If you visit the website of the Chicken Farmers of Ontario (CFO), one of the first items you’ll see is a slide show titled, “Meeting Consumer Market Needs.”
It’s a claim that might come as a surprise to Ontario consumers of kosher chickens, who have been waiting for a year and a half for the CFO to pick a winner in the kosher chicken sweepstakes.
Since the demise of Chai Poultry in May 2013, the Jewish community has faced shortages of kosher chickens and voiced complaints over the quality of poultry imported into the province by Marvid, a supplier based in Quebec.
Those concerns have been heard at the CFO, a producers’ group that regulates the provincial poultry quota with authority from the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture.
Nearly two years ago, the CFO invited bids for a substantial allotment of kosher chickens – about 50,000 birds a week – and Michael Edmonds, director of communications and government relations for the CFO, stated at the time that consumers could expect Ontario kosher chickens by the end of 2014.
But in the nearly two years since bids were solicited, the agency still has not chosen a kosher chicken supplier. Seven groups were part of the initial bid, and three were finalists, but all three have withdrawn. Two new groups are now being considered, and the CFO has turned to Deloitte, a consulting firm, for assistance in choosing the best bid.
As consumers wait for a resolution to the issue, representatives of two of the three original finalists spoke to The CJN and described a process they say was unfair and destined to result in gridlock. Questions were also raised about the role of the Kashruth Council of Canada, known as COR, which they say was collaborating with the CFO to ensure that only groups using their kashrut certification would be acceptable to the CFO.
Contacted by The CJN and asked to respond to several detailed questions, Edmonds responded: “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.”
For its part, COR said it recognizes the need for an Ontario-based provider of kosher chickens, and it has advocated “aggressively” so that approvals will be granted.
“This process has indeed been a long one, and we have assisted the CFO whenever asked… The CFO is the sole decision maker as to which party it will grant the quota for kosher processing, and they have advised us that the parties which they selected to present their proposals in the final round were successful based on the strength of their business plans and for no other reason,” COR’s Richard Rabkin said in a statement.
“With respect to granting exclusivity, COR never made any such commitment to anyone and any assertion to the contrary is entirely false,” Rabkin added.
Morley Rand, a former employee of COR who has faced off against the kashrut certifier in a number of court cases related to employment issues, has asked the Competition Bureau of Canada to look into the relationship between COR and the CFO.
The Competition Bureau acknowledged it has received Rand’s complaint, but, citing confidentiality, said it would not discuss specifics. However, in an email to Rand, the bureau said it has appointed an officer to look into the claim.
Avi Kraman was a member of one of the initial groups that applied to the CFO to obtain an allotment of chickens for the kosher market. Danny Diena was part of a second group. The third finalist included Danny Soberano from Allseas Fisheries.
Based on conversations with senior personnel at the CFO and on the nature of the questions his group was asked to address at a presentation before the organization’s board, Kraman believes the CFO was co-operating with COR to ensure the successful applicant employed COR for its kashrut supervision.
Diena agreed. “For whatever reasons, whether COR convinced the CFO or it did it on its own, the CFO’s position is that if you want to get this quota, you have to have COR,” he said.
Neither group had COR on board at the start. Diena had arranged for certification by MK, a Montreal-based agency recognized internationally. Kraman brought on board a group of prominent Toronto rabbis associated with the Vaad Harabonim, but who provided hashgacha under Agudas Shomrei Hadas, a kashrut agency created in 1947.
Rabbi Saul Emanuel, executive director of MK, stated, “In a free market, companies request kosher certification from various kosher certifying agencies and the company has a choice as to which certifying agency they wish to turn to for their kosher certification. There is no exclusivity for any one agency operating in a specific jurisdiction, with regards to certifying a manufacturer.”
In response to queries from The CJN, COR and MK issued a joint statement that said, in part, “The MK and COR work closely together and rely upon one another in a myriad of different settings.”
Going back before the CFO’s request for proposal two years ago, the Diena group conceived of a novel solution. It approached two First Nation’s bands and discussed with each placing a plant on their land, thus bypassing provincial regulations but opening a constitutional and jurisdictional Pandora’s box.
The Dienas backed off that proposal when a representative of the Ministry of Agriculture suggested working through existing channels. (The ministry did not respond to CJN questions prior to deadline.)
The Dienas then teamed with an organic chicken producer and looked to MK to provide kosher supervision. They considered going with COR, but “COR wanted a lot more money than MK,” Diena said.
“We wanted COR to be part of it, but in the end our major hechsher [certification] would have been MK, with COR attached,” he added.
Kraman thinks the group he assembled had the best bid: they had an existing plant lined up that was already in use to produce organic chickens (later he switched to a larger halal plant). In addition, Charles Weinberg, former owner of Chai Poultry, agreed to come on board as a consultant and the group had arranged $10 million in financing.
Kraman believes the bid failed for two reasons: the CFO board, which consists of people involved in the industry, was not keen to see a group get such a sizeable allotment at their expense. That created a disincentive for the CFO in awarding a new allotment, Kraman suggested.
And kashrut supervision “was the crux of the matter.”