Atara Foods: Preserving the ‘Crown’ of Meat

Written by Kol HaBirah Staff on . Posted in Community Spotlights

It was quite a timely experience to visit Atara Foods, a meat plant located in Baltimore, Maryland, right before Pesach, a holiday when we celebrate our exodus from Egypt with a commemoration of the korban Pesach (Pesach offering). According to one of its owners, Atara’s mission is to become a dominant player in the glatt kosher meat industry: to provide high-end premium forequarter meat to Jewish consumers along with hindquarter meat that Yaakov Levi, processing manager of Atara Foods, is able to procure with his skill set, passion, and sense of tradition.

During the visit, Yaakov skillfully demonstrated his expertise in the art of traiboring, a Yiddish term (nikkur in Hebrew) to describe an age-old process from Biblical times that involves removing items from the animal that are forbidden to eat according to Jewish law. These forbidden parts may include certain large blood vessels, chailev (prohibited fats known as tallow or suet; see Vayikra 7:25 for examples), and the gid hanasheh (the sciatic nerve, part of the thigh).

The gid hanasheh is located in the hindquarters, the back half of the animal located behind the 12th or 13th rib (depending on who you ask). It is much more difficult to traibor in the hindquarters than the forequarters due to the presence of the gid hanasheh and an abundance of chailev in the hindquarters that are embedded in the meat of the animal. At various points in our history, traiboring in the hindquarters was allowed or banned by leading halachic authorities, depending on a number of factors, such as the level of trust that halachic authorities had in the expertise of the traiborers and the availability of meat; at times when meat was in limited supply, halachic authorities went above and beyond to ensure the correct protocols were put in place so that the community could use the hindquarter meat.

All meat plants that receive a recognized kosher certification perform traiboring in the forequarters, but Atara Foods, thanks to Yaakov and his team’s expertise and tradition, is one of the only plants in the U.S. that traibors in the hindquarters. As a result, Atara Foods is unique in that it produces and sells real filet mignon, known by some as the “king of steaks.” Located in the hindquarters in the small end of the tenderloin, and known anatomically as the psoas major, it is the “least-worked muscle in the body, making the filet mignon the most tender cut of beef, and hence, one of the most desirable ones,” according to “Filet Mignon: Try a Little Tenderness.”

Ashkenazi Jews do not currently practice traiboring. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, a leading halachic Ashekenazi authority in the 1900s, stated that traiboring in the hindquarters was not regularly practiced because kosher butchers were (and still are) able sell the hindquarters to non-Jews instead of undertaking the highly skilled and labor intensive traiboring process required to ensure the meat is kosher (Iggerot Moshe YD:2:42; pp. 56-57). Some argue however that Rabbi Feinstein did feel that it was important to retain the skills for practices laid out in the Torah, and that traiboring would likely fall under this category.

Certain Sephardim have indeed retained the practice of traiboring in the hindquarters, especially in Israel (perhaps because meat was not as abundant) and there are a number restaurants in Israel that offer meat from the hindquarters.

Yaakov is one of the Sephardim who has received the tradition and skill set for traiboring in the hindquarters. Born in 1951, he grew up in Israel and is part of a family that has been involved in the meat business for 10 generations. His family is of the tribe of Levi (they can trace their lineage to the times of the Second Temple in Jerusalem) and they resided in Bavel (modern-day Iraq) before moving to Israel. Yaakov began working with his father, who owned a slaughterhouse in Nahariya, Israel, when he was eight years old. It was there he learned the “art” of traiboring and shechitah (ritual slaughter) from his family; he recalls his late grandmother performing traiboring as well.

Yaakov’s mother came from a family of rabbis, and he studied for and received rabbinic ordination as well. He eventually moved to America and spent 20 years overseeing the certification process for Philly Foods and was also involved with the Association of Butchers of New York.

While surveying the kosher meat scene in America, he realized that the “crown of meats,” the filet mignon, was virtually non-existent, due to the lack of traiboring in the hindquarters, as the kosher certification agencies are generally led by Ashkenazi halachic authorities. As part of the Association of Butchers of New York, he received a request from members of the Syrian community for 600 filet mignons to celebrate a circumcision, and he found it difficult to fulfill their order due to the lack of supply, but was able to do so. Since then, he started fielding orders from Sephardim in Brooklyn, Cherry Hill, Atlantic City, and Deal, New Jersey, where the Syrian community is prominent. He soon realized that there was a large demand in the U.S. for this cut of meat but there was little supply to fill it. This lead to Atara Foods (Atara means “crown” in Hebrew), founded by a group of investors from New York City that wanted to satisfy that need and not only bring back the “crown” of kosher meat to Jews in America but to also bring back the Jewish tradition of traiboring in the hindquarters.

The company sells meat from the forequarters (under Atara Foods) and the hindquarters (under Tender), and the traiboring and packaging process is performed on both in the same plant but at different times and with different utensils. This is because the forequarter meat is under the kosher certification of the Star-K, a well-known kosher certification agency, while the hindquarter meat is certified by Badatz Mekor Haim, the certification of Rabbi Eliyahu Ben Chaim, a prominent leader of the Sephardic Jewish community in New York and a leading halachic authority. Rabbi Ben Chaim was a student of Ezra Atiah and Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, received his smicha (rabbinical ordination) as a dayan (rabbinic judge) at the age of 18, and runs the Beth Din Mekor Haim, which deals with marriage, divorce, conversion, civil law, and kosher supervision.

Kol HaBirah also talked with Rabbi Zvi Holland, the Kashrus administrator of the Star-K and founding Rosh Kollel of the Phoenix community Kollel (his wife Sima is a native of Silver Spring). Rabbi Holland told Kol HaBirah that unlike in the past, most rabbis do not know much about the traiboring process in the hindquarters; while the Star-K has no objections to anyone who wishes to perform traiboring in the hindquarters, it is not currently their custom to certify such meat. He emphasized that it was a difficult process to undertake, both for economic reasons and due to the current lack of knowledge, but that it was not an impossible practice to perform. He did not think the Star-K’s policy of not certifying hindquarters would change without a drastic change in the availability of kosher meat.

Rabbi Binyomin Ansbacher currently oversees the forequarter meat process under the auspices of the Star-K. Rabbi Ansbacher grew up in Lakewood, and learned in Ner Yisroel of Baltimore and has been a mashgiach under the Vaad of Greater Washington for a number of years, including overseeing the cooking and preparation process at the now-closed restaurant Red Heffer. Rabbi Ansbacher expounded on a number of the above aspects of traiboring in the hindquarters, including its complexity and its history. He mentioned that the process is a delicate art, similar in some ways to surgery, and that it is fascinating to observe Yaakov as he skillfully removes certain parts of the meat very quickly, which can take others hours more.

Seeing Yaakov in action was indeed quite compelling and educational. He demonstrated how to find and extract chailev, and then proceeded to cut around the gid hanasheh on a huge slab of hindquarters until it was almost fully extracted. It was apparent that both extractions were very difficult to perform and that it can take much effort for those who are not as skilled. Yaakov explained that it is a delicate art to extract the forbidden items while keeping the meat itself intact and in good shape, all in a timely manner. Yaakov trains his assistants very intensively on this and he demonstrated the seriousness of his dedication to making sure the meat was the highest quality when he refused to let us give traiboring a try on his meat.

We then saw the finished product, including filet mignons being packaged for delivery. Dr. Benjamin Rubin of Potomac, Maryland, is one such person who orders filet mignon New York strip steak, and top sirloin, among other meat from Atara Foods. As an Orthodox rabbi who follows Sephardic customs, he was disappointed to find a limited selection of Beit Yosef kosher meat in the Greater Washington area. On one of Dr. Rubin’s visits to Israel, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef urged him to pursue and expand the selection and availability of Beit Yosef meat in the United States, including hindquarter meat.

He says that until Atara came along, it was nearly impossible to buy hindquarter meat. After hearing about Atara foods, he was finally able satisfy his dream — he could have high-quality, kosher Beit Yosef, filet mignon. He has now joined Atara Foods to help spread the word in the Greater Washington and Baltimore communities about their product. He says that their meat is vacuum packed, which provides a longer shelf life and is ready for the sous vide process, the hottest “new” technique in home cooking, which results in extremely tender and perfectly cooked meat.

Atara Foods currently receives orders for their forequarter meat (under the Star-K certification) from individuals, schools, caterers, and wholesalers. The hindquarter meat is ordered online by individuals nationwide who don’t have access to much high-quality kosher meat or by those who appreciate fancy premium meat. The price of the meat matches the prices of Omaha Steaks, a well-known non-kosher company. This is surprising, given the amount of work that Yaakov and his staff need to put in to traibor the meat, and is likely encouraging for less-observant Jews who may lean towards Atara Food’s hindquarter meat because of its kosher status, high quality, and affordability.

This tradition is particularly relevant to Pesach, as the skill of traiboring the hindquarters is needed to properly prepare the korban Pesach (per the above article). As part of the process, Yaakov has begun talking to various locally-accepted certification agencies to inform them about his expertise on the process. He will be holding a training course for local rabbis in the summer to demonstrate how he expertly removes the gid hanasheh and the chailev, much like he did for us when we visited the plant.

We wish Atara Foods the best of luck as they embark on their journey to educate American Jewry and bring it back to its roots. If nothing else, we will hopefully now be able to better relate to the Torah portions that discuss korbanot.

Atara Foods can be found at www.atarafoods.com and Badatz Mekor Haim can be found at www.badatzqueens.org