Beef, Politics, Religion – it’s a dicey stew

27 Oct

Be patient, this paragraph will have an electrifying end.  Twice a week I ride my mountain bike with a couple of veteran bikers in the fields beyond Kfar Tavor, Galilee.  One day we come across a meadow blocked by metal wires.  My two friends get off their bikes and crouch under the wire and continue to pedal on the trail.  I follow their lead but accidentally graze the wire with my shoulder.  ZAP!!!  The live wire meant to keep cattle from wandering off sends an electric jolt down my spine.  It sends me flying with rattling teeth.

Cattle in meadow near Tavor Creek

Welcome to cow country, Galilee-style.  It’s not the endless territory of the West, but Israelis take cattle seriously, at least their meat.  Talk about beef and everyone’s eyes light up.  Tongues begin to drool.  Around here, chicken is cheap, plentiful, but lacks “charisma.”  Pigs are off-limits.  Fish is scarce and overpriced (flown from Cyprus, Greece) and comes with too many bones.

Beef – it’s what’s for dinner.

Unlike the U.S. where beef consumption is down, in Israel it’s up.  The standard of living is higher than ever before, more people have backyards in which to grill, they have an SUV to haul meat to the campsite, and they watch grilling shows on TV — all things that were unheard of just 20 years ago. Talk of beef and health issues fall on deaf ears.  Maybe they’re plugged with plaque.

On a recent outing on my bike I maneuver the tires around gobs of cow manure.  Up ahead, cows are grazing, about a 100 of them; they lift their lazy heads, take scant interest in me.  A young man comes down the trail, greets me with a raised arm.  I wave and brake the bike.  Turns out he’s a 21st century Arab herdsman from a nearby village.  He tells me the cattle eats the pasture in spring and summer, hay in winter.  “Who owns them?” I ask.  The answer surprises me.  A cattle baron from Gaza leases the land from Jews in Galilee, fattens the cattle, delivers them to the slaughterhouse.  “Isn’t there a blockade against Gaza?” I ask.  He tells me business is brisk; he sells the meat in Israel.

It isn’t always this simple.

A 2010 Israeli documentary film, loosely translated as “Luxuries,” by director David Ofek, shows how beef is used as political weapon.  Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier who was kidnapped by Hamas terrorists, was still a captive behind enemy lines in Gaza.  A cargo ship from Australia carrying 500 calves destined for Gaza is blocked.  The reason:  So long as Gilad Shalit is a prisoner, Hamas will not eat steak.  This is decided by the “coordinator” for the Territories, following directives from the Ministry of Defense.  That same coordinator allowed bananas and mangoes to enter Gaza, but not kiwi, a luxury.

The Australian calves cannot stay on board the ship.  They’re unloaded, kept in Israel by a rancher.  He bills the Gaza importer for each day he stores and feeds the calves.  A year later the calves have grown from 500 lbs to 2200(!) – double the “normal” slaughter weight, and no solution in sight.  No one wants them; their meat is tough; eventually they’re slaughtered into ground beef, sold to Arabs in Israel.

In this small country, space is limited.  Cattle has to compete with people, cities, agriculture, open spaces.  This explains why 2/3 of the total beef comes frozen from…Argentina.  In the wide pampas of Argentina, the Shohet, the person certified by the Rabbi, performs the slaughter prescribed by Jewish laws. Once the frozen beef gets here, it’s sold to distributors where it’s defrosted, injected with 10% of total weight with water and additives to “bring it back to life.”  The pan sizzles with as much fat as water.

You’d think that after a vast ocean crossing and so many intermediaries that  the cost of frozen meat will be high.  Well, it is by American standards, about $10 a pound.  Yet it pales in comparison to fresh beef slaughtered in Israel: $17 a pound.

I went to find out why.  Culturally, Jews and Arabs prefer fresh meat.  High demand jacks up the price.  So does the cost of keeping out wolves and thieves from the lands of Galilee and the Golan Heights.  Yet the biggest contributor to high cost are Kosher laws.  They dictate the feed type, the slaughter ritual, what part of the cow gets eaten, and what part gets thrown out.  One week before Passover and the week of the Holiday, the ranchers have to remove “wheat” from the cows’ feed because it’s Chametz, not Kosher.  What does a cow know about Moses and the parting of the Red Sea is beyond me.

The change in diet does a number on their stomachs.  During these two weeks the animals suffer from diarrhea and weight loss.  The ranchers take a loss, transfer it to the consumer.  The Kosher-prescribed slaughter, the salting of the meat to absorb the blood, the triple rinsing in water, the classification to Glatt Kosher, Kosher and unfit–they all add to the price.

And then there’s the ultimate reason why fresh beef costs plenty.  According to Kosher laws the hindquarters of the animal is forbidden.  In a sense, 1/3 of the animal cannot be eaten, yet the consumer covers the loss on behalf of the rancher, the meat industry, the rabbinical establishment.

Imagine going into an auto dealership to buy a new Buick.  You pay full sticker price and skid off the lot with the trunk and the rear tires missing.

I got to stop.  My wife Pnina is calling me to come to the dinner table.  I shout back, “Did you say you’re making tofu burgers?”



4 Responses to “Beef, Politics, Religion – it’s a dicey stew”

  1. rachel bar October 27, 2012 at 2:51 pm #

    Great post, funny but sad. I actually remember vividly eating “white meat” in Israel many years ago, so where did it come from? And it was on the grill, of course.

    • Maurice Labi October 27, 2012 at 4:07 pm #

      ‘White Meat” is still available at the non-kosher supermarket chain Tiv-Ta’am, which caters to the Russian community

  2. Mark October 27, 2012 at 4:51 pm #

    The Israelis should consult the Japanese- like Israelis, live on a limited amount of land- who raise calves for Kobe beef. Another idea for tech savvy Israelis to ponder is freeze drying the beef which could save on shelf space. Just add water when you bring it home from the store. Great blog story! Just reading it I am salivating for a thick, juicy steak and I only just finished breakfast!


  3. Sandy Galfas October 27, 2012 at 8:54 pm #

    Love the ending. Also the line re what cows “know” about Moses and the parting of The Red Sea. Damn funny. Not so funny: the high cost of “keeping kosher.” Best to you and yours, Sandy

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