha" were to be the only producer of pretzel snacks we would not suffer.

Meat is not the same story. For better or for worse, we are meat eaters. It is a key component in most of our diets. The loss of access to meat would affect us negatively.

The problem as I see it is not about the kashrut of the meat coming out of Agriprocessors. It is about the supply. There were, up to a little while ago, two major kashrut agencies supervising the schechita at the plant. There are arguments arising about the ethics of certain practices taking place in the plant. I'll leave those to others. What I wonder about is how there was no concern in the frum community BEFORE this about what would happen if Agriprocessors could not deliver its products.

If meat is vital to our kosher diets, then where were the safeguards to assure that the supply would not be interrupted? Where were the people who should have asked themselves the hard questions beforehand? Did no one take a few moments to go through and think of all the possibilities that could result in the closing of the plant? Did no one do a "disaster" readiness analysis? Again, I am not going to delve into ethical considerations here, nor am I levying any accusations about kashrut. What I would like to know, however, is why we were seemingly uninformed and unprepared for the ICE raid on the plant.

Agriprocessors is a private company and it makes business decisions that are favorable to its bottom line. It is not producing kosher meat out of the goodness of its heart. It found a need and it is filling it. It sells a product. But when that product is a key component of kosher living, why weren't the leaders of Klal sufficiently interested to try and safeguard that product? It's absolutely kosher? Fine. But it's not absolutely available now, and that is not fine.

Because the plant is not working at full speed now they are not delivering the same amount of meat. Meat is still in demand, so the aggregate affect has been a raise in kosher meat prices all over. Yes, the simple law of supply and demand. When there is less supply prices go up. As consumers we are paying, both literally and figuratively, for the problems in the Agriprocessors plant. It does not matter if we did not buy their products before. Their product affects the price of the product we do buy.

So my question is this: Why did we put the majority of our eggs into one basket? Why did the "machers" of Klal, who have time to ponder so many "vital" questions, so many esoteric questions of little affect on Klal, not take the time to think about this more important question of meat supply?

Well, the "worst" has happened now and it is forcing public discussion. The question arises about if our leadership is going to step up to the plate and do something so that meat supply doesn't become a matter of maybe/maybe not in the future. Don't blather on and on, with fingers pointing in all directions. Don't let the public discussion, nor the private ones either, devolve into a pointless them versus us blame-fest. What I want to know is what is being put into place to make sure that when I go to the store to buy meat, that meat is there, and at a price that is not "above rubies."


Anonymous said...

You are making an excellent point here. Many of them. If the vaccines we use were produced by only two plants the government would take extra care to see to it that those two plants did not have problems that could result in the supply being cut in half.

Meat is not vaccines but the principle is the same. Take the discussion out of the ethical and put it into the practical. What do we have to demand of producers so that the supply will not be cut in half? Unfortunately the discussion has already become politicized and the losers in this political wrangling are, as usual, the kosher consumers. Maybe when they don't get their flanken in their cholent they will finally be moved to act.

mother in israel said...

This is a disaster that our leadership should have been worried about? More so than shidduchim, child abuse, special needs children, tuition, conversion, and half a dozen more I could think of? We're talking about a temporary shortage of meat. And what do you think the leadership could have done, get into the meat business? With the economic situation developing the way it is I think many of us will have to get used to eating a lot less meat.

ProfK said...

Let's not mix "tzitzis and matzas" as my mom would say. I did not make this the number one issue that our leadership should be addressing. The problem is that they never thought about it at all, despite there having been some signs that a problem was developing.

One of the agencies giving the hechsher to the plant is now in negotiations (or perhaps already past that) with another kosher supplier to expand to shechting meat not just chickens.

Any time a food supply is interrupted because of a lack of planning for future exigencies there needs to be discussion of how to avoid this from happening in the future, and a discussion of why it happened to begin with.

Sure, we will have to make do with less meat and chicken until things get back to normal. Assuming they get back to normal. And without some real discussion with those who provide kosher products such as meat, just what might happen if the suppliers who are left also run into problems? Are you willing to do without any meat at all? Me, personally, no, I'm not willing to do without meat at all. If that is your preference then fine, but it is not the preference of large numbers of the rest of us.

If this can happen to the largest supplier what makes you think that it could not happen to the smaller suppliers as well?

Anonymous said...

I don't see why this is a huge deal - free markets are generally self-correcting. If supply continues to be constrained and demand remains constant, there will be a strong incentive for others to enter the market, thereby increasing supply.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous is right in general but if what is interfering with the supply cycle is systemic rather than idiosyncratic then the normal supply/demand cycle won't work correctly. I think maybe that is what ProfK is getting at. Unless you study the interruption you will not know if it is idiosyncratic or if it represents a problem that will affect the entire system for that product.

Anonymous said...

1. A few years back my Rabbi was giving a shiur and he mentioned that today many health conscious goyim are into kosher meats. A large portion of kosher meat is sold to these people. One of the large chicken companies (it was either Tyson or Purdue, don’t remember) noticed that trend and decided to cash in on it. They did their research and hired butchers to start the process… Then rabbeim stepped in. They decided that it was a bad idea because it takes away parnasa from Jewish business… End result we are now on the verge of losing half of our meat supply.

2. Another reason why meat prices are through the roof is because of mandated ethanol in our gas. This mandate affected all meats, not just kosher ones. And milk, and grain, and …

Anonymous said...

Some out of the box thinking from someone whom you are accustomed to hearing that from...

This has to do with the changed circumstances, in the kosher (and non-kosher) chicken and meat business that have come about in recent decades. Local and small production is out, far away and big is in (with limited exceptions).

If things got difficult couldn't we still get some chickens and have them shechted and koshered locally? Are there sufficient local shochtim ready to go ? Are there still enough who know how to kosher a chicken (salting, etc.)? Prof. K do you know how to 'kosher' a chicken (I assume you do)?

By the way, I don't know that it's right to blame the supervision agency. They are busy enough with the kashrus end of things, you want to know make them responsible for uninterrupted supply as well? They are not a government agency, you know.

Anonymous said...

*to now make them responsible for uninterrupted supply as well? They are not a government agency, you know.

Anonymous said...

The local supermarkets have always been cheaper then our local butcher when it came to fresh chicken. But now with the problem with Rubashkin and with Empire having raised its prices he got smart. He lowered his prices to $2.69 a pound for whole chicken and $2.49 for bottoms fresh. Store was packed. He's making more of a profit by charging less. Shechitah is an Eastern one and very frummy. I guess the lower price to ship more locally also means lower prices on the meat. I wonder if he'll still be smart when Rubashkin gets back up to speed and Empire has to lower back prices to compete.

Anonymous said...

No the OU kashrut division shouldn't be having to police the places they go into for anything but kashrut k'halacha. But the OU itself and the Agudas Rabbanim and the Council of Young Israel and all the other rabbanic organizations should be making statements about how to conduct business if you are frum. For one thing, they could come straight out and say that places that want to apply for a hechsher on things they produce cannot be openly breaking US law. That's what got Rubashkin in trouble because they were hiring illegals. I'm no expert on dinei d'malchuso dinei but I'm pretty sure it applies to laws of the government. It's not speculation that the workers were illegals, that part is fact. So the rabbis who are sitting back and who are saying they need to see what the real facts are are being blind.

Dave said...

The problem is that this isn't a free market. The market is controlled by the Hechsher.

See the comment from MLevin above. If the organizations had a consistent set of standards that were applied across the board (whether that included things like the business standards the Conservative movement has been calling for or not), that would open it up for something resembling a free market.

But as long as the OU (or your Hechsher of choice) adjust the rules continuously, or act to protect the business interests of groups they already work with (or just Jewish owned businesses in general), you aren't going to get the benefits.

Anonymous said...

I made a statement on another blog that got all sorts of people yelling at me. People were saying that it is unfair to look at Rubashkin alone for using the illegal workers. All the meat plants in the country use them. I said that I thought that our hashkafah should be to go for a higher standard then "everyone else is doing it so I will too." Any one else remember the old hebrew national advertisement that said "We answer to a higher authority"? Shouldn't business ethics also be part of a kosher company?