When you sit down for Shabbat dinner, what is on your mind? The joy of being with friends and family? The relevance of the week’s Torah portion? Or concern over the cost of your kosher roast chicken and chopped liver?
Kosher meat and poultry is more widely available in Britain than ever before, with a greater range of quality and affordability.
Yet with the financial climate putting pressure on newly-married couples, families and pensioners alike, fears have been expressed that observance of kashrut laws could hit a crisis-point as consumers struggle to pay the price of keeping kosher.
Many people have already stopped buying meat, turning instead to vegetarian diets, non-meat options and in some cases treif produce.
The average cost of kosher chicken stands at around £4.75 per kilo, roughly double the wholesale market price for non-kosher. That means a kosher family-sized roasting chicken can cost anywhere between around £7 and £13.
For fresh brisket and roast beef, prices are regularly more than £15 per kilo. Delicacies such as duck and lamb, with their higher costs, have become simply unaffordable for many people.
But kosher butchers argue that they now provide a greater range of meat at more cost-effective prices than ever before. The most recent substantial rise was five years ago, when a 10 per cent increase on kosher meat was enforced because of currency fluctuations and the strength of the euro to the pound.
So are consumers right to claim that kosher meat is now too expensive?
One Orthodox mother, whose finances have repeatedly been hit by family members being made redundant, said: “I used to buy only kosher meat, but can no longer afford to. We’ve been a one-income family for a while and, to be honest, keeping a roof over our head and actually eating at all means that buying kosher is not an option.”
In some extreme cases religious parents are feeding children under the age of three — to whom kashrut laws do not apply — non-kosher meat specifically to reduce the family’s food bills.
One single parent in Yorkshire, who cannot afford to buy kosher, said the situation she and her young child faced was deeply upsetting.
“I only get kosher beef and poultry because my parents pay for it. It makes me feel terrible that I have to rely on them, but otherwise we’d not be able to eat kosher. I can’t afford it,” she said.
Rabbi Debbie Young-Somers, community educator at Reform Judaism, is one of many for whom meat is now a once-weekly treat.
“We save meat for Shabbat and cost certainly is a factor. I think many people would make different choices if kosher meat was cheaper, but we must not compromise on quality or animal welfare,” she saidd.
But relief for consumers may be on the horizon. The number of kosher butcher stores in north-west London and Hertfordshire has increased in the past year, leading to greater competition and an effort to drive down prices.
Manchester-based Shefa Mehadrin opened its first store in Golders Green last spring, offering customers reductions of up to 25 per cent compared to competitors.
Albert Bendahan owns the Kosher Deli chain which advertises its products with the “making kosher affordable” slogan. He claimed customers had accepted being “ripped off” by other stores for too long, and that his chain was “the market leaders in reducing prices”.
He said: “All butchers have to make a living, but at what cost? If it’s at the cost of consumers not keeping kosher then I have a problem with that.”
Mr Bendahan added that he knew of families keeping kosher only at Yom Tov because they found it too expensive all year round. He offers discounts to those who are unable to afford full-price products.
One firm working to help families put kosher meals on the table is the Kosher Outlet in Golders Green.
Opened four years ago, the warehouse supermarket sells cut-price meat, poultry and groceries, with the aim of providing goods up to 30 per cent cheaper than regular kosher stores.
Manager Doron Wise said the outlet’s product range was “basic, but comprehensive.
“Our prices are obtained by our focus on a narrower range, which enables us to bulk-buy when possible and maintain lower margins which cover no more than the cost of operations.”
The centre is widely-thought to be growing in popularity with hard-pressed families, but Mr Wise said it was difficult to calculate just how far demand stretched.
“We have only been in business since 2009, so have no pre-recession experience to compare current trading with. We cannot say we have seen an upturn in demand for what we sell. People know where we are and for those that are content with our product range, we offer excellent value.”
Stephen Grossman, owner of the Silvermans chain of butchers and Lewco Pak chicken production company, said that at the other end of the market, many consumers were willing to pay for quality products.
“It’s a consumer’s choice whether they feel there is better value in paying a higher price for something. We offer the consumer more choice. I sell British beef and air-dried chickens because I believe they are better quality.
“The market is getting more competitive but some people are willing to pay a higher price and get better quality.
“If you are kosher-minded and it is what you believe and want to have, then you make sacrifices.”
Mr Grossman also argued that the kosher meat industry had never been in a better position, with consumers having more choice at more affordable prices. He denied the market was declining.
“Kosher meat and poultry are at their lowest prices for 50 years if you take into account inflation,” he said.
“Years ago you would have bought a chicken with everything intact, or non-kosher meat to kosher at home yourself. Now it’s all done for you. In real terms the cost is coming down as consumption grows, particularly with the increase in the Charedi population.”
Jacky Lipowicz, chairman of the Licensed Kosher Meat Traders’ Association, also offered a robust defence of his industry. He said consumers who claimed they could not afford kosher meat were “living in cloud cuckoo land”.
Consumers could take assurance from the quality of the kosher products they purchased, he said.
“If you go to some supermarkets you see cheap meat — but look what happened with the horsemeat scandal. If you want fresh, wholesome meat, you buy kosher. You have to compare like-for-like in terms of quality.
Mr Lipowicz said that if families accepted they could not eat the best cuts of meat regularly, and shopped around, some products provided value for money.
“Mincemeat is much cheaper now. We have meat on the bone at £6 per kilo, and there are cheaper joints available — neck of lamb or shin of beef,” he said.
Transparency in the kosher food chain, and the safeguards employed in shechita, meant customers had peace of mind when shopping, Mr Lipowicz argued.
He said he knew of stores which provided cheap mince for parents with sick children, and further assistance for low-earners and the unemployed.
Mr Lipowicz said: “Is fish cheap? Buy two nice pieces of salmon and see what you pay. The public is being very well looked after by kosher butchers. My butchers operating under the Board of Shechita are giving exceptional value.”
The kashrut authorities share the concerns of both consumers and the butchers. Manchester Beth Din administrator Rabbi Yehuda Brodie acknowledged soaring prices, particularly for beef, were a problem across the non-kosher industry as well.
He said: “We have not increased our shechita fees for probably a decade and have been able to avoid playing any part in the price increases.
“One thing we’re doing, perhaps controversially, is slaughtering outside Britain, particularly in eastern Europe. That makes the prices more affordable.”
Rabbi Brodie also said shoppers should hunt for deals in order to maintain a kosher diet.
“People can shop around, there are offers in supermarkets rather than traditional butchers. The days where you went into a butcher’s shop and bought everything because you were loyal to him have largely gone now.”
Rabbi Brodie said he had asked stores and authorities in Manchester to introduce special reduced prices for newly-married couples in order to encourage them to keep kosher.
“We know there are people — particularly young married couples — who have to decide about keeping a kosher home and price is a strong factor. We tried to create an incentive for them with a discount. Once you tie people into keeping kosher then they have that lifestyle and probably don’t leave it.
“But the prices are a real problem. It’s something we are talking about all the time and trying to do our best.”
IT MAKES FINANCIAL SENSE TO EAT TREIF
Anna Rabin lives in Elstree, Hertfordshire, with her husband and two children. They do not keep kosher at home.
l “My food bills would be doubled if I bought kosher meat — It would create financial problems for us.
“A kosher chicken that feeds five costs around £10. A large chicken from Tesco that feeds the same number costs as little as £3.
“Even a free range non-kosher chicken costs no more than about £6-7, which is still a saving.
“It makes sense financially to eat non-kosher meat. If a kosher butcher opened up tomorrow and charged similar prices to non-kosher meat in any major supermarket, I would happily convert to only buying there.
“My children are at Jewish schools and I have to be very careful what I feed their friends when they come round.
“It can be quite confusing for my kids because they are eating kosher at school but doing something different at home. It would be better for us to be kosher at home but I just can’t justify the cost.
“We have become more religious in terms of trying to make Friday night dinner and going to the synagogue and being involved in the community in the past 18 months.
“We want to be part of the Jewish community and it’s sad that I feel we can’t afford to keep kosher.
“We are trying to have a more Jewish life, but I’m just not willing to pay £10 for a chicken.”