Hoarding, not supply, causing kosher shortages

Marvid kosher chickens were still in good supply at this midtown supermarket on March 18. (Paul Lungen photo)

In a supermarket in midtown Toronto, a man loads his shopping cart with dozens of packages of kosher chicken, leaving a single packet of thighs for the next customer.

It’s three weeks before Passover and people would be stocking up anyway, but in light of the COVID-19 pandemic and the concern that food might run out, people appear to be “panic buying.”

Royi Flescher, the manager of Magen Meats, a kosher butcher shop in Thornhill, Ont., is seeing it in his own shop, but he’s placing limits on what people can buy, making sure there’s enough product for the next customer to enjoy.

“It’s the biggest issue. People are hoarding,” he said.

Flescher added that people are worried over supplies, but they shouldn’t be, at least when it comes to chicken. The two Canadian suppliers of kosher chicken, Premier Kosher and Marvid, are working overtime to ensure that demand is met. Premier is operating five days a week and has implemented an “extra kill,” shipping 40 cases per day to Magen Meats alone. So far, they haven’t missed an order, though there was one day when supplies ran out before a new shipment arrived. And Marvid is “working around the clock” to supply the Toronto market. “That’s not an issue at all,” he said.

Beef, however, is another story, and Toronto suppliers would have been hard-pressed to meet demand in normal circumstances, let alone with the coronavirus pandemic wreaking havoc on people’s psyches.

The main problem stems from the permanent closure of Ryding-Regency Meat Packers, one of the largest slaughterhouses in Ontario and a major supplier of kosher beef, Flescher said.

Last fall, the plant was closed by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) over food safety issues, with the expectation that it would clean up its act, literally. But in December, the CFIA cancelled outright Ryding-Regency’s licence because it provided “false or misleading” test results about the presence of E. coli bacteria.

“We went into (the) Passover (buying season) with half the meat in the market that is usually around,” Flescher said. “Now, before the Passover rush, a lot of that meat has already been gone. It was a difficult situation to start with, but because of panic buying, the system is stretched to the limit.

“The phones are ringing off the hook. People are very nervous that there won’t be enough meat for Passover,” he said.

To deal with the surge in demand, Magen suspended its online sales, but people are streaming into the store. People are buying three to four times what they would normally purchase, Flescher said, noting that on March 12 and 13, “we did two weeks’ sales in one and a half days.”

Despite the heightened demand, Magen hasn’t raised its prices and Flescher has heard that other beef retailers have also kept prices constant, a far cry from his native Australia, where retailers have doubled the price of beef.

At the same time, rabbis from across the city have been calling on him to see if he could meet the demand of customers. To that end, Magen arranged the slaughter of 120 lambs “that we’re bringing into the shop. If we have to, we’ll do more. We can do up to 150 lambs per week.”

Meanwhile, at the Metro supermarket at Lawrence Avenue West and Bathurst Street, whole kosher chickens were still available on March 18, though a nearby showcase for non-kosher poultry was empty.

Many other kosher-for-Passover products, such as juices and matzah products, seemed to be in good supply.

The kosher food section at this midtown supermarket, including Passover products, was mostly well stocked on March 18. (Paul Lungen photo)

Toronto Kosher, a Bathurst Street retailer, proclaimed on its website that “our store is fully stocked. Thera are no product shortages.”

In the midst of the COVID-19 panic buying, which has seen supermarkets stripped of paper products and canned goods, among other items, the Kashruth Council of Canada, which certifies most kosher products in Ontario, issued a statement addressed to kosher consumers:

“We’ve spoken with retailers and distributors in the city and they’ve assured us that … Toronto will have plenty of food for Passover. There is no need to buy more than usual. What could cause a food shortage is if people buy more food than needed, which would disproportionately affect those who are unable to afford to stock up. If we all work together as a community and be mindful of one another, we will all have a happy and kosher Passover.”