Shelat Kosher Foods of Chicago has agreed to refund customers' money and to stop selling its meat and poultry products as kosher after being accused of falsely labeling non-kosher products as kosher.
The company, which has been one of the nation's biggest suppliers of kosher chicken, took the action after the Illinois Attorney General's Office filed suit Wednesday against it and two sister companies, United Poultry and Aspen Foods. The complaint accuses the companies and their owners, Sheldon Terman and Michael Terman, of consumer fraud and deceptive trade practices. The Termans could not be reached for comment Thursday.
According to state authorities, Shelat put kosher labels on products that were prepared in a plant not under rabbinical supervision, then sold the goods as kosher--for a higher price.
The charges could mean that thousands of consumers as well as hotels, restaurants and caterers will have to undergo the complex and potentially costly process of re-koshering kitchens according to the kashrut , the Jewish dietary code.
Illinois Asst. Attorney General James M. Gordon, who is a rabbi, said that the company's owners have not admitted guilt but have agreed to a temporary court order to refund consumer's money for Shelat products distributed after early July. They have also agreed to stop selling products under the name Shelat. The companies, however, can still sell their products as non-kosher under other names.
Observant Jews who adhere to dietary laws are prohibited from eating pork or shellfish as well as from eating dairy and meat products together. Further, they cannot use the same dishes and utensils for milk and meat products. If non-kosher food "contaminates" a kosher kitchen, surfaces, utensils, silverware and dishes must be ritually cleansed. Shelat is a major supplier of kosher chicken products in Los Angeles and Orange counties, which together have a Jewish population estimated at 700,000.
Whether religious leaders will require businesses and individuals who have purchased and used Shelat products to go through the re-koshering process is unclear.
But already in Chicago, a three-person crew at the Hyatt Regency hotel spent eight hours Thursday scrubbing and sterilizing any surfaces that might have been touched by non-kosher food from Shelat.
In Los Angeles, Rabbi Arye Weiner, who oversees kosher production in four states for the New York-based Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, called the incident a major scandal. "Something of this magnitude has never happened before in certification history," he said.
Whether Southern California customers must re-kosher their kitchens will depend on how many of Shelat's products are determined to be mislabeled. "If we cannot clearly prove it was a minority, everyone (who used the products) will have to kosherize their kitchens, hotels and catering halls," Weiner said.
Shelat was accused of buying chicken for about 40 cents a pound and then selling it as kosher for about $2.25 a pound--compared to about 90 cents for non-kosher chicken.
Shelat has gross annual sales of about $30 million, about 10% of which comes from kosher-labeled products. It could not be determined how much money Shelat may have to refund to customers.
The charges against Shelat surfaced after a Jewish employee complained early this week to the Orthodox Union. The employee told Jewish officials that Shelat's kosher facilities met orthodox standards but that chicken and meat from non-kosher operations was being falsely labeled as kosher.