NEW YORK -- Navigating among carcasses hung from metal hooks, sidestepping chunks of fat and gristle strewn on the concrete floor, the man in the white lab coat and hardhat paused in front of an elderly butcher wielding a 12-inch knife.
"Ya gotta cut these veins out!" Max Goldgrab shouted above the din of meat processing.
"I know, I know," the butcher replied as he deveined the meat, his bloody hands covered by fingerless gloves.
"If he don't take the veins out, it's not kosher," Goldgrab explained.
Goldgrab, 67, and his partner Malcolm Mintz, 58, are known as the Starsky and Hutch of New York's kosher police. More precisely, they are inspectors for the kosher division of the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets.
Founded in 1882, the kosher division polices the billion-dollar kosher meat industry to help ensure that the 1 million kosher consumers in this state, the largest concentration in the country, get what they pay for.
The site of this particular inspection is a grocery called Glatt Mart in the heart of Flatbush, catering to thousands of Orthodox Jewish families in Brooklyn.
Goldgrab and Mintz make daily inspections like this one to determine whether every ounce of meat labeled kosher is indeed prepared in accordance with Jewish dietary laws. They are part of a 12-person inspection force headed by Rabbi Schulem Rubin, 61, a white-haired and voluble Orthodox rabbi from the Bronx.
"Kosher doesn't taste any better; kosher isn't healthier; kosher doesn't have less salmonella," Rubin said. "Religion is not based on logic."
"You can eat a Holly Farm chicken and not know the difference," he said. "But a Holly Farm chicken sells for 39 cents a pound on sale. Kosher chicken, especially right before the holidays, can sell for $1.69 a pound. There's a lot of money to be made."
What is a state agency doing enforcing 3,000-year-old dietary laws prescribed for Jews in the Book of Leviticus?
"People think that kosher only involves Jewish people, but there are Moslems and other groups that patronize kosher products," said Assistant Agriculture Commissioner Anthony Papa. "We in the Department of Agriculture do not view our job as sanctioning religion. We're only interested in truth in labeling. It is our job to make sure the consumer is not defrauded."
The department is able to inspect only a fraction of the state's packing houses, warehouses, supermarkets and restaurants, relying largely on groups of rabbis who certify that proper procedures are followed in the others.
Although much of the unit's work is routine, inspectors sometimes descend on more glamorous establishments in unannounced raids. A recent target was the luxury liner Queen Elizabeth 2, which was serving prohibited hindquarters of meat to kosher passengers.
"I could sound very heroic, but it was so simple," Rubin said of the raid. "I was watching the news one day and I saw people getting off the QE 2, complaining that it wasn't ready to sail. I wondered, of all the things they failed to put in order, if one of them wasn't the kosher kitchen. So I sent my men out there and they found violations."
Cunard Lines, the ship's owner, acknowledged the infractions and paid a $2,400 fine.
The division also recently cited the Queens plant of Hebrew National, a leading supplier of kosher hot dogs, bologna and salami, for improperly soaking its meat.
Hebrew National strongly denied the charges and is suing the department, charging that it irresponsibly released false information. It was a bit embarrassing for a company whose ads feature a man looking toward heaven and the slogan, "We Answer to a Higher Authority."
What makes a food product kosher is the way in which it is processed. "Ritual slaughter is the most important; the animal has to be killed painlessly," Rubin said. "Then the hindquarter is removed. After that, there's the ritual examination of the organs. If any of the organs are infected in any way, the whole animal is nonkosher."
Red meat -- beef, veal and lamb -- must be soaked in cold water, salted with medium coarse crystals for one hour to draw out the blood, and rinsed in cold water. Finally, certain veins need to be removed.
On an average day, Goldgrab and Mintz will stand for two hours in the 34-degree freezer of a meat wholesaler, checking more than 100 carcasses. The two examine each saddle of beef and veal, looking for a Hebrew letter carved into the meat that denotes the day on which the animal was killed.
The kosher division also engages in its share of cloak-and-dagger work. It has exposed several scams and put some companies out of business.
Goldgrab, a Polish emigrant and retired butcher, and Mintz, who has worked in a butcher shop since he was 11, have become experts at undercover surveillance. The two stake out meat wholesale houses in Goldgrab's 1979 silver Chevy Nova, watching for illegal shipments with binoculars. Sometimes they tail meat trucks for miles.
"This car is in top shape," Goldgrab said. "We never lost anybody."
Their most memorable caper involved a company in the Catskill Mountains that "got away with murder for 40 years," Mintz said.
Cracking the case required them to don their wives' wigs and hang around the marketplace in the middle of the night picking up bits of information. Federal agriculture officials helped by planting an agent who identified nonkosher meat that was being sold to kosher resort hotels.
When they had collected enough evidence, state troopers made the arrests, and the company was fined $25,000 and "lost all their kosher clientele," Rubin said.
Rubin, who came here from Poland in 1933, joined the force in 1975 as a $14,000-a-year inspector and has been chief of the unit for nearly a decade. "I inherited an agency whose philosophy was, do as little as you can, don't make waves," he said. Instead, Rubin began shaking things up.
"It's very hard to find men who have integrity, who know the meat line, and who are willing to work for $20,000 to start. An inspector can make a lot of money if he's on the take," Rubin said. "So I set rules. No free meals. No coffee. If a policeman is honest, a kosher inspector should be doubly honest."
Rubin, who said his Hasidic bloodlines date back to King David, also heads a Bronx synagogue, Young Israel of Pelham Parkway. "I'm an Orthodox rabbi. Our salary isn't exactly like that of a PTL minister with all the fringe benefits. So there's a need for another job," he said. Rather than question his dual role, Rubin said, congregation members proudly tell people that "my rabbi is keeping New York State kosher."
Rubin is currently looking for a few more inspectors. "There are people in the kosher industry who are plain out-and-out hoods," he said. "They're not stupid. They're probably taking all the nonkosher meat in on a Saturday when my men can't go out on the Sabbath. I could use someone who's not Jewish."