Sausage dispute just isn't kosher, say London Jews

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The Independent Online
A BITTER dispute over control of the pounds 20m kosher meat trade has led to a ban on the country's largest supplier of processed kosher meat from selling its products in London.

Religious Jews can only eat food that has been passed as "clean" or kosher. To qualify as kosher, a food product must be licensed by a rabbinical court - a Beth Din - which employs religious experts to check that the food is produced according to the strict standards required under Jewish religious law.

For this service there is a charge, and as a result, kosher products can be three times more expensive than the same non-kosher ones. It is the fee that Gilbert's Kosher Foods, a Milton Keynes company, is being charged for this service by the capital's licensing authority, the London Board of Shechitah, that has sparked the latest round of "kosher wars". "Power and money are at the heart of this dispute," said a community insider.

Gilbert's incurred the wrath of London rabbis after the company decided to switch its allegiance to another religious authority, the Manchester Shechitah Board. According to Gilbert's, which was reported to be paying pounds 100,000 a year to the London Board of Shechitah, the Manchester outfit offered the company a better deal.

Enraged at having one of its best customers poached by the Manchester board, the London rabbis issued an edict banning Gilbert's products from retail outlets that they license in the London area, thus creating the bizarre situation whereby a product is considered kosher in one place but not in another.

Meanwhile, the Jewish consumer, currently preparing for a series of religious feasts that will take place during the High Holidays this month, including the Jewish New Year and Day of Atonement, has been left bemused by the arcane power struggles of religious leaders. Anne Kent, from Edgware in north-west London, wrote to the Jewish Chronicle to ask: "At what point on my journey to London would that which was kosher in Manchester lose its acceptability?"

Bloom's, the kosher restaurant in Golders Green, has been placed in the same surreal situation. Its famous range of viennas (kosher sausages) and other cooked meats are now made under licence by Gilbert's, but the restaurant itself is under the control of the London Beth Din, which has ordered that only products bearing a seal issued by the London Board for Shechitah can be sold. The upshot is that Bloom's cannot serve its own brand of sausages.

"What has this great movement, religion, nation, come to when we allow a vienna to come between us?" wrote a distressed Harold Segal of Hendon in the Jewish Chronicle.

Norman Bookbinder, Gilbert's managing director, shrugged off the ban, saying it would have only a minimal effect on sales. Most of its business, such as the supply of kosher hotdogs to Tottenham Hotspur football club, which has a large Jewish following, would be unaffected by the ban. "They [the London Beth Din] are shooting themselves in the foot; it will only affect butchers that they license," he said.

Despite declining religious observance among Britain's 300,000 Jews, demand for pro- cessed kosher food has remain- ed healthy, said Mr Bookbinder. "Consumption of fresh meat is down, but many people still want to return to their roots by eating salt beef sandwiches." Nearly 150 kosher butchers have closed in the past 20 years, but this has been offset by the opening of 180 general food outlets selling kosher produce.

There is also a growing customer base developing from outside the Jewish community, said Mr Bookbinder. Millions of British Muslims find kosher meat an acceptable equivalent to the halal version. And there is more interest in ethnic foods generally, creating new opportunities for kosher food manufacturers.

But the advent of non-Jewish shops selling kosher food has created tension. There have been attempts to drive an Asian out of the kosher food business. Dr Raj Kadiwar, who owns Raj Kosher Foods in Golders Green, was picketed by orthodox Jews and suffered arson attacks because he was undercutting Jewish retailers. Attempts to organise a boycott failed, and Dr Kadiwar's enterprise has since thrived.