“Because of the special problems that can arise in restaurants, it is not sufficient to have a supervisor who comes in on a hit-or-miss basis. Restaurants, caterers, and takeout stores-particularly establishments that prepare or serve meat products-have special kosher concerns that can be met only by a full-time supervisor who controls access to the cooking area, the meat, and the dishes.” “According to the guidelines established by my father, Rabbi Berel Levy, ob”m, a pioneer in the realm of kosher supervision, the kosher supervisor cannot be the owner of the facility or one of his family members.”
-Rabbi Don Yoel Levy in Kosher Spirit one year ago.

As a result of the recent unfortunate occurrence in Monsey, where non-kosher meat was sold as kosher by an ostensibly reliable and reputable butcher, a number of meetings were held by local and national kashrus agencies throughout the area. A variety of solutions were proposed to ensure that this type of incident should never happen again.

In this article, I will try to analyze the situation and see how effective these proposed solutions might be, as well as presenting a realistic approach to avoid future problems.

Let’s begin by examining what actually occurred:

A kosher supermarket in Monsey, NY “sub-let” space to a kosher butcher. The butcher bought wholesale chicken and meat from many different Shechitas, then repackaged the chickens and meats with generic labels. The labels would state which kosher slaughterhouse the meat came from and would specify what kosher certification was therefore attached to that meat.

In addition, this butcher, within the supermarket, had additional kosher certification from a respected rabbi.

As a result of a tip, the supermarket owner discovered two major kosher chicken distributors had stopped supplying chicken to the butcher months ago. When confronted, the butcher said he had gotten chickens from other kosher sources. When checked, those sources proved false. The local rabbinical leaders were contacted, amongst them the Skver Dayan who ruled that an immediate search of the butcher’s refrigerators was necessary.

As soon as the rabbis examined the cases of chickens in the refrigerator, they discovered the chickens were not kosher based on the color of their skin, the lack of salt residue used in the koshering process and the presence of their kidneys. Also, no seal or signs were on the chickens or the boxes.

Non-kosher chickens had been substituted and sold as kosher chickens. It is possible that this had been going on for as long as eight years.

I spoke to someone who was involved in certifying the store, and asked him if there was a mashgiach tmidi onsite. He replied, “The owner was an orthodox observant Jew. How should I have suspected he would do this?” It is natural for us to want to trust a business owner when he seems to be a G-d fearing Jew. But we must bear in mind that every business owner is a “Nogeiah Bidovor” and has a vested interest in the success and profit of his business. This interest could lead anyone, chas v’sholom, to be tempted-especially when he faces other stresses in his life. So it is imperative for the kashrus agency to monitor strictly, even when the owner is a religious person.

Due to human limitations, unfortunately, mistakes can happen on the part of kosher certifying agencies. Regrettably, most agencies have encountered some type of problem over the years. The genuine question is, how does the agency handle the problem, and what steps are taken to rectify it? There are many approaches to dealing with mistakes. You can blame someone else. You can sweep it under the carpet. You can make a big chaotic meeting after which barely any changes are made.

OK Kosher has had to deal with our share of past mistakes. When they happen, our approach has always been one of introspection, in order to determine where WE went wrong and what we can do to improve OURSELVES and our kashrus system. Over the past twenty years, this approach has led to some dramatic changes and improvements in the way we operate. We have upgraded our systems and mashgiach guidelines, as we learn from our own mistakes, and those of others. Our goal is to ensure that mistakes do not reoccur, and that the possibility of future mistakes is reduced as much as humanly possible, b’ezras Hashem Yisborach.

A meeting of kosher certification representatives and rabbis was held, to discuss what happened in Monsey and to formulate ideas to prevent a recurrence.

These are some of the proposed suggestions that were discussed at the kashrus agency meetings:

1. Only traditional butcher shops should be patronized. Kosher supermarkets should stop selling meat altogether.

2. Meat should be sold only in the original packaging put on by the slaughterhouse.

3. If repackaging is done, then the name of the original producer should not be used, only the name of the present packer/seller should be used on the packages.

4. Use of holograms should be instituted. Holograms are seals that are extremely difficult-some say impossible-to forge.

5. Distributors should be forced to take certification. Not all slaughterhouses have a competent distribution network, so outside shippers transport sealed boxes of meat.

Let’s examine each of these suggestions more closely, to see whether they would have adequately addressed the weaknesses that allowed the ­Monsey incident to happen.

1. Only traditional butcher shops should be patronized. Kosher supermarkets should stop selling meat altogether.
The owner of the concession was a religious Jew, and was considered to be trustworthy. He therefore was not closely monitored, with disastrous consequences. If he had owned a private butcher store, instead of a concession in a supermarket, would he have been more reliable? What is the difference between a butcher store in its own building and one located in a corner of a kosher supermarket? The problem was not the location. It was the lack of control by the certifying agency and the mistake of relying on the owner.

2. Meat should be sold only in the original packaging put on by the slaughterhouse.
Selling the meat only in its original packaging could be a solution, but is impractical in the near term. The fact is that butcher stores have always been a part of our lives and will continue to be. Meat will continue to come into butcher stores in bulk form, and then need to be repackaged in the store in conveniently sized packages.

3. If repackaging is done, then the name of the original producer should not be used. Only the Packer/seller’s name should be used on the packages.
We have been informed by Rabbi Luzer Weiss from the Division of Kosher Law Enforcement at the New York State Department of Agriculture, that the practice of repacking a product with a generic label stating that it is certified by a specified agency is actually illegal. Nevertheless it is common practice. Let’s assume that the practice of repackaging meats using the original producer’s labels had never been instituted. Instead, re-packers would use labels with their own store names and the names or symbols of their certifying agencies. Would this have prevented the storeowner in question from selling non-kosher meat? No! He could still have done it, using his own labels to label any meat he pleased-as long as those labels were in his possession and NOT in the sole possession of the mashgiach.

4. Use of holograms should be instituted. Holograms are seals that are extremely difficult-some say impossible-to forge.
The same problem described above (in #3) regarding labels applies to holograms when they are in the owner’s possession, instead of in the sole possession of the mashgiach. Just as the storeowner in this case had possession and control of the kosher labels, so he would have possession and control of holograms. There have been instances at OK-certified meat establishments where meat came in from the original slaughterhouse without seals. Our mashgiach rejected the meat and sent it back to the truck. The (non-Jewish) driver had seals in the truck, and proceeded to put them on the boxes of meat. Of course our mashgiach, under the direction of his rabbinic supervisor, still rejected the meat. How would holograms help in such an instance (other than to profit those selling holograms)?

5. Distributors should be forced to take certification. Not all the slaughterhouses have a competent distribution network, so outside shippers carry and sell sealed boxes of meat.
If we were to certify distributors under the same system that is currently used in stores, what guarantee would we have that distributors would not do the same thing that the owner of the concession did? And what would cities distant from New York do? They get their meat from various large cold distributors. Would we hypothetically have to certify meat via FedEx to ensure it gets to every Jewish community without interference?

None of the above solutions will guarantee that an incident like this cannot recur. This is because the underlying problem is not with the various stores, the labeling systems, or the distribution system. Rather, the main and essential problem is the total lack of control at kosher-certified meat establishments.

Stories like this do happen and, in fact, can be expected to happen with the current unsupervised meat establishments in place. This is unfortunately not the first time such a story has happened. Approximately one year ago, a very similar story occurred in Flatbush, NY. A religious Jew with no mashgiach tmidi on the premises was caught selling kosher meat as “strictly glatt kosher”.

Some people might say that the Flatbush situation was different, because non-glatt meat was being sold as glatt, and the meat was not treif. However, a quantity of plumbas (seals) from an unreliable kosher meat company was found.

Even after this incident however, the local certification agency did not recognize the need to require a mashgiach tmidi. No changes were made to the supervision systems at kosher-certified meat establishments. The owners and operators of kosher meat establishments were able to carry on with unsupervised free reign, so this unfortunate occurrence was just waiting to happen again.

The OK has offered a different suggestion to rectify the situation: The only way to prevent such incidents is to require a mashgiach tmidi in every kosher-certified meat establishment. The mashgiach would have full control of the keys and refrigerators. This has been OK policy at meat establishments for over 25 years. In a meat establishment where a reliable mashgiach tmidi controls all the meat entering and leaving the premises, and has sole possession of the keys to the store and refrigerators, a shocking story like this could never have occurred. And as a consumer, you of course have the power to demand, check and actually verify the presence of the mashgiach tmidi.

This is the foundation of giving reliable kosher certification to the establishment and not just to the owner, until now only the owner was certified. With a mashgiach tmidi, the kosher certifying agency can say that they are also certifying the store, which is the most important goal.

As mentioned above, there is always room for improvement, therefore another upgrade in kosher monitoring, built on the foundation of a mashgiach tmidi, would be a system to track kosher meat from the slaughterhouse to the store shelves. Nowadays, when you order something online, you can track your package’s exact location from the time it leaves the warehouse until it arrives at your home. Millions of packages a day are tracked in this way. A similar system can be instituted to track meat. The technology for such a system certainly exists.

For example the scanning system at the cash register (already used in the vast majority of stores today) records the exact amount of meat and chicken sold. The mashgiach will have a definite system from his kashrus agency for tracking all the meat that enters and leaves the store, and he will be held accountable for keeping an accurate record of this. The mashgiach will be closely monitored by a rabbi at the kashrus agency to ensure that the meat is being properly tracked.

As a result of the incident in Monsey, I have personally visited our butcher stores to begin the process of implementing such a tracking system. It is doable, and would help to restore consumer confidence in buying kosher meat. We commend Rabbi Bik, Rabbi Weinberger, and Rabbi Eichenstein from the Hisachdus Harabbonim for the Takonos that they issued to address this issue.

If all reliable kashrus agencies would immediately require a mashgiach tmidi with full control over the keys and refrigerators, in every certified meat establishment, the public could rest assured that a terrible scandal such as the one that happened in Monsey will never be repeated. Additionally we should collectively work toward implementation of a nationwide tracking system.

With regards to your letter from the 27th of Tammuz, where you spoke of your intention to establish a meat store with a facility to produce salami, this is a very good thing, and the community of Chabad Chassidim are careful to adhere to the ruling of all the Lubavitcher Rabbeim based on the Alter Rebbe (Baal Hatanya), that when you work in the sale of meats or production of smoked meats or salami, even if you are established as ­G-d fearing, proficient in Torah knowledge, and one who behaves in a pious manner, you should still employ a Mashgiach Tmidi, and certainly you will be careful to observe this custom, and Hashem should bless your family with a good and abundant livelihood.
-Igros Kodesh, Volume 10, Page 219