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Butchers Sue to Overturn New York’s Kosher Laws

February 27, 1996

NEW YORK (AP) _ Butchers Jeffrey and Brian Yarmeisch were fined $11,100 by state food inspectors for not labeling 19 packages of kosher turkey thighs to show that the poultry had been soaked and salted in keeping with Jewish dietary law.

The fine was later dropped, but the brothers say the incident embarrassed them and hurt their business. Now they are suing to get New York state out of the business of setting and enforcing standards for food labeled as kosher.

``The enforcement of a religious dietary law by criminal statute amounts to an active promotion and recognition of the Jewish religion″ in violation of the constitutional separation of church and state, they said in a lawsuit filed last month in federal court on Long Island. No trial date has been set.

Similar state laws in New Jersey and a Baltimore city ordinance have been overturned on church-and-state grounds.

Orthodox Jewish groups fear a ruling against New York in this case could lead to similar results in the 20 other states with kosher laws.

``New York is a big town. It has a persuasive court. This could have a domino effect,″ said Dennis Rapps, executive director of the National Jewish Commission on Law and Public Affairs, an Orthodox legal advocacy group.

New York’s kosher regulations date to 1882, making them the nation’s oldest body of state law setting standards for food labeled kosher.

``It’s clearly and simply a consumer issue,″ said Keith Stack, first deputy commissioner of the state Department of Agriculture and Markets. ``It’s our role to ensure the consumer actually receives what they think they are purchasing.″

Kosher stems from ``kashruth,″ a body of Jewish law governing which foods may be eaten and how they must be prepared. Animals must be slaughtered properly, and meat can’t be combined with dairy products. Pork and shellfish are forbidden.

The 1992 New Jersey Supreme Court ruling, which the U.S. Supreme Court allowed to stand without comment, said the state could not impose standards based on religious law.

``The regulations may have been designed to assure truth in marketing, but the truths being marketed are, in essence, religious truths,″ the New Jersey court said.

The decision allowed New Jersey only to require vendors to display the basis they use to declare food as kosher. Usually, that means the name of the rabbi who certified the food.

David Zweibel, general counsel of the Orthodox organization Agudath Israel of America, said New Jersey’s example could become a model for New York state, which has the largest population of Jews outside Israel, with 3.4 million.

About 6.7 million people nationwide eat kosher food, said Menachem Lubinsky, a New York marketing consultant. The majority of customers are Muslims _ who have similar dietary laws, called ``halal″ _ vegetarians and other non-Jews concerned about their diets, he said.

Since 1988, the U.S. kosher food business has grown 80 percent into an industry with $2.25 billion in annual sales, Lubinsky said.

In the case involving the Yarmeisch brothers three years ago, inspectors said they failed to provide the required labels. The brothers said the packages were inside a refrigerator at their market in Commack and were not ready to be sold.

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