In mid-June, a research team at Dalhousie University in Halifax published its annual Food Price Report, which predicted that the increase in the price of most foods over the coming months would be less than expected. Meat, however, bucked the trend. The forecast estimated that meat would climb in price by as much as seven to nine per cent by year’s end – three per cent more than had been predicted in December 2016.
Consumers of kosher meat might ask what the fuss is all about. After all, rising prices for kosher meat is something that seems to come as regularly as the summer barbecue season.
Several experts in the food service industry confirmed that consumers of kosher beef can expect price increases as high as 10 per cent this summer.
Michael Rich, president of DSM Foods Inc., a kosher meat and grocery importer, said “the price of meat was just increased across the board two weeks ago in the United States and Canada.” The price increase of five per cent will eventually be reflected in the price of kosher meat, he said, “which is a lot more expensive than regular meat.”
Rich said the price of U.S. beef on the hoof has jumped from 20 to 30 cents a pound, but the price of lamb is going up even more. “When talking to some of the guys in the United States, there are shortages of lamb and the price has gone through the roof,” he said.
There is, however, a self-correcting mechanism at play, but it will take a few months to effect the price, he suggested.
As the price of beef increases, farmers are “sending cattle to slaughter earlier, to take advantage of the price.” But the downward pressure that will put on prices might not be seen by consumers until sometime in October, he added.
Cary Silber, founder of Applause Kosher Catering, said “meat goes up all the time. Meat is expensive.”
In his many years in the business, Silber has noticed that “beef goes up” by as much as 10 to 15 per cent during the summer barbecue season. “That’s kind of normal,” he said.
Walter Vaz, partner and general mangers of Zuchter Berk Creative Caterers, said that they’ve “been told in the last five to six months to get our contracts in” and lock in a price. “So far this summer, we haven’t seen the increases yet, but we’re told they’re coming.”
Vaz said a rise in the price of kosher meat from suppliers is “normal.”
He expects prices from suppliers to rise this summer by four-and-a-half per cent, because “they can do it.”
Vaz, who also operates a non-kosher catering business, said the price differential between kosher and non-kosher meat is substantial.
At the wholesale level, he can obtain non-kosher prime rib for $15-$16 a kilogram. For the same kosher cut of beef, the price jumps to $34 a kilogram.
Another individual, who asked to remain anonymous and who has many years of experience in the kosher food service industry, said meat prices have been rising substantially for quite some time. Eight years ago, a kilo of lamb shoulder, used for making shawarma, cost around $17-$18 a kilogram. Since then, the price has “skyrocketed” to more than $50/kg.
Three or four years ago, veal could be obtained from a wholesaler for around $28 a kilogram. Today, the cost runs around $48.
Lately, suppliers have been tapping into the Mexican beef market to lower costs, but wholesalers aren’t passing the savings on to the retail level, he said.
Both Vaz and Rich acknowledge that there are legitimate reasons for some of the price discrepancy between kosher and non-kosher meat. Rich pointed out that in order to be kosher, animals have to be slaughtered in a prescribed manner by a shochet. Once an animal is killed and its blood drained, its lungs are checked for lesions. Around 65 per cent of animals are rejected for such imperfections, which drives up the price.
At the retail level, consumers react differently to the rising cost of beef. Silber said that in his business of catering life cycle simchahs, like weddings and bar mitzvahs, people are more apt to bite the bullet and pay any increased costs for a beef dinner.
“When people are looking at a simchah, they don’t look at the costs as you would at home,” he said.
Vaz, however, said his clients are more apt to switch to an alternative. Indeed, he says that only about 20 per cent of his clients choose a beef dinner, a statistic that has remained more or less the same for the last 10 years.
“I think beef has been fairly expensive for awhile,” Vaz said.
Many opt for chicken and others, faced with higher costs for kosher food, go a different route.
“I feel the cost of kosher has driven people away from kosher,” he said.
People will cater an event with fish and then order a handful of meals for those who prefer a kosher alternative, he said.
Meanwhile, the industry insider said prices generally go up before Passover, “because no one questions it at Passover.” But “after Passover, it doesn’t come down.”
The insider suggested there is close to a meat supply monopoly in Toronto, unlike other large centres like Montreal or those in the United States, where competition helps moderate price increases.
Short ribs, for examples, are about four times more costly in Toronto than they are in the U.S., he said.
He suggested many in the community are opting for “kosher style” simchahs, as they find the cost of kosher meat prohibitive. That’s hurting the kosher catering business and the shuls that lose business to outside venues.