September 27, 2023

Israel’s meat and poultry industries generate $7.8 billion a year in a market controlled by only a few import companies, but a closer look at what makes it tick shows that not everything is on the up and up.

Israelis love to eat meat, and a lot of it – at Shabbat meals, weddings, social gatherings in their backyards, and Yom Haatzmaut barbecues. It does not make a difference if it’s entrecôte, Asado, or lamb, or whether it is served to us well done or medium rare – we want more meat.

The problem begins when we look into the complex field of kosher slaughter and the supervision of this meat’s kashrut. Apparently, this field is plagued by conduct that, according to testimony, borders on corruption. The ones who ultimately foot the bill for this conduct’s significant financial consequences are us, the consumers.

Approximately 600 shohatim – kosher butchers – work on behalf of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel. In addition, there are several dozen team leaders, also certified by the Chief Rabbinate. They manage the meat-slaughtering system in slaughterhouses abroad – from which most of the meat consumed in Israel comes. The teams, which are essentially butcher’s expeditions abroad, are responsible for producing kosher meat from hundreds of heads of cattle every day – a venture generating hundreds of millions of shekels every year.

The Chief Rabbinate, which has unqualified control of all aspects of religious life in Israel

In practice, the team leaders and butchers receive their wages from the meat importers – who need their kashrut certification and their services in Israel and primarily abroad. According to multiple sources, this financial dependence may lead to increased wage demands which will be ultimately reflected in consumer prices.

Alongside the official teams, there are allegations against the activity of the “bigwigs,” who intervene on their behalf in everything that is happening and, in practice, orchestrate the system’s operation: they are the ones who decide which kosher butchers will work abroad and make significant amounts of money as a result, and which ones will stay in Israel, unemployed.

Even senior officials in the Chief Rabbinate admit that these practices, some of which have been in place for decades, are problematic. Although it is evident to everyone that reform is required to fix these issues – there seems to be no veritable solution.

Every year, Israel’s meat and poultry industries generate 27 billion shekels ($7.8 billion) in a market controlled by only a few import companies. According to the Finance Ministry’s Budgets Department, 60% of the meat consumed in Israel arrives frozen or chilled after being slaughtered abroad. The other 40% comes from cattle that are imported into Israel for this purpose. Industry officials note that overseas slaughter is preferred because it is “cheaper and more humane.”

This is reflected in consumer prices: Finance Ministry data shows that the cost of meat in Israel is 43% higher than the average of other OECD- member countries. One of the primary reasons for this is kashrut laws and its directives impose a price hike that makes up NIS 5-7 per kilogram of meat, or 10-12% of the meat’s consumer price.

Only two inspectors nationwide
Israel’s Meat and Meat Products Law, passed in 1994, regulates the import of meat to Israel and prohibits the import of non-kosher meat into the country. Unlike other food products, non-kosher meat cannot be imported into Israel and receive kashrut retroactively. Importers are required to produce the meat vis-à-vis teams of butchers certified by the Chief Rabbinate.

The slaughtering profession is not easy. Kosher butchers operate on the other side of the world, mainly in countries in South America, slaughtering hundreds of heads of cattle every day in hot and humid conditions and are away from their families for long periods of time – generally for four months of intense work known as “the slaughtering season.” There are two slaughtering seasons in a year: the winter season – from after Sukkot until Passover, and the summer season – from after Passover until just before Rosh Hashanah.

A kosher inspector examines meat to ensure that the food is stored and prepared according to Jewish regulations and customs in a supermarket in central Israel

Teams of between nine and 15 butchers are sent abroad. The Rabbinate’s regulations emphasize that “the Chief Rabbinate does not employ the team members, and the conditions of their work, flights, and lodging are determined between them and the importer. Between 30 and 40 teams of butchers are sent by the importers abroad, to Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay, Brazil, Chile, Spain, Ireland, and Australia, among others – 35 slaughterhouses worldwide. According to the Chief Rabbinate’s regulations, importers are prohibited from employing butchers for more than two consecutive slaughtering seasons.

Team members receive pay only for the months they work. For example, the butchers, kashrut supervisors, and slaughtering knife inspectors are paid between $3,000 and $5,000 a month. The salary of the team leaders can reach more than 30,000 per month of work.

According to the Chief Rabbinate’s regulations, to become butchers, internal and external inspectors (whose job is to decide whether the slaughtered meat is kosher, non-Kosher, or “Glatt kosher”) and team leaders need to pass a theoretical exam and a practical exam which are generally given three times a year. The Rabbinate’s Exams and Certification Department gives the theoretical exam, while its Foreign Slaughter Department gives the practical one.

A butcher must learn the laws of slaughter in the “Shulchan Aruch” codex of Jewish Law, and internal and external inspectors need to know the laws of “trayfa,” i.e., meat ritually unfit for eating. Team leaders are required to command more comprehensive knowledge, including laws of salting meat, “prohibition and permissibility” (which include meat, dairy, and mixtures of foods), etc. Team members can advance in their duties by accumulating experience and passing exams.

Regarding the practical exams, a flaw can be immediately recognized: there are only two inspectors in all of Israel, of which one is considered the head inspector, and they give the exams to potential candidates in an abattoir in Beersheba, where they both sit on the municipal religious council.

Moreover, MK Yulia Malinovsky, who heads the Knesset’s Religious Services Committee, recently exposed the fact that the head inspector, who is also the manager of an abattoir in Israel, has lately been simultaneously operating abroad. The Chief Rabbinate said that it was verifying whether the inspector’s side job poses an ethical or legal problem.

The second inspector’s situation is also complex: over the last few years, dozens of complaints by butchers against him were submitted to the Chief Rabbinate, claiming that he demanded they pay him “large sums of money” before the practical slaughtering exam – in exchange for their certification.

In principle, inspectors are obligated not to accept compensation for certifying candidates. Still, because of a dire lack of professional authorities specializing in training and guidance regarding kosher slaughtering, the Chief Rabbinate has allowed this inspector to accept compensation anyway. Last month, the Religious Services Committee invited the inspector to appear before it and address the allegations but despite holding public office, he decided not to show up.

The Rabbinate said in a statement, “When the Rabbinate’s legal office learned of the issue, the inspector was instructed to cease his practice of charging candidates a fee immediately and actions were taken against a rabbinic employee who was involved in the matter. Since then, both the management and the relevant professional ranks have changed in the Rabbinate. The Chief Rabbinate takes responsibility for the matter, and has revised its procedures accordingly.”

Training treading water
Last February, the Chief Rabbinate and the Religious Services Ministry established a new kosher slaughtering school to refresh and regulate the field and train new staff members. The school was supposed to teach thousands of new butchers in a relatively short period of time, thus opening the market up for competition and reducing the price of meat.

Millions of shekels were invested in the new school despite the fact it has not yet received a place of permanent residence. Even the school’s first course was created but had not come to fruition. The reason: only three months after the decision to establish the school, Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef ordered to shut it down, saying that the Chief Rabbinate’s council did not discuss the matter beforehand and that “it is not proper for a school to open without an official discussion by decisionmakers. These are decisions that the Chief Rabbinate must make.”

A man preparing meat at a kosher slaughterhouse

Behind the scenes, officials familiar with the issue explained that there was also heavy pressure from senior butchers to close the school, claiming that the reforms it introduced would likely harm their livelihoods. Close associates of Yosef denied these claims.

The school’s situation is currently treading water, and all its training programs have been canceled. “It’s unclear why the butchering school was closed,” said Deputy Minister of Religious Services Matan Kahana. “The slaughtering market will remain small and expensive because of this decision.”

Senior ministry officials claim that establishing a new slaughtering school is “crucial” for reducing the price of meat in Israel. “You must understand – as long as there will be no additional butchers, the price [of meat] will continue to be high. The slaughtering school will accelerate the training of certified butchers and reduce the cost of living.”

The most significant shortage in the slaughtering field can be perceived in the number of staff leaders, who over the past few years have been taking advantage of the laws of supply and demand and have significantly increased their wages: from 15,000 dollars a month to 30 thousand dollars a month and more. The importers, as stated earlier, pay these wages, as they are responsible for paying the salaries of all staff members abroad: 400 – 500 thousand ILS.

Attorney Amichai Filber, who served as the Chief Rabbinate’s director of Foreign Meat Import and Slaughter until 2015, says that “there have been severe shortages of staff leaders and internal and external inspectors as early as eight years ago. This means that there is no one to replace them, and therefore the amount of money they can charge importers is nearly unlimited.”

Filber claims that he has been urging the field’s regulation for years, but to no avail. “When I left the department, I left a document with suggestions on improving its work, including a proposal to regulate the employment and wages of butchers, shorten their time spent abroad, and reduce regulation on meat importers.

“Until today, the Chief Rabbinate has not examined even one of my recommendations and has not come up with alternative solutions, except for the establishment of the new slaughtering school, which sounds more like a spin to me. If the Chief Rabbinate is not wise enough to leave operation and management in the hands of professionals, the situation will remain the same for many years to come.”

‘It’s like the Wild West’

Green grass and trees surround a compound that, from the outside, looks like a standard factory. This factory is an abattoir in a South American country that provides Israel with tons of meat. Inside it, however, lies a much more graphic scene: cows being led one by one to their swift slaughter. The internal and external inspectors examine the cattle after their blood has been drained from their carcasses and decide whether the meat is kosher. On a bingo-like board, they mark: this meat is permissible for Jews to eat, while this meat is not. The slaughtered meat is then transported by truck to ships – and from there to Israel.

A slaughtering team slaughters approximately 11 thousand cattle heads every month, with an average of 500 a day, 22 days a month. Every cattle head produces about 250 kilograms of meat, approximately 2.75 million per month.

Even though the meat industry generates billions, it is considered incredibly centralized. According to an internal Chief Rabbinate document that ended up in the hands of “Israel Hayom,” only 31 meat importers import fresh meat into Israel, some of which are from the Israeli meat industry’s most well-known companies. Some of the importers simultaneously provide additional personnel services to other personnel, which means that, in practice, the market is even more centralized.

According to a test conducted by Koral Tov-El, MK Malinovsky’s parliamentary assistant, in preparation for the Religious Affairs Committee’s debates, only eight importers submitted applications for the import of fresh meat quotas over the past two years. These quotas include fresh meat only, and there may be other active importers who import frozen meat, which are not included in this list of importers. In response to a question posed by Malinovsky in a Knesset debate, a Finance Ministry representative confirmed that “this is a tiny list of importers, which can be counted on less than two hands.”

The Chief Rabbinate’s building in Jerusalem

The “bigwigs” are a part of this predicament, as, over the years, they have become significant, albeit unofficial, authorities in the system. “People outside the system organize the slaughtering teams and essentially decide who does and does not leave Israel,” admits one of the importers we spoke with. “They, the ‘bigwigs’, make the decisions, and the importers have no say in the matter. The slaughter teams’ wages are decided by the “big wig,” and the closer he is to the Chief Rabbinate – the lower the amount will be because they know with whom to speak. These “bigwigs” make 50 thousand ILS per month barely lifting a finger. It’s insane.” In this report, the importer refused to be acknowledged by name, which would do “massive” harm to him.

“People have told me, ‘Don’t speak out; they will make you a marked man.’ I worry about my business. I have tens of millions invested in it. Who will compensate me afterward? The ‘bigwigs’ will tell the kashrut supervisor to ‘be sick’ for two weeks, and since he will not have a replacement – I will be the one affected. They mark those they are okay with and who they are not and have methods for taking away your kashrut certification if they are not okay with you.”

“Like the Wild West”
According to the claims, “bigwigs” are not sent to work abroad and, as a result, miss out on the potential slaughtering season wages. “We have testimonies according to which only those who have close ties with the “bigwigs” and are on their lists are assigned to work abroad, and those who do not, stay at home with no money. This is unbelievable,” says Malinovsky.

“I received many petitions from butchers. They told me that if you are not well-connected, you do not have the option of going abroad to support yourself. But they are afraid, they refuse to come and testify, and in the meantime, no one is taking care of them – they are transparent. We have a problematic phenomenon in which an extremely centralized group preys on everyone – both the butchers and the general public. There is fear and terror. No one knows how they are employed or how much they work. A Wild West.”

“The problem is not the butchers themselves because, as stated earlier, they are usually unfortunate. Go-getters are managing this whole thing, and we, the Israeli public, are captives and are paying dearly for it. This tiny group controls something gigantic: a meat market worth NIS 27 billion. This raises concerns and suspicions that the whole thing is not being run properly, and the deeper we dug – the more we found out. In my view, aside from eliminating the bad aftertaste, we are left with, law enforcement authorities must address the matter. All the law enforcement authorities must systemically treat this issue to put an end to this lawlessness.”

In a Religious Services Committee debate, Rabbi Avi Zarki, a prominent kosher butcher, said that he was also exposed to apparently troubling sights. “I was the youngest slaughterer to go abroad, I learned slaughtering from well-known butchers, but even then, years ago, I witnessed failures. They told me, ‘Keep your mouth shut if you want to continue going abroad. If you speak out, you will be erased and face everlasting contempt’. Some butchers are not even supposed to go abroad because they are too old. I know someone 80 years old with diabetes who frequently faints and still goes abroad as a team leader. This phenomenon is dreadful.”

In addition to paying wages, importers are required to address all the needs of the butchers and staff members abroad. Although kashrut supervisors in Israel also receive their salaries from the owners of the businesses they supervise, with all the accompanying fear of a conflict of interests in this situation, it seems that the problem increases sevenfold when it comes to an importer that provides all the needs of a supervisor who is abroad, and for many months at a time.

“In South America, slaughter teams do not pay a single expense from their own pockets. They come there without a toothbrush, without even underwear. We, the importers, provide them with everything, to the nth degree,” says an importer we spoke with.

To be fair, it should be noted that the basic conditions for butchers abroad are not particularly luxurious. They are not being accommodated in luxury hotels but rather in different hostels. On the other hand, according to descriptions received by “Israel Hayom,” Spartan boarding is not always the case either.

The question is, what exactly do the importers provide the slaughtering team members with, under the vague definition of “everything”? People who were members of slaughtering teams abroad said that in the past, “everything” included things that are not appropriate for full-fledged butchers or even religious people. “There were all sorts of stories of incidents in which butchers slept around,” said a slaughterer that operates abroad. Other sources tell of alcohol and drug consumption and even local call girls apparently being ordered for the butchers.

“I resided in South America a decade ago, and there was a group of supervisors. They did drugs and spent time with call girls, you name it. You witness these things and rub your eyes in bewilderment,” recounted a man who saw, in his words, “with his own eyes,” the questionable conduct of a slaughter team abroad.

According to the Head Rabbinate’s regulations, butchers are prohibited from visiting the city nearest their lodging place. Still, the butchers we spoke with admitted that there were incidents in the past where the rules were broken since Israel was very far away. “If a team leader looks the other way, you can do whatever your heart desires, the butchers explained.

Malinovsky: “Importers testified before me that they pay for everything – from toothbrushes to call girls. From underwear to ‘personal services’. They say nothing can be done; the men reside there for long periods without their spouses.

“There are many problematic fields. This raises great suspicion of improper conduct by those involved, such as the question of how the funds are transferred abroad and who supervises the matter. Their answer to my question was ‘what happens abroad – stays abroad.’ The way this business is run, I am not even certain that part of the meat in our supermarkets is really of good kosher quality.”

In this context, it should be noted that the Chief Rabbinate’s control of the butchers abroad is minuscule. The Foreign Slaughtering Department comprises only two employees: its director and secretary. Although an importer who wishes to send a slaughtering team abroad must receive authorization from the department’s director and his briefing before the team’s departure, communication afterward is flawed due to the nature of their distance from headquarters.

According to the Chief Rabbinate, the Foreign Slaughtering Department receives weekly updates from the team leaders, which include the number of slaughters, the number of kosher and “Glatt kosher” pieces of meat packaged, and the amount of non-kosher meat slaughtered. The department remotely addresses Halachic problems that arise in the factories, interpersonal issues between team members and importers and between themselves, and the team members’ disciplinary matters. In the past, attempts were made at fitting the factories abroad with cameras but were prevented by technical difficulties.

In a comprehensive report written by Filber several years ago, as part of the “Kohelet” policy forum (a conservative right-wing organization involved in several public fields), he noted that the amount of knowledge the Foreign Slaughtering Department has on its slaughtering teams is tiny, and that “is occasionally summed up by a name and a phone number.” According to Filber, the data provided by the team leaders is summarized in handwriting in their weekly report, which is sent to the department by fax – occasionally a few days late.

Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef

Filber warned in his report that it is extremely challenging for the department’s director to supervise the team’s work from Jerusalem. Therefore, the Chief Rabbinate has decided to initiate a supervision system of the slaughtering teams. However, logistical and funding difficulties led to one supervisor being responsible for at least several factories, hundreds of kilometers from one another and sometimes even in different countries.

The Chief Rabbinate stated that “the team leaders sign an ethic code according to which they are obligated to operate in accordance with regulations.”

According to Malinovsky, she is acting to pass a law within the framework of the Arrangements Law that will allow the import of kosher meat from known kashrut organizations worldwide into Israel. The idea, she says, is to enable competition between the kashrut organizations while ensuring their adherence to an adequate level of kashrut. She said her idea has been opposed and ultimately dismissed due to the government’s collapse. Malinovsky promises to promote the issue in the next Knesset if she is in a position to do so.

Until the field is regulated, we, the consumers, will all need to continue to pay, and dearly so, for the substandard conduct in the kosher meat market.

“The Chief Rabbinate supervises the slaughtering and the kashrut of the meat imported into Israel in accordance with the Meat and Meat Products Law, which prohibits the import of non-kosher meat into Israel. To do so, the Foreign Slaughtering Department certifies butchers and slaughtering teams in accordance with organized procedures and trains and supervises abattoirs worldwide,” the ultra-Orthodox organization, which has a monopoly in kashrut issues in Israel, said in a statement.

“In addition, every season, supervisors are sent on behalf of the Chief Rabbinate on supervision rounds in abattoirs in different countries around the world to check the kosher slaughter’s perfection and the implementation of the Rabbinate’s regulations. The Chief Rabbinate conducts itself responsibly, professionally, and thoroughly to guarantee reliable kosher meat for the consumers. The establishment of a slaughtering school is under internal debate in the Rabbinate.”

“The Chief Rabbinate has no involvement in determining the slaughtering teams’ wages. The team leader’s job is important, and he bears a heavy responsibility. The team leader is responsible for the meat’s kashrut and represents the Chief Rabbinate towards importers, the factories abroad, and its employees. The team leader is appointed on the halachic and professional level to implement the Chief Rabbinate’s kashrut regulations on-site to guarantee the meat’s kashrut. The Chief Rabbinate grants the meat its kashrut certificate, as a condition for its marketing in Israel, based on the slaughtering team’s activity.

“Members of the slaughtering teams certified by the Chief Rabbinate are God-fearing people who work under challenging conditions. We protest these unfounded claims and slanders that aim to impugn their honesty and integrity.

“Regarding the claims regarding the inspector who operates abroad: it is entirely unclear if the matter poses a legal problem; however, for the sake of cautiousness, it is under the review of the Legal Counsel.

“Regarding the claims made in your inquiry regarding an inspector’s alleged acceptance of funds, these are claims made in the past and were already addressed by the Chief Rabbinate. After thoroughly examining these claims at the time, it has been clarified that improper conduct was indeed discovered in the butchers’ certification system. As a result of this conduct, the necessary lessons have been learned, and procedures have been refined. We emphasize that after legally examining the matter, the Chief Rabbinate did not find it appropriate to take further steps.”

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