Of Rabbis and Butchers: Agriprocessor and the Decline of Kosher Meat

Sunday, January 8, 2012: 8:50 AM
Erie Room (Sheraton Chicago Hotel & Towers)
Roger Horowitz, Hagley Museum and Library
The scandals that convulsed kosher meat packing firm Agriprocessor in 2004 and 2008 riveted public attention on kosher food. First a PETA video documented appalling mistreatment of cattle destined for slaughter, then a few years later a government raid arrested 389 undocumented workers and, in effect, caused the firm to shut down.

This paper will show how the Agriprocessor scandal emerged out of the crisis of obtaining kosher meat for observant Jews. In marked contrast to the advance of kosher processed foods in the last 50 years, where approximately 40% of the items in a supermarket are certified kosher, kosher meat, especially beef, became increasingly had to obtain after 1960.

The reasons for kosher meat’s decline rest in the convergence of changes in the American Jewish community and the transformation of the country’s methods of meat production, distribution, and retail. Among Jews, the postwar generation born into observant households was far less committed to maintaining a kosher home than their parents. Simultaneously, demand for a stricter version of kosher meat, known as glatt, rose dramatically as the Hasidic Jewish population expanded.

During these same years (roughly 1955-1975) the meat industry changed in ways that made satisfying the remaining demand for glatt kosher meat less attractive for large meatpacking companies. As a result, kosher meat production increasingly came from firms created principally for that purpose. However, these new kosher meat companies still had to sell the vast majority of their meat in the non-kosher market. They were, in effect, in competition with firms that were far larger and more efficient than they were, and thus forced to engage in fierce cost-cutting measures so as to stay viable. The abuses documented by Agriprocessor flowed from the grave difficulties of servicing a narrow market with expensive and hard to create products.