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Kosher bison raised on the prairie

Dawson, Minn. — “Soul food” has come to corn and soybean country

Noah’s Ark Processors Corp. recently began producing glatt kosher meat, processed according to Jewish dietary laws set forth in the Hebrew Bible. The company sells fresh, case-ready beef, lamb, bison, elk and goat under the Solomon’s Finest Kosher Meats label. Noah’s Ark is the only kosher bison and elk supplier in the world, says company founder and owner Ilan Parente of Madison, Minn.

Parente opened the Dawson plant in February 2008 after operating a kosher meat processing plant in Bridgewater, S.D. for a decade. “We’d grown out of our facility in Bridgewater. The opportunity came up to buy the Dawson plant and we took it.”

The move to a larger facility has allowed Parente to quadruple output. And it positions the company for further growth, says Jen Wagner-Lahr, AURI project director. AURI is helping the company develop new products, including kosher deli meats and cooked entrees. “They bought a plant that wasn’t being used, they are providing jobs, and they are sending Minnesota products all over the country,” Wagner-Lahr says.

Bison brainstorm

Parente started his company in 1998 to process kosher bison. Trained as a software engineer, he was living in Boulder, Colo. in the mid-1990s, working for a pharmaceutical software company. His younger twin brothers were students at the University of Colorado at Boulder, which has a bison mascot. Tal Parente, who joined his brother’s business in 2006, remembers watching the mascot at football games and saying, “We’d sure like to eat bison!”

The Parente brothers, who keep kosher, wondered if consuming bison was permitted by Jewish dietary laws. It is, Ilan discovered, but nobody was producing it for kosher consumers. “That’s where the idea got started,” he says.

Ilan — then, ironically, a vegetarian — spent a couple years learning about the U.S. meat industry and visiting packing plants as he traveled around the country for his software business. He laughs about the reactions he would get when, “I’d knock on the packing plant door in my suit.” Gradually, his bison brainstorm “went from an idea to a business plan to a plant.”

In 1998, Parente left the software industry, set up an 8,000-square-foot meat plant in Bridgewater and introduced the kosher community to farm-raised buffalo. “We started with just bison,” he says, “but we kept getting calls asking, ‘Do you have any lamb?’ I learned there was a tremendous shortage of lamb for the kosher consumer.” So he added lamb and, before long, beef. Goat and elk followed. “It was a natural progression.”

After outgrowing the Bridgewater facility, Parente found a vacant 50,000-square-foot meat plant in Dawson’s industrial park. Built in 2001, it has five times the packing capacity of the Bridgewater plant, plus cooking facilities.

The move, aided by Minnesota JOBZ tax breaks, enabled Noah’s Ark to quadruple output and create 40 more jobs. Parente now employs 55 workers, including all 11 of his South Dakota crew — longtime employees who followed him to Minnesota and settled in the Dawson area.

A market for growers

Noah’s Ark buys animals from about 45 livestock producers, primarily in Minnesota and South Dakota. “We struggle with getting enough supply of bison,” Parente says. To ensure consistent quality and humane livestock treatment, “we have visited 90 percent of our producers,” he says. “We don’t buy animals over the phone. We visit their environment.”

Jerry Wulf, manager of Wulf Farms in Hancock, Minn., supplies Noah’s Ark with about 160 head of Limousin-Angus cross cattle a week. The Wulf family produces Limousin genetics and finishes about 22,000 head a year.

“West central Minnesota, where we’re located, is very well-suited for cattle feeding,” Wulf says. “We have some of the best feeder calf suppliers in the world, the cheapest grain in the world, and now access to ethanol coproducts for feed. From that standpoint, it’s an excellent place to finish beef cattle. But the negative is no access to nearby processing plants.”

The Wulfs ship cattle to packers from Windom, Minn., 170 miles south, to Grand Island, Neb., 400 miles south. “Being able to transport cattle just 45 miles down the road to Dawson is a huge advantage,” Wulf says. “In an era of consolidation and concentration, it’s always good to see another packer, another buyer for our cattle.”

Tapping niche markets

Noah’s Ark also offers an outlet for the Wulfs’ value-added “all natural” beef, raised without hormones or antibiotics. Processing meats for niche markets “is a big advantage,” says Carissa Nath, a meat technologist and manager of AURI’s meat lab in Marshall. “Kosher is a higher value market, and it’s increasing in size.”

Over $150 billion worth of kosher-certified products are consumed annually in the U.S., according to the Orthodox Union, a leading kosher certification agency based in New York City. And the market for kosher foods extends far beyond the country’s 5 million Jewish consumers, says Rabbi Seth Mendel, rabbinic coordinator for the Orthodox Union, which certifies Noah’s Ark kosher products. “In the U.S., there are 22 to 24 million consumers of kosher foods,” he estimates.

However, few supermarkets are set up to handle kosher meat preparation, Parente says. So these sales have typically “been left to mom-and-pop kosher butcher shops. The unique thing about us is that we do everything, A to Z,” from kosher slaughtering to cutting and packaging. Noah’s Ark meats are packaged in state-of-the-art modified atmosphere fresh packs, ready for the meat case. So retailers can sell kosher meat “without the need for a rabbi there to supervise.”

Noah’s Ark meats are shipped out daily in refrigerated trucks and distributed in the Midwest by TwinCities Poultry; on the West Coast by Quality Glatt; and on the East Coast by Westside Kosher Foods. More than 400 retail stores carry Solomon’s Finest Kosher Meats, Parente says, including Wal-Mart, SuperTarget, Fairway Foods, ShopRite, Albertsons, Cub Foods and Byerly’s. “There are 500 more stores that want our products, but we don’t have the capacity to supply them.”

Growth continues

Parente is working on expansion plans and adding new products. The company recently installed three commercial smokers, which can handle 2,000 pounds of meat each. New on Noah’s Ark menu: kosher beef hot dogs, corned beef, pastrami and beef pancetta. Next up will be kosher ready-to-eat meals.

Like all small, independent meat processors, Noah’s Ark faces a lot of challenges, “keeping up with USDA processing regulations, labor issues, succession,” Wagner-Lahr says. Accessing reasonably- priced capital is another challenge, Parente says. “When you take a business and grow it three, four, five fold, that’s millions of dollars” of added expenditures for livestock, payroll and transportation.

Ilan and Tal Parente put in long hours, often working late at night, says Tal, chief financial officer. But Ilan says the business is not just a livelihood. “It’s creative. We’re bringing clean, healthy, nutritious products to consumers. That’s extremely satisfying.”¦

What does ‘glatt-kosher’mean?

By Liz Morrison

PHOTOS by Rolf Hagberg

You probably eat kosher food every day — without knowing it. Thousands of American food products are certified kosher, from Oreo cookies to Coca-Cola, says Rabbi Seth Mandel of the Orthodox Union, a leading kosher certification agency.

“Kosher” means that the food was prepared in accordance with “kashrut,” the Jewish dietary laws, explains Ilan Parente, founder and owner of Noah’s Ark Processors in Dawson, Minn. “Glatt kosher,” a more exacting standard for meat preparation, means that the slaughtered animal’s lungs were free of lesions. “Glatt” is the Hebrew word for “smooth.”

At the Noah’s Ark plant, Hasidic rabbis from Jerusalem, trained by the Rabbinical Council, oversee kashrut. Two groups of five alternate six-week assignments, returning to Israel between stints. The plant’s facilities were designed by Temple Grandin of Colorado State University, a world-renowned authority on humane animal handling.

Noah’s Ark uses special chutes to reduce the animals’ stress before slaughter. In the ritual shechita, a skilled rabbi slaughters the animal in compliance with strict religious guidelines, using a precise stroke with a large, razor-sharp knife free of nicks or imperfections. Done correctly, the shechita is a humane slaughter method, says Carissa Nath, meat technologist and manager of AURI’s meat lab in Marshall, Minn. “The animals lose consciousness almost immediately.”

Another rabbi carefully inspects the animal’s body cavity and lungs, searching for imperfections. The carcass is also examined by a USDA inspector. After an internal check, the rabbi removes the animal’s heart and liver and carries the lungs to a special table for a visual inspection. The lungs are inflated and the rabbi “checks every millimeter for adhesions,” Parente says.

Rabbis also oversee carcass preparation. The veins are removed in accordance with Jewish law, which forbids consumption of blood. The meat is soaked in cool water for 30 minutes, then completely covered with coarse kosher salt. After resting an hour, the meat is rinsed three times.

When every trace of blood is purged, the meat is ready for cutting, further processing and packaging. Only meat from the animal’s front is sold as kosher. Hindquarters are processed for non-kosher markets. ¦

Keeping kosher

Entrepreneur first to introduce kosher bison, elk

By Liz Morrison

In his new Minnesota venture, Ilan Parente combines entrepreneurship with his sacred heritage.

Parente, 47, is the founder and owner of Noah’s Ark, a glatt kosher meat processing plant in Dawson, Minn. “We grew up in a kosher home,” says Parente, one of four children, “and we spent a lot of time around our grandparents. I was always hearing them complain about the lack of good-quality kosher meats.”

Parente grew up south of Tel Aviv, Israel in Rishon le Zion, known for its vineyards. “Our neighbors raised cows and flowers, and there was even a papaya orchard.” His parents, who came to Israel soon after the country was founded in 1948, operated one of the largest Volkswagen garages in Israel.

His mother’s family, French-speaking Egyptian Jews of privileged background, was forced to flee to Israel during the Egyptian Revolution, which overthrew King Farouk I in 1952. “They

had to leave with nothing.”

Most of the family eventually immigrated to the United States, but Ilan’s mother stayed in Israel and married his father, who came from a family of Spanish-speaking Sephardic Jews. Ilan grew up speaking Hebrew, French, English and Spanish.

When Parente was a teenager, he moved to the United States with his family, finished high school on Long Island and attended UCLA where he earned a software engineering degree. He’s a citizen of both the United States and Israel.

Parente’s entrepreneurial bent emerged early. He started his first “garage business” as a college student in the early 1980s, designing T-shirts for Mitsubishi to promote their SUVs, which were just being introduced to Americans. Before long, his customers included Honda and Toyota. “My parents got very good at folding T-shirts.”

Later, Parente worked for a company that produced computer programs for clinic labs and pharmacies. He spent 17 years in the healthcare software field before launching his meat-processing business in 1998.

“Ilan introduced bison and elk to the kosher community,” says his younger brother Tal, 39, who also works in the business. Today, Noah’s Ark is not only the world’s only supplier of kosher bison and elk, but also a national distributor of kosher beef, lamb and goat