The new year won't be happy for New York State's kosher food inspectors, as Gov. David Paterson decided this month to terminate them as of Jan. 1, 2011, as part of an effort to trim a budget deficit that will probably exceed $10 billion next fiscal year.
Paterson plans to slash about 95 percent of funding for the Division of Kosher Law Enforcement, which is part of the state's agriculture department. Currently, the state employs eight kosher food inspectors who carry out about 5,000 inspections a year, examining roughly 3,000 food sellers and manufacturers. All eight will lose their jobs.
Reaction to the news was mixed in Forest Hills. Kosher food stores on 108th Street predicted that the lack of inspectors won't change their way of doing business. Jerry William, who manages Chai Kosher Meat & Poultry, explained that his store already has a rabbi who makes sure the store's products meet kosher requirements. "They [the inspectors] just oversee what our rabbi does," he said.
Rabbi Yossi Mendelson of Congregation Machane Chodosh noted that these inspectors were never authorized to determine what is kosher as per Jewish law, but they served as a way to reduce false advertising. "Knowing the government was behind us was a good thing, but it's not going to affect the overall quality," he said.
Rabbi Mendelson will offer workshops on the fundamentals of kosher practice at his 67-29 108th Street shul on Jan. 11 and Jan 18, starting at 7:45 p.m.
"This is a wake up call for people to become informed consumers," he said. "Now it's up to the consumer."
Cynthia Zalisky, executive director of the Union Turnpike-based Queens Jewish Community Council, echoed Rabbi Mendelson's comments. "It is important to have official checks and balances for consumer protection," she said, adding: "While that is the case, the Jewish community in Queens is fortunate to have the Vaad Harabonim of Queens supervising many of the kosher establishments in the borough guaranteeing their authenticity."
One local politician railed against the decision, claiming that the state will lose its ability to ensure the integrity of kosher products, thus weakening kosher traditions and respect for kosher law.
"These cuts would undoubtedly mean that untrained Agriculture and Markets inspectors would monitor kosher food, resulting in little or no protection from fraudulent products," said State Sen. Toby Ann Stavisky. "Who is going to make sure that hot dogs containing pork products don't wind up next to the Hebrew National ones?"
Senator Stavisky then added: "Eliminating the kosher food unit would save approximately $800,000. Are we really to believe that this is going to help close a budget deficit of almost $10 billion?"
The National Council for Young Israel, the coordinating agency for roughly 150 Orthodox Jewish congregations throughout the U.S. and Canada, has joined the Rabbinical Alliance of America, a group with more than 850 rabbi members in the U.S., in issuing a call to the Jewish community to fight Paterson's decision.
There are about 82,000 kosher-certified products for sale in New York State, which is the world's largest manufacturer and consumer of kosher products outside of Israel. The state has enforced kosher inspections since 1915.