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Answering to a Higher Authority: Ethics and the Kosher Butcher

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I grew up listening to my maternal grandmother tell stories of how her father, a kosher butcher in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, would slaughter chickens in the back room of his store on Friday mornings; he was regularly inspected by the local Rabbinate, who gave him the official authority to do his job, and he did it quickly and cleanly and with great respect for the animal, she told me, as I grimaced. Her job was to flick and pluck, and she did so with no small amount of dexterity, assuring that shoppers would have the freshest chicken possible for the Sabbath.

We were never kosher in my home, but on Friday nights, my grandmother made it a point to buy a kosher bird from our local butcher in Forest Hills, and make either soup or a roast chicken, both of which I dream about in the dead of winter, or when I have a bad cold. The cost to her was nearly double the price of a regular, non-kosher supermarket bird, and in the cash-strapped 1970s, when I was actually old enough to notice and realize the financial implications of how she spent her money on her family, she said "I would never feed you supermarket chickens; they're filthy. You might as well eat pork."

I pondered this recently, when Rockland County New York-based New Square Meats, a kosher poultry processing plant serving a large local Hasidic population, was shut down last week by federal judge Stephen Robinson, citing "unsanitary conditions that pose a health risk to the community." Somehow, the plant had managed to:

"dodge federal inspections for years, and sold nearly 2 million uninspected birds to unsuspecting customers. Patrick Burke, a lawyer for New Square Meats, argued the Spring Valley plant should stay open an extra two weeks until a new kosher poultry supplier could be found for the local Jewish community."

Given the conditions that were uncovered by federal inspectors during an April 2009 visit, one would think that the Skver Hasidim -- the deeply observant, fundamentalist community that New Square Meats served -- would deserve more than (literally) dirty birds; they deserve to feed themselves and their families the kosher meat that they think they are paying for, and that fall within the laws of Kashrut, which govern dietary rules. Because, without those laws and the strict adherence to them, they might as well -- to mangle my grandmother's quote -- eat a side of ribs washed down with milk.

I won't get into the details of the conditions at New Square Meats; if you're reading this, odds are you likely have a sense of what they might have involved. One of the basic, primary laws of Kashrut implies cleanliness: there is no eating of bottom-feeders, no partaking of animals that chew their cud and don't have cloven hoofs, no noshing on beasts that wallow in mud baths. Animals under the laws of Kashrut also may not be slaughtered if they are unconscious; among the supposed health benefits of this practice (like it or hate it) is the elimination of potentially sick and/or infectious animals from getting into the food supply. Theoretically.

So how could New Square Meats, which is itself affiliated with the Skver Hasidim -- a sect that has repeatedly run afoul of the law -- so obviously flout not only the religious dietary laws that they are supposed to be adhering to, but government regulations as well?

First, take religion completely out of the equation (since they've already blown a big fat Bronx cheer in the face of kashrut).

The answer?
Logrolling.

New Square Meats recently received a $1.62 million grant from New York's Empire State Development Corporation to help subsidize the cost of building a new, larger slaughterhouse near the one that has just been shut down; they received the money without obtaining the approvals from local town and county planning departments:

As the Forward reported recently, the slaughterhouse, New Square Meats, was already under fire for its attempt to build a bigger plant, five times the size of its current one, close to New Square's border with the town of New Hempstead. The proposed 26,250 square foot slaughterhouse would cost $3 million. Some local officials were particularly upset by the fact that New Square Meats had received a $1.62 million grant from New York's Empire State Development Corporation to help subsidize the new building without getting approval first from the county- or town-planning departments.

As far back as 2001, it was reported by Time that Hillary Clinton, while running for her Senate seat in August 2000, met in New Square with members of the Skver sect, who had a history of voting in a bloc; four months later, she obtained 1,400 votes from the Skver to her opponent Rick Lazio's 12. Whether or not they were a promissory note for her possibly also aiding in the presidential commutation of the sentences of four Skver Hasidim who stole more than $30 million in Pell Grants, subsidies, and loans, will never be known for sure.

What is clear is that where New Square is concerned, the government -- at least at the state level -- has simply looked the other way for almost an entire decade; the New Square slaughterhouse that was just shut down had been selling uninspected birds since 2002.

So what does this mean for the hapless consumer? Would the average Hasidic New Square mom knowingly feed her children dirty chickens that are about as kosher as Babe, and contaminated with god-knows-what? Certainly not, in the same way that Diane Nole of Gig Harbor, Washington, wouldn't knowingly feed her 2 year old son Michael the Jack-in-the-Box hamburger laced with e Coli, that would kill him, hours later.

This is about trust, safety, honesty, and knowing exactly where your food comes from. As for New Square Meats, perhaps they ought to brush up on their Talmud:

When man appears before the Throne of Judgment, the first question he is asked is not, "Have you believed in God," or "Have you prayed and performed ritual acts," but "Have you dealt honorably, faithfully in all your dealings with your fellowman?" --Talmud, Shabbat, 31a

The answer, in this case, is no.

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