By Rabbi Yair Hoffman
Empire Kosher is the largest producer of kosher poultry in the United States, and one of the oldest. It was founded in Liberty, New York, in 1938 and shechts some 65,000 chickens each day. They have between 60 and 70 shochtim.
Until recently, Empire has had four supervising agencies providing its hechsherim: The OU, KAJ, TSHI (Third Supervision of the Highest Integrity), and Tartikov of Rabbi Yechiel Babad.
The OU is the oldest hechsher supervising Empire, followed by KAJ approximately 15 years ago. Next Rav Yisroel Belsky, zt’l, called the KAJ to come in and add their supervision. The most recently added supervision was Tartikov, which began after this past Sukkos but was announced in April.
As of July 20, KAJ has pulled out. KAJ enjoys the highest reputation in the Litvish, Yekkish, and YU communities. A letter KAJ sent to members of its kehillah recommended three alternative chicken products. The full text of the letter is reproduced below:
After many years of giving the highest level of kashrus supervision at Empire Kosher Poultry, we will be removing our Hashgocho effective July 20, 2020. This decision was made after much discussion and deliberation both with Empire and internally. Unfortunately, circumstances have developed that prevent us from being able to guarantee that are our standards of kashrus will continue to be met. Products manufactured through July 20, 2020, and bearing the seal of the KAJ are still under our supervision.
In the meantime, we recommend the following poultry product providers:
- KJ (Kiryas Joel) Poultry (KJ Hashgocho)
- BKP (Birsdsboro Kosher Poultry; CRC, Brooklyn Hashgocho)
- Marvid (CRC, Brooklyn Hashgocho)
Beginning July 20, 2020, Kiryas Joel poultry will be available in Key Food. For questions about the kashrus of any poultry or other product, you may contact Rabbi Moshe Edelstein, our Kashrus Administrator.
Rav Yisroel Mantel
Halachic Musings reached out to Rabbi Menachem Genack, CEO of the Orthodox Union Kosher Division, as well as others at Empire. Rabbi Genack said: “There is absolutely no change in terms of the quality of the kashrus and of the supervision.” He attributed the egress of KAJ to clashes in style.
Rabbi Yechiel Babad also emphasized the high level of integrity and yiras shamayim of the shochtim and mashgichim. He stated, “The very high standards have been maintained and are constantly being observed to ensure that there are no gaps in the quality of the supervision.”
The head of TSHI or his son visits Empire each week to ensure their high standards of kashrus.
Rabbi Moshe Klarberg, senior OU rabbinic coordinator and head of the OU’s meat team, was also positive about the high quality of kashrus standards at Empire. He pointed out that kashrus standards at Empire Kosher Poultry remain unchanged, and continue to be maintained by the OU and Rav Babad. He expressed the OU’s disappointment in the tone of the KAJ community letter.
Why Multiple Hechsherim?
Adding a trusted hechsher of a community increases market share. With the growing chassidish markets in Boro Park, Williamsburg, Monsey, Lakewood, and elsewhere — and the fact that large supermarket chains have an ever-growing kosher food section — it is a positive marketing move to add hechsherim.
Generally speaking, when a new hechsher certifies a product, the company checks with the other supervisions in order to ensure that there are no issues. Each hechsher has its own minimum standards and its own set of chumros and kulos, stringencies and leniencies, that are unique to its own hechsher.
For example, there is a debate among the hechsherim about kashering things that require hagalah within a 24-hour period when they were last used. The Mechaber, Rav Yosef Karo, writes in Y.D. 95:4 that if one introduces a boiling davar ha’pogeim into the item that needs kashering, it can create an “artificial nosein ta’am lifgam.” The Pischei Teshuvah agrees with this position. The Shach rules that it is forbidden (95:21), stating that this leniency is not cited anywhere and that there is a proof from the Ba’alei Tosfos otherwise.
The KAJ does not rely on this leniency. Most of the other hashgachos — including the OU — do rely on it.
“The OU has a longstanding policy that when the OU and the co-certifying agency have a difference of opinion, the more stringent approach is usually adopted,” Rabbi Klarberg told the Five Towns Jewish Times. “This has always been the case at Empire Kosher Poultry.”
This is necessary because no organization is forced to lower its standards to accommodate another hechsher.
“The protocol is that each hechsher must agree to the chumros of the other hechsherim. They do not, however, agree to leniencies or kulos,” remarked Rav Avrohom Belsky, shlita, son of Rabbi Belsky, zt’l — a well-respected mashgiach in his own right among a number of the hechsherim.
Thus, whenever another hechsher joins up with the KAJ, they must agree not to use items kashered on the same day. For weddings in a fancy and busy hotel or for the Pesach programs (aleihem ha’shalom) in busy and fancy venues, this can cause financial loss, as the kitchen has to be in non-use for an extra day.
When a hechsher is added, there is usually a tweak or two required to accommodate the hechsher. The new agency cannot introduce any kulos because the other hechsherim will not allow it. The new tweak is usually a chumrah — that improves matters — but it is not to say that the previous standard was unacceptable. According to sources at Empire, when Tartikov came to Empire they did tweak the melichah (salting) process to ensure that every centimeter of the inside of the chicken also gets salted by the mechanical process that is used. This met with the approval of the other hechsherim.
A kashrus agency can demand certain things of a company. In the case of a meat plant, they can make demands of the shochtim, the bodkim and of the mashgichim.
One agency can have an attitude of very strict control of its shochtim and mashgichim. They can have stricter requirements about beards, about not being single, phone types, etc. Another agency can exercise rigorous standards but adhere more strictly to another set of standards advocated by Rav Yisroel Salanter in ensuring that each employee be treated with the highest dignity and respect. A story is often related that when asked what chumros should be kept in the baking of matzah, he responded, “Make sure that your words and tone do not cause an iota of pain to the almana who is baking the matzah.”
There can also be situations where one agency can eclipse another and take more of a leadership role. It is possible that the separation is on account of a significant difference in managerial styles between some of the agencies involved. One kashrus expert was of the opinion that KAJ would never leave a hechsher unless there was a true kashrus problem. Given the size of the account, it is difficult to dismiss his thinking.
Halachic Musings asserts that everyone involved in kashrus, whether as a mashgiach, a field representative or head of an agency, should strictly adhere to the ruling on the Mishnah Berurah in Orach Chaim 1:12. This will enable the kashrus agency to fulfill the words of Abaye in the Gemara in Yoma 86a on the first sentence in the Shema.
A number of years ago, the shochtim and mashgichim at Empire once greeted Rav Yisroel Belsky, zt’l, with an impromptu tisch. He spoke to them with a dvar Torah and chizuk. “They loved him dearly,” remarked a person who was present at the visit.
The statement “Circumstances have developed that prevent us from being able to guarantee that are our standards of kashrus will continue to be met” indicate a concern about the future, and not necessarily a problem that exists now. However, a call to someone in the KAJ revealed that there are, in fact, current concerns.
There are numerous halachic issues that can come up at a poultry processing plant:
- Do they check for tzomes ha’gidin (the back of the knee)? What is that process? (We used to think that this was a pecking problem — now we know that it is actually caused by a virus!) Do they check the lot or each chicken?
- How are the chickens (or eggs) vaccinated? Generally, it is done on the upper thigh or under the neck skin. If under the neck skin it may create a hole in the esophagus which could render it a treifah. What is the angle that the needle enters? Does it face the food pipe, the veshet? If in the egg (which is standard in the U.S.), until what day do they allow it? Do they inject it in the rounder part where the air pocket is found?
- How do the chickens arrive? Are the workers abusive when they remove the crates? If so, there are questions of nefula if the crates are thrown down too hard.
- How crowded are the chickens at the farm? How much stress do they undergo?
- Are the crates checked for blood? If so, does the presence of blood indicate that there may be a head-peck concern?
- How tired are the shochtim? Does the hechsher oversee this at all? (At Empire, the shochtim who are not from Baltimore sleep in the facility.)
- Although halachah states that the lungs of a chicken do not need to be checked unless there is a problem, in Eretz Yisrael they do check lungs, on account of a virus. Do they check the lots in America?
- How is the de-feathering prior to the shechitah overseen (called the CD line)? How many mashgichim check it?
Whenever there is an issue of kashrus, there is a chance, chalilah, that someone could stumble in lashon ha’ra. This is a request to all readers of this article to refrain from doing so.
A Reigning Empire
As a company, Empire has an impressive record of mentchlichkeit. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, a paper that exposed a poultry processing plant called Bell and Evans that was responsible for the deaths of three people because they had pressured employees who were suffering from corona to come back to work too early, Empire’s behavior was exemplary.
“Empire took a different approach. The company closed voluntarily for two weeks in early April, during the height of the busy Passover season, after multiple employees tested positive for COVID-19. At the time, Wendell Young, president of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1776 Keystone State, told the Lewistown Sentinel that the plant was closing out of an ‘abundance of caution.’ He described Empire as likely the ‘cleanest poultry plant you’ll find on the planet.’”
The CDC visited Empire on May 19, and its overall assessment of the protocols in place there was positive. “The company has implemented many controls at the plant to help reduce and mitigate the spread of SARS-CoV-2 between workers while in the plant,” the agency wrote.
Empire’s cooperation in matters of kashrus has likewise been described by the hechsherim in glowing terms.
Rabbi Hoffman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.