About two years ago, the Chicken Farmers of Ontario (CFO), the industry association that administers the chicken production quota in Ontario, announced it would accept bids for an allocation of chickens for the kosher market. The move came after Chai Poultry sold its quota and ceased operations, leaving an absence of provincially produced kosher chickens.
Last week, The CJN reported that seven groups presented bids, and three advanced to a second round, but eventually all withdrew. Currently, the CFO has asked Deloitte, a consulting firm, to consider two fresh bids.
This week, representatives of the three finalists and one of the current bidders look at the roles of the CFO and the Kashruth Council of Canada, known as COR, in the bidding process.
Following meetings with CFO representatives, it became clear to Avi Kraman, who headed one of the final three bids, that they preferred the successful applicant use COR. “They worded it that they wanted someone recognized in Toronto and in the rest of Ontario,” he said.
What’s more, “COR was looking to offer its full services to anyone becoming the chicken producer… COR would give local processors the exclusivity to distribute to the institutions and caterers that are under COR,” Kraman said.
COR spokesperson Richard Rabkin, however, denied that suggestion: “With respect to granting exclusivity, COR never made any such commitment to anyone and any assertion to the contrary is entirely false.”
Despite what they perceived as a push for COR, Kraman’s group decided that if it was going to move away from another local rabbis’ group, which had agreed to provide supervision, it was going to go with MK, the Montreal kashrut agency. “We felt that MK had a more recognized certification, in Ontario and the United States,” he said.
To Kraman, it was clear the CFO was concerned about the group’s kosher certification. “In our estimation, from the get-go, there was already a partnership going on with the COR,” he said.
In conversations with CFO representatives, questions were repeatedly raised about their choice of MK as a certifier, he added. “He was trying to push us to go to COR, 100 per cent,” Kraman said.
“CFO said you have to understand the reality of your situation. COR controls Toronto and Ontario, and without them, you’re not going to get the allotment into their catering, restaurants or shops,” Kraman recounted.
Steve Strauss is a partner in one of the two groups whose plans are currently being studied by Deloitte. His group has chosen COR as its certifier, and he believes the other finalist has also done so. Strauss said “the CFO may be looking to avoid issues in the future with facilities that are under COR, because COR may have issue with other certifications as it pertains to kosher chicken.”
COR’s standards are among the strictest in North America, which can raise processing costs. “From a kashrut standard, that’s a good thing, but from an operations perspective, it’s challenging,” he said.
Strauss said the CFO recognizes that for chickens to get the widest possible distribution in the community, it would have to satisfy COR’s strict standards. “CFO is driving the bus, and we’re in the back seat with COR being driven along,” he said.
“COR is not at fault by any means for the lack of kosher chicken supply in Ontario,” Strauss continued. “The bigger problem lies with the CFO. The CFO has no way of knowing what is a kosher standard, therefore, they’ve chosen to use the most widely accepted kashrut certifier in Ontario.”
Meanwhile, in its meeting with the CFO board, Kraman’s group was startled to learn that awarding the allotment would be conditional and could be withdrawn at the CFO’s discretion. That meant going into business without any certainty of the supply of chickens, which put their multi-million investment at risk, he said.
After the meeting, Kraman felt the deck was stacked against them, since his group’s allotment would come from those of other producers. “They [the CFO] never had an intention to award anyone a kosher allotment,” he said. “The guys on the board are the ones losing [part of their set chicken quotas]. The CFO was going through the motions.”
Rabbi Kalman Ochs was at the CFO board meeting, which took place before Kraman’s group switched to MK. He’d been brought on as an adviser, and at that point, the Kraman group was still looking to Agudas Shomrei Hadas, an organization founded by Ochs’ grandfather in 1947, to provide hashgachah.
“At the end of the day, the whole thing is a hoax. They don’t want to give us kosher chickens,” Rabbi Ochs said. “The story keeps changing [as to] why they don’t give us kosher chickens. They changed the rules of the game after we met all their requirements.”
Ron Gersh agrees the deck is stacked against the bidding groups. Gersh, a consultant who worked with one of the groups, believes the CFO’s plan was to give Marvid time to ramp up production and meet the supply needs of Ontario consumers.
“It’s a monopoly. They’re giving up their quotas. They didn’t like that. They set it up so nobody could win it,” Gersh said.
Yoav Dohbot won’t go that far, but said meeting the CFO’s requirements was “challenging.” He was part of the third finalist group, which had COR lined up as its certification agency, but blanched at the CFO’s requirements, which he said made no business sense.
“It required that the bidders have everything in place to go the next day, the financing, an operation [to slaughter the chickens]. But… nobody in their right mind is going to spend a few million dollars without having the quota secured,” he said.
All three of the first-round finalists have moved on. Contacted by The CJN, CFO spokesperson Michael Edmonds said: “CFO has engaged Deloitte to review all new applications from a business and economic perspective. We are following a disciplined, fact-based review process, and as such, we are not in a position to make further comments at this time.”
Photo: Food Safety Watch