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Around the Jewish World Nicaragua, Long a Beef Exporter, Examines Lucrative Kosher Market

July 1, 2005
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Kosher beef consumers in the United States may soon find themselves dining on meat from this decidedly non-Jewish country. CARNIC, one of Nicaragua’s largest and most storied meat packing firms, has taken the first steps toward kosher slaughter with an eye on the potentially lucrative export market.

In late April, three head of cattle were killed in kosher fashion by a rabbi flown in from New York in a trial run of what CARNIC general manager Manuel Centeno says could become a steady supply of kosher beef, if tests prove fruitful.

“We do not have the installations to produce a large amount of kosher cattle” right now, Centeno said in an interview at his office. The future of kosher slaughter for the company “depends on the success our sample has in the United States. It is a very special process; we do not have people specialized in kosher production.”

CARNIC’s move has piqued the interest of the tiny local Jewish community. Misled by exaggerated stories in the local media, the community thought CARNIC had conducted kosher slaughter prior to Passover and wanted to see if some fresh beef could be reserved for locals.

Centeno said that if CARNIC begins kosher production, some meat could be set aside for domestic consumption.

Rabbis in Costa Rica and Panama regularly conduct shechitah to feed their congregations, and Costa Rica occasionally exports kosher beef. However, CARNIC holds the potential to be the Central America’s first mass kosher exporter.

Beef and leather long have been traditional Nicaraguan exports, with CARNIC relying on the export market for 80 percent of its business. In 2004, beef exports to the United States from the country’s three authorized slaughterhouses — including CARNIC — grew by 74.5 percent to $40.3 million, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported.

However, it has been at least 25 years since Nicaragua last exported kosher beef, and renewing the trade is a risky proposition.

To produce kosher beef economically, CARNIC likely would have to devote an entire day solely to kosher production. The slaughterhouse currently processes an average of 455 head of cattle a day, which would drop on days of shechitah because of the rigors of kosher production. As a result, the plant would be depending on the premium price of kosher beef to make up for lost revenue from lower production.

If the company has to build new facilities in order to have a reliable supply of kosher beef, it won’t go through with the plan, Centeno said.

CARNIC also is interested in the organic market, a lucrative niche. The conversion of some of the company’s output to organic, which is already under way, makes the kosher option tempting, since both the organic and kosher markets offer premium prices.

CARNIC’s primary focus is the U.S. market, but Centeno said the company has received inquiries from Israel as well about kosher Nicaraguan beef.

The inclusion of organic and kosher production is the latest twist in CARNIC’s history. The company originally was founded and owned by the Samoza family, a dynasty that ran the country as a dictatorship for nearly 50 years before being overthrown in the 1979 Sandinista Revolution.

The leftist Sandinistas nationalized all of Samoza’s vast holdings, including CARNIC, which remained a symbolic prize of the revolution’s triumph.

After the Sandinistas were voted out of office, the company was sold off to local cattlemen as part of the pro-U.S. government’s attempts to dismantle the Sandinista apparatus.

Though he has been at the firm for only six months, Centeno is no stranger to the company’s history: He served as President Anastasio Samoza’s chief of staff during the dynasty’s final three years and fled the country when Samoza was overthrown. He returned in the early 1990s.

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