RABBIS OBJECT TO FMI KOSHER AUDIT

WASHINGTON -- The Food Marketing Institute is working on changing its controversial kosher slaughter audit, in light of growing pressure from food retailers and Jewish leaders.According to media reports, at least one large supermarket chain has decided to bypass FMI's audit and use an independent audit, while another leading retailer has pressed FMI to meet with a group of rabbis as soon as possible

WASHINGTON -- The Food Marketing Institute is working on changing its controversial kosher slaughter audit, in light of growing pressure from food retailers and Jewish leaders.

According to media reports, at least one large supermarket chain has decided to bypass FMI's audit and use an independent audit, while another leading retailer has pressed FMI to meet with a group of rabbis as soon as possible to work out an acceptable alternative. Nearly a year ago, a group of Orthodox Jewish leaders raised concerns that rabbinical authorities were left out of the process of developing the document. The rabbis contend the audit covers not only the handling of animals, but delves into the act of schechita -- kosher slaughter -- itself.

FMI officials have met with animal welfare experts Joe Regenstein and Temple Grandin to discuss what practical changes can be made to the kosher slaughter audit, Karen Brown, senior vice president at FMI, told SN. Due to scheduling challenges, FMI officials have yet to set a date to meet with the rabbis, Brown said.

"We've been working with [the American Meat Institute] and talking with Dr. Regenstein and Dr. Grandin about a change in the design of the box [animal restraining pen] that would turn the animal in a manner that if you wanted to do a complete upside down cut, that could be done," Brown said. "But there are several variations on how that cut can be made. So that is the issue."

FMI, in collaboration with the National Council of Chain Restaurants, worked with producers, animal welfare experts and member companies to develop an animal welfare program. It included kosher and Halal slaughter guidelines that conform with religious laws and are consistent with AMI guidelines, Brown said. The guidelines were finalized in January 2003, after FMI received extensive feedback from Jewish and Moslem communities regarding the religious slaughter recommendations, Brown added.

For their part, Jewish leaders and kosher businesses are eager to resolve the delicate issue. A coalition of kosher certifiers and Orthodox Jewish groups first requested a meeting with FMI in March 2004, according to media reports.

"From my perspective, I'm not in the kosher business, but I sell kosher," said Sholom Rubashkin, plant manager at AgriProcessors, a Postville, Iowa-based kosher meat plant. "The kosher consumer looks for rabbinical certification for direction of what is kosher and what is not and [for supermarkets going through with the current FMI audit] to ignore [the rabbinical authorities] is to ignore the kosher consumers."

Kosher foods represent a growing niche for retailers. For many consumers, the kosher label signals high quality. For religious consumers, the rabbinical certification on foods assures them that the products conform with kosher rules, one observer noted.

"As a consumer, I know that when I go into a store and I see a food item that has a rabbinic certification on it, that means that I feel like I can buy the product in confidence knowing that the rabbi has control of all things that relate to the religious acceptability of the product." said David Zwiebel, executive vice president for government and public affairs of Agudath Israel America, an Orthodox Jewish group.

Zwiebel said he's happy that a major supermarket retailer is using its influence to push FMI to meet with the rabbinical authorities.