County officials are investigating the kosher meat business in the aftermath of an allegation that one of the busiest butcher shops in Los Angeles has been selling non-kosher meat to patrons for several months.
News that Emes Kosher Meats' kosher certificate was suspended came as a shock to religious Jews who once shopped there, lured away from other kosher establishments by the shop's relatively lower prices for beef, veal and poultry.
At Emes Kosher Meats, customers could buy shoulder roast for $3.89 a pound, when it cost as much as $5.29 a pound elsewhere.
Hundreds of households are affected by the certificate suspension and are being urged to wash their ovens, pans, plates and flatware in water heated to at least 210 degrees to remove the taint of non-kosher meat.
Emes, which translates to "truth" in Hebrew, went out of business earlier this month, shortly after a rabbinical inspector climbed into an alley dumpster during a routine check and found a cardboard box with the markings of a non-kosher meat supplier.
Confronted with the box, owner Semion Rachshtut at first denied any wrongdoing, said Rabbi Binyomin Lisbon, administrator of kosher enforcement for the Rabbinical Council of California, an organization of Orthodox rabbis.
But after several hours of questioning by a committee of Orthodox rabbis, he "broke," Lisbon said, and admitted to slipping non-kosher pieces of beef and turkey into his inventory.
Inspectors from the county's Department of Agriculture and Weights and Measures also found Emes to be in violation of a state law that requires retailers of fresh kosher meat and poultry to keep records of where their merchandise came from, according to Nahan Gluck, deputy director of the department.
But Rachshtut insists he did nothing wrong, according to his daughter, Ilana.
"All the rumors that are going on are just rumors," Ilana Rachshtut said.
"What we have to say is that the whole thing is a big mix-up and a big misunderstanding. Nothing happened. There is no evidence and no proof, and my father will not admit to anything because nothing was done wrong," she said. "No non-kosher foods were ever, (at) no time or circumstances, sold in the business."
Since Emes' certificate was canceled on May 4, the Rabbinical Council has stepped up its monitoring of butcher shops, delicatessens, restaurants and other purveyors of kosher food.
Rabbinical inspectors will be checking the books of the 60-odd such establishments in the Los Angeles area, and butchers will be asked to hand over keys to their establishments to allow late-night inspections.
The Department of Agriculture and Weights and Measures has also stepped up its monitoring of records kept by kosher butcher shops throughout the county, Gluck said.
In the case of Emes, "The implication (is) that some of it is commingled (with non-kosher meat) but we don't have any proof of that yet," Gluck said.
"This could be an isolated incident and it could not be," he said. "We're investigating not only this individual but other individuals. We're investigating the problem in the city in general."
Rabbi Eli Hecht, chairman of the Rabbinical Council's kosher division, said he hopes that observers of kosher laws will not lose faith as a result of the Emes case.
"If you get angry at your podiatrist, you don't stop walking, you get another," he said. "If you get angry at your kosher butcher, don't stop keeping kosher. Go find another butcher."