With Rosh Hashanah just weeks away, many are thinking about how to make the holidays at least semi-normal. Shul is limited. So are guests. But thanks to the actions Empire Kosher took when the pandemic began, Jewish cooks can be pretty confident of having a proverbial chicken in every Yom Tov pot. There won’t be a mad dash or panic over how to keep employees safe—the system is already in place.
“There is always high demand for the chagim, although not as high as Pesach,” said Rabbi Yisroel Weiss, VP of kashrut for Empire. “We have two big meals a day over several days—it accumulates.” He said recruitment and retention of qualified workers continues to be a challenge throughout the meat and poultry industry and Empire is no exception. But Empire’s fully integrated structure, which controls the process from farm to store, gives the company more control over the supply. “We are the biggest producers, three or four times the size of anybody else,” he said. “We have a big, open space that we can keep clean. We are planning slaughter and production schedules now so we are prepared, as much as possible, to meet the demand of the upcoming holidays. And our very dedicated rabbis are highly trained.”
Empire voluntarily shut the plant a week before Pesach, and instituted practices that the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) considers among the best in the entire poultry-processing industry. Workers on the assembly lines are separated and distanced by plastic partitions. Staircases are designated “up” or “down” so workers aren’t facing each other. Nothing is stored less than a foot from the wall. Employees now have temperature checks by medical teams. That’s on top of the usual practices that are reviewed by stringent inspection twice a year. “We do a lot of pioneering improvements to stay safe,” said Rabbi Weiss. “That’s why we are the kosher poultry supplier of choice for many top retailers like Costco, Trader Joe’s and ShopRite.”
The dedication of all the rabbis involved in producing Empire Kosher chicken and turkeys was proven prior to Pesach. While the plant is located in Mifflintown, Pennsylvania, the rabbis live in the New York metropolitan area and Baltimore. Normally, they work on all weekdays and return home for Shabbat. The plant always closes for Pesach, but this year Empire closed a week earlier to make the changes necessary for safety. Rabbi Weiss asked the rabbis to stay after Purim, and not go home until the plant closed for Pesach. “It was a difficult time. The schools were closed and the rabbis have big families,” he said. “But this was a once-in-a-lifetime emergency. It was a question of having chicken or not for Pesach.”
Quarantine at the Empire plant was not a luxury vacation, but Empire provided everything the rabbis needed. Since no one could leave the 20-acre campus, the company brought in catered meals. The indoor beit midrash was closed, so a tent was built outside for services. Masks were distributed, and special cleaning processes were instituted. The rabbis stayed separately from everyone else at the plant. “They had an excellent, beautiful Shabbos together,” said Rabbi Weiss. “But it was difficult for the families with their fathers not there.” The rabbis working at the plant now have returned to going home for Shabbat, but while at Empire, they limit leaving the campus to occasional trips for groceries.
Empire is supervised by the Orthodox Union and Rabbi Yechiel Babad, the Tartikov Rav, who was just added this past winter to satisfy what Rabbi Weiss said was a growing need for chasidish supervision.
Rabbi Menachem Genack, CEO of kashrut for the OU, said the company was self-motivated to do what was necessary when the pandemic hit, without being told. “I’m very proud of Empire,” he said. “The CDC report commended Empire. On their own, they closed down the plant until it was under control. They get a lot of credit.”
The OU has worked with Empire for 70 years, since it first began to mass produce kosher chickens. Kashrut supervision at Empire follows a chain of command by the supervising agencies and involves many people—shochetim to check the knives and mashgichim to check every bird that comes in and the salting process. Each supervision has people there. “Empire is well supervised, with a very high standard of kashrus that is universally accepted,” said Rabbi Genack. “Every plant has federal inspectors and all regulations are met.”
We all eat Empire chicken but don’t always think about how it gets to our homes. It takes 50 or 60 rabbis who live in this area to go to Central Pennsylvania every Sunday for four days until they return to their families. If not for them, we’d be squawking about what to serve for our Shabbat and holiday meals.
By Bracha Schwartz