Hungary okays pre-screening to let in slaughterers, avert kosher meat shortage

Community expects to process a million chickens by year’s end, supply other European Jewish centers, as government allows vetted staff from Israel, Belgium to skip quarantine

Yaakov Schwartz is The Times of Israel's deputy Jewish World editor

Kosher slaughterers arrive in Hungary on April 20, 2020. (Courtesy EMIH/ Nezer Hakashrut)
Kosher slaughterers arrive in Hungary on April 20, 2020. (Courtesy EMIH/ Nezer Hakashrut)

Amid fears of a kosher meat shortage in parts of Europe due to the coronavirus pandemic, the Hungarian government has agreed to allow 12 ritual slaughterers to skip the normally required two-week quarantine and begin work immediately at a kosher slaughterhouse in the south of the country.

Half of the men arrived from Belgium on May 3, while the others, who came from Israel, have been working since April 20. They were each monitored and given multiple screenings prior to departure from their home countries to ensure they were not carrying the coronavirus. The process was coordinated by Hungary’s Orthodox EMIH – Hungarian Jewish Association, along with the Nezer Hakashrut kosher food company, which places ritual slaughterers in facilities around Europe.

Since many European Union countries sealed their borders in mid-March to prevent the spread of the virus, there was concern in Hungary’s small religiously observant community that not just kosher meat, but kosher food of any kind — much of which is imported — would run short.

But with all meat production largely frozen, shrinking reserves meant that other European countries could soon face shortages of kosher meat. In addition to the challenges faced by all slaughterhouses due to heightened regulations during the pandemic, kosher abattoirs require a staff of trained, ordained slaughterers.

Many, if not most, of these ritual slaughterers live in Israel and travel to Europe’s large kosher meat producers for one- or two-week stints before returning home to their families.

Kosher slaughterers from Israel prepare to depart to Hungary on April 20, 2020. (Courtesy EMIH/ Nezer Hakashrut)

Just before Hungary’s March 17 border closure, Slomo Koves, executive rabbi of the Chabad Hasidic-affiliated EMIH community, spoke with Hungarian Deputy Prime Minister Zsolt Semjen, who subsequently raised the topic of kosher food at a cabinet meeting.

“Not only did he assure us that we’d be able to import kosher food as needed, but went even further to help the Jewish community,” Koves told The Times of Israel. “They addressed the issues at the highest levels of government.”

There are some modest means of production for kosher food in Hungary, including bakeries, a small dairy, and a 4,000 square meter (43,055 square foot) slaughterhouse, one of the largest in Europe, according to Koves.

While the slaughterhouse, built by EMIH in 2017, was previously equipped to handle geese, the end of weddings and other festive events due to virus restrictions meant that demand for the high-end meat plummeted, while the need for more basic staples such as chicken went up. The facility was then converted to process other poultry.

The slaughterhouse expects to produce one million kosher chickens by the end of the year, with 90 percent of the meat to be exported to Europe’s largest communities, including France, Belgium, Switzerland, Italy, Austria and the United Kingdom. Turkey and duck production is expected to begin next week.

In addition, said Koves, because many communities prefer to have their own representatives present to supervise the koshering process according to their specific requirements, an agreement is being worked out with Hungary’s Interior Ministry to allow staff in on a rotating basis.

Illustrative: Hungarian Deputy Prime Minister Zsolt Semjén and EMIH Chief Rabbi Rabbi Shlomo Koves sign an agreement on Monday, November 11, 2019. (Courtesy)

“We’re going to be slaughtering every week for a different community, so for example, two weeks for France, one week for the UK, one week for Belgium, and so on, and we’re working on a deal to be allowed to give them a weekly list of the slaughterers who would be coming the next week,” Koves said.

Shimon Cohen, campaign director of the London-based Shechita UK advocacy group for kosher slaughter in Britain and the EU, called the Hungarian government move “very supportive.”

“I haven’t picked up that there’s currently a shortage, but if there wasn’t kosher slaughtering, there would be one, and so I suppose the community and the authorities in Hungary were recognizing this,” said Cohen.

Shimon Cohen, campaign director of the London-based Shechita UK advocacy group. (Courtesy)

Cohen told The Times of Israel that “people have been finding alternative arrangements to circumvent the problem of travel restrictions” and continue producing kosher meat as COVID-19 continues to paralyze the European continent.

“We’re doing more slaughtering in the United Kingdom now than we were before,” he said, adding that economic factors preceding the pandemic, such as Brexit, also caused producers to work more locally.

He also noted the contrast between the ban on Jewish and Muslim ritual slaughter in certain countries — notably the 2019 restrictions in some regions of Belgium which forced large kosher meat producers to relocate — and the lengths to which the Hungarian government was going to facilitate access to kosher meat.

While the EU’s open trade zone means that kosher meat is just as accessible to Belgian Jews now as before, the ban has been seen by many locals as a sign that Jews are not welcome.

Of Hungary’s recent kosher slaughtering arrangement, Koves declared, “Besides the practical applications, it has a strong symbolic message as well.”

In a written statement, Koves said that “there is no doubt that while there are those in the world who choose to fan the flames of anti-Semitism, Hungary is choosing to be a role model against such sentiment.”

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