Meat Scandal Rattles LA Community

NEW YORK -
The storefront of Doheny Kosher Meats.
The storefront of Doheny Kosher Meats.

Purchased meat ruled kosher; owner sells company

Word that a prominent kashrus agency abruptly removed its hashgachah from one of the largest suppliers of glatt meat in Los Angeles a day before Erev Pesach rattled the local Jewish community and sent shockwaves across the country. A nationally recognized posek, however, ruled that all products purchased at the meat market in question up to the time of the removal of the kashrus certification could be used, and rigorous investigation indicated that allegations of a wider kashrus scandal were greatly exaggerated. Late Sunday afternoon, shortly before the beginning of the second days of Pesach, responding to a request by community leaders seeking to ensure the availability of affordable glatt meat, a noted Jewish philanthropist purchased the company in question.

On Sunday, March 24, the day of bedikas chametz, the Rabbinical Council of California (RCC) received video footage showing serious kashrus violations at Doheny Kosher Meats, a store under its supervision. An urgent meeting of the Vaad Hakashrus was held and the Rabbanim viewed footage taken on three separate dates, March 7, March 12 and March 14, in which a vehicle belonging to the owner of Doheny can be seen arriving at a plant at which non-glatt meat with various levels of kashrus certification is sold. Empty used boxes with Agri labels (Agri sells both glatt and non-glatt meat) were filled with unidentified products and the vehicle was then driven back to Doheny’s store on Pico Boulevard, arriving shortly before 7:00 a.m.

As per the conditions of the RCC hashgachah, the mashgiach temidi had the only keys to the establishment, and the workers were standing outside waiting his arrival. At 7:00 a.m. the mashgiach arrived and opened both the doors to the wholesale storage facility as well as the doors to the retail part of the store where meats are cut and repackaged. At the same time, a shipment of numerous pallets of Agri meats arrived as well.

Fifteen minutes later, after making an initial round of inspection, the mashgiach, in a clear violation of the hashgachah’s policy, left to go to daven. As soon as the mashgiach left, a signal went out to company workers to empty the boxes of the owner’s vehicle directly into the retail part of the store.

“We were shocked,” Rabbi Gershon Bess, one of Los Angeles’ most respected poskim and a key figure in the RCC, told Hamodia. “We had told the mashgiach that he had to daven before coming in, and was not allowed to leave. In fact, we had informed him that the previous mashgiach had been fired for leaving the premises.”

Rabbi Bess, along with Rabbi Meyer H. May, president of the RCC, and the other members of the Vad Hakashrus, found the evidence compelling and immediately decided to remove the hechsher.

“I got the call at 1:00 in the afternoon,” Rabbi May said. “I raced over, across town, and by 1:15 we were watching the videos. At 3:00 the RCC instructed the mashgiach to remove the official RCC kashrus seal and instructed him to stand in front of the store and tell shoppers that the store was no longer under RCC supervision.”

At 5:30 that afternoon, a larger group of local RCC rabbis as well as lay leaders from the community met with the owner to give him the opportunity to clarify what had occurred. At first he denied any wrongdoing, but after being told that there was video evidence, he admitted bringing in products that were not under RCC supervision on at least three occasions.

According to Rabbi Bess, “al pi pashtus” (it is probable) the products that were brought in were non-glatt kosher meat, though it was unknown how many times this breach had actually repeated itself.

An anxious community then waited for word whether all those who had purchased at this establishment would have to discard all the food, or even kasher their utensils.

The Rabbanim of the RCC decided to pose the she’eilah to Harav Yisrael Belsky, shlita, Rosh Yeshivas Torah Vodaas and senior posek of the OU.

After spending some 15 minutes exploring every angle and listening to the exact details of the case, Rav Belsky issued his psak at 8:00 p.m. Pacific Time: all products purchased up until 3:00 that day — the time when the hashgachah was removed — could be used.

Since the amounts of meat or poultry smuggled in — less than ten boxes at a time — represented only a fraction of the legitimate glatt meat being brought into the store — the halachah is that each individual piece of meat is assumed to be part of the majority and is therefore permissible to use. The community was promptly informed of the psak.

What Rabbi Bess found extremely aggravating was the fact that while the first footage was filmed on March 7 and the most recent footage on Thursday, March 14, RCC was first sent the footage on Sunday afternoon, March 24, just hours before bedikas chametz — some ten days later.

In a conversation with Hamodia, Eric Agaki, the private investigator who filmed the videos, defended the delay, saying, “I didn’t do it on purpose … I am not a rabbi, I am an investigator, I know I have to have all the evidence and as much evidence as I can…

“While this [case] was important to me, I had other cases I had to deal with. I worked on this when I had free time, but I have my own firm and have to feed my family.”

He added that he had to go through the material and then showed it to other rabbis he declined to identify.

Agaki was scheduled to meet on Erev Pesach with the USDA, which was conducting its own investigation into the matter. Agaki was originally planning to wait until after the Yom Tov to go public. It was the rabbis he consulted with who insisted that the material had to be given over to the RCC immediately. It was these rabbis who gave the footage to the kashrus organization.

Agaki insisted that he wasn’t hired by Doheny’s competitor. While he acknowledges being in touch with the competitors, Agaki says this was only in order to learn about the business.

“I was not hired by anyone in that community,” he said, concluding, “You can say I was hired by G-d.”

With Doheny Meats no longer under RCC supervision, there was considerable concern within the community that its main competitor would now have a stranglehold on the glatt market, a thought that alarmed caterers and some consumers.

Rabbi May and Rabbi Beirush Goldenberg, the greatly respected Menahel of Yeshivas Torah Emes, reached out to Reb Shlomo Yehuda Rechnitz, noted LA philanthropist, and asked him to purchase Doheny Meats.

On the fourth day of Chol Hamoed the purchase went through and Rechnitz along with David Kagan of Western Kosher are now the proprietors of Doheny.

“It was a double favor for the community,” Rabbi Bess told Hamodia.

In addition to helping avoid a monopoly, Mr. Rechnitz’s decision to make the purchase was of great assistance in the subsequent RCC investigation.

As a would-be buyer, Rechnitz has access to all relevant documentation — and the previous owner was willing to talk with Rechnitz about what he had and hadn’t done.

One of the key concerns of the RCC was whether this was part of a larger meat scandal. Had the owner of Doheny supplied outside meat to caterers or other large establishments? Fortunately, it appears that the answer is no.

The RCC had put in place a system of affixing coded seals on all boxes that were being sent to other locations such as caterers and retailers. Upon arrival of the cartons, the mashgiach at the receiving end would contact his colleague at the sending end, and the two mashgichim would carefully compare the numbers on the boxes.

The RCC investigation indicated that according to all available evidence the coding system had worked as planned, and contrary to various rumors being spread, the crack in the system was the human error on the part of the mashgiach and the failure to catch it early on.

Among the charges leveled was that Doheny’s prices were so low that they couldn’t possibly be selling glatt kosher meat. However, it was subsequently learned that while Doheny’s former owner had apparently been able to offer lower prices than his competitors on some of his products, it was his willingness to make timely payments to his suppliers that made it possible for him to buy at lower prices — and then pass that savings on to the consumers.

“The vast majority of the meats being sold were legit,” Rabbi Bess concluded.