Finding Kosher Meat During the Pandemic

A full shelf of kosher meat at House of Kosher on April 17
A full shelf of kosher meat at House of Kosher on April 17 (Photo by Shoshana Josefowits)

This story has been updated.

On April 2, just before Pesach, Empire Kosher, one of the country’s largest kosher chicken producers, closed its Mifflintown poultry processing plant after two employees tested positive for COVID-19.

For those who typically shop for Empire chicken, this represented a challenge. Combine the plant’s temporary closing with the fact that all kosher meat is already harder to find around Pesach, throw in growing concerns about pressures on the national food supply chain, and some Philadelphians were worried that they wouldn’t be able to find kosher meat.

According to some regular kosher shoppers and several people with professional experience in the kosher food industry, it was a little more complicated than that. Though kosher meat is not as easy to find at the moment, it is still available in abundance — if you know where to look. The Empire poultry processing plant, for what it’s worth, reopened on April 20.

For starters, several grocery stores remain sufficiently stocked with kosher meats, including House of Kosher, ShopRite of Roosevelt Boulevard and the Acme on Montgomery Avenue in Narberth. This was according to several shoppers, who reported that they were able to find everything that they needed at those locations.

Melissa Schwartz, who lives in Bala Cynwyd, hasn’t been able to find kosher meat at the grocery stores she frequents, both of which only carry Empire chicken in their kosher meats sections. In the past few weeks, she said, she’s instead headed to House of Kosher.

David Kushner, who worked in the kosher food industry in various capacities for two decades, said the continued availability of kosher meat locally in recent weeks is due to a few factors.

First, he said, the stores that have kept their shelves stocked with kosher meat during quarantine are not dependent on a single source. Many major supermarket chains offer Empire as their only kosher chicken, or as the main one.

For stores that offer a diversity of kosher meat brands, keeping the shelves stocked hasn’t exactly been easy, but far from impossible. Stores that remain stocked with kosher meat may have Agri Star, Meal Mart or Solomon’s products, among others.

“Because of their diversity, they’re able to ensure a continuous availability of product to the kosher consumer in the Philadelphia area,” said Kushner, who lives in Northeast Philadelphia.

Part of the reason for the varied stock, Kushner explained, is growing demand in recent years. Producers that may have once stuck to commercial sales now happily sell their retail products to an increasingly ample customer base. Though the neighborhood kosher butcher appears to have gone the way of the dinosaur, the products they once sold are more widely available than ever.

Aside from grocery stores, community leaders and service providers have worked together to ensure that those who want kosher meat will be able to get it. Lower Merion Synagogue, Congregation Beth Solomon and the Talmudic Yeshiva of Philadelphia, among other institutions, have set up various programs to keep their communities fed.

Another reason for availability can be chalked up to quick entrepreneurial thinking.

Daniel Israel, the owner and head chef of Kosher Catering Philadelphia, realized at the beginning of quarantine that the dissolution of gala and milestone event season meant that he would need a new revenue source — and fast. He’s been ordering kosher meat in bulk, which he trims, cuts, vacuum seals and delivers to customers, many of whom don’t want to enter supermarkets for fear of infection.

He estimated that he’s moved upward of 3,000 pounds of meat per week. People have ordered as much as a month’s worth of meat and as little as a single eight-piece cut-up chicken for delivery, Israel said.

“This is really our way to stay above water,” Israel said.

Kushner and Israel both stressed that kosher is definitely more difficult to find, with Empire’s temporary shutdown, an initial burst of overbuying at the beginning of quarantine and the typical Pesach situation. The extent of that shortage, however, shouldn’t be overstated, they believe.

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