Agriprocessors Inc. Agriprocessors, agriprocessors illegal immigrants
Charlie Neibergall
Agriprocessors Inc. kosher meatpacking plant, Postville, Iowa.

Ongoing Agriprocessors Scandal Raises Questions About What it Means to Be Kosher

September 18, 2008 10:29 AM
by Isabel Cowles
Criminal charges against the owner and managers of the United States’ largest kosher meat producer have raised ethical concerns regarding kosher mandates and standards.

Agriprocessors Management Pleads Not Guilty; New Indictments

Two human resources managers at Agriprocessors Inc., the nation’s largest kosher meatpacking plant, were indicted Sept. 17 by a grand jury after facing charges of aiding and abetting document fraud and aiding and abetting aggravated identity theft.

Other employees, including Agriprocessors owner Aaron Rubashkin and the company’s top managers managers, were each charged last week with more than 9,000 misdemeanor child labor law violations. All of the defendants pled “not guilty” to the charges via written pleas.

Those charges stem from a massive raid of the plant by federal immigration authorities in May that resulted in the arrests of hundreds of illegal immigrant workers and thrust the Postville, Iowa-based company, its practices and the process by which businesses are certified as kosher into the national spotlight.

After months of investigation, the Iowa attorney general last week charged Aaron Rubashkin as well as his former plant manager, human resources manager and two management employees for the company’s human resources division with misdemeanors for employing minors in dangerous and illegal conditions. Each faces 9,311 individual counts: one for every day a specific violation is alleged for each worker.

The new charges brought against Agriprocessors, which were filed Spetember 9, fall into five categories: employing a minor (a child under 18) in a meatpacking plant; employing a minor in an occupation that includes exposure to dangerous or poisonous chemicals; employing a child under age 16 to operate power machinery; employing a child under age 16 to work more hours in a day than is legal and employing a child under 16 to work more days in a week than is legal.

The same day, the two human resources employees were separately arrested on federal charges of aiding document fraud, identity theft, and harboring undocumented aliens, the Iowa Independent reported. Those are the charges for which they were arraigned Sept. 17.

Yet those arrests are not even the latest in the scandal at the plant that has been at least several months in the making; that honor goes to the September 11 arrest of two Agriprocessors employees after police making a traffic stop reportedly found them in possession of 13 false birth certificates and social security cards.

The scandal has affected kosher meat consumers in several ways, not the least of which is the issue over what role, if any, ethics should play in the production and certification of food according to strict Jewish law.

Agriprocessors sells several brands of meat products including Aaron’s Best, Rubashkin’s, Shor Habor, Iowa’s Best Beef and Supreme Kosher. The meat produced at the plant was popular among kosher consumers before the May raid and had developed a good reputation since Rubashkin first started his business in 1953.

Some believe Rubashkin is being unfairly targeted out of anti-Semitism. Others are interested more in the meat’s quality than in the practices that produce it. Rubashkin customer Shaya Mayer told the Jewish Journal, “Nobody cares about somebody else. The meat’s nice, the meat’s good, I’m going to continue to buy it.”

But although some loyal customers continue to support the company, many others have abandoned it for other brands that are less controversial. And even those looking to buy Rubashkins products have seen fewer of them on store shelves, as the arrests cost Agriprocessors nearly one-third of its workforce and have affected production significantly. Because Agriprocessors is the largest supplier of kosher meat in the United States, its slowed production has made kosher meat products of all brands increasingly scarce and expensive.

Background: A history of violations and allegations

The Agriprocessors plant was initially raided by U.S. immigration officials in May, after receiving five letters from the U.S. Social Security Administration warning of discrepancies in employee social security numbers. Inaccurate tax records were reported for more than 500 workers from 2000 to 2005, causing immigration officials to suspect that the company had knowingly hired hundreds of non-U.S. citizens.

Immigration authorities raided the meat processing plant, located in Postville, Iowa, on May 12, and arrested 389 illegal immigrants—nearly one-third of the company’s employees. It was the largest single-site immigration raid in U.S. history. At the time of the raid, Immigration Customs Enforcement suspected that Agriprocessors Inc. also employed minors.

Speculation about Agriprocessors’ treatment of workers has existed for months and has included allegations of physical and mental abuse of employees. In the weeks following the raid, a government affidavit claimed that supervisor duct-taped a worker’s eyes and abused him with a meat hook. Workers have also claimed that female employees were offered better working conditions in exchange for sexual favors.

Many of the alleged abuses stem from a lack of an organized labor union. Last year’s union drive failed because many of the plant’s employees were illegal immigrants who feared deportation. “If you’re not treated well at work, you tend to keep your mouth shut and go deeper until it becomes, well, unbearable,” said Father Floyd Paul Ouderkirk, Postville’s Roman Catholic priest.

In addition, federal authorities suggested in a search warrant application that a methamphetamine lab was operating in the plant and that employees often carried weapons at work.

Related Topic: Expanding kosher certification to include ethics

Because Agriproccessors is a kosher plant, responsible for producing food suitable to those with steadfast religious values, several ethical issues have arisen regarding the plant’s business practices and its products. The unethical treatment of Agriprocessors’ employees has prompted the Orthodox Union (OU), which puts a seal of approval on products and establishments it certifies as kosher, to insist that Agriprocessors hire a new CEO.

The OU chief, Rabbi Menachem Genack, asked Agriprocessors to replace its compliance officer and CEO after the raid in May. Agriprocessors met the first demand, but not the second, prompting some to question whether the OU would cease to certify the company. Joe Regenstein, a food-sciences professor at Cornell University said, “if the OU withdraws, I think it would signal all but the fervently Orthodox that [Agriprocessors] are simply not a reliable company to deal with.”

Though Agriprocessors currently retains certification that its slaughtering and processing procedures follow kosher laws, many Jewish leaders have become concerned with the ethical problems of hiring issues concerning kosher products, which extend beyond traditional kosher rules.

Some suggest that the definition of kosher should be expanded to include an ethical component where workers are concerned. Rabbi Morris Allen, who leads the effort backed by the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, and represents the synagogues of the Conservative movement, says, “It’s not enough to be concerned that we have separation of milk and meat that an appropriate blessing has been recited at the appropriate time. All of those are serious concerns, but no more serious than ensuring that exploitation of a worker does not take place.”

The debate over creating new kosher standards has inspired a campaign run by Rabbi Allen for a new type of certification known as a hekhsher tzedek (“justice certification”), which seeks to create an additional seal of approval for kosher-certified products, ensuring that workers were treated ethically.

But treatment of workers is not technically part of the scriptural definitions of keeping kosher and some rabbis say that criminal allegations of mistreatment should not be confused with a scriptural mandate. Even after suggesting that Agriprocessors replace its compliance officer and CEO, Rabbi Menachem Genack said, “The Bible talks about issues like workers’ welfare, and they are important to us, but the authority and expertise on such issues should be with government agencies.”

In response to accusations against the plant, several Orthodox leaders visited Agriprocessors to review the situation. After touring the plant, three representatives from the Orthodox Union, Young Israel, Agudat Yisrael, Chabad and other Orthodox organizations, deemed the facility “state of the art.”

Opinion & Analysis: The ethics of kosher food production

On Jewcy, a Web site that focuses on Jewish culture, writer Tamar Fox offers “A Half-Hearted Defense of AgriProcessors.” She laments how common bashing the company has become, and writes, “We should also not forget ways in which the Rubashkins have been generous in the past. This includes donating kosher meat to various Jewish institutions, and exporting members of their small community to even smaller communities that otherwise wouldn’t have had a minyan for the High Holidays.”

But writer Shmarya Rosenberg, who has been closely following the Agriprocessors scandal on his blog, argues in a column for Jewcy that there has not been enough criticism, either from the OU or the Jewish community at large.

I’d like to say that the Jewish community deserves better than this,” he writes, “but we don’t. We stood by silently as Agriprocessors business practices became exponentially more abusive and exploitative. Having access to kosher meat was more important that how that access was gained or who was hurt as a result.”

On the topic of whether ethics should be part of kosher certification, a July editorial in weekly newspaper the Jewish Press criticizes the idea of a “heksher tzedek” as coming from “those with a rather elastic (and in some case agenda-driven) view of what kashrut should entail.” It shows no sympathy for Agriprocessors but argues that issues relating to the ethical treatment of employees, “while important in and of themselves, simply do not relate to kashrut as it is properly and historically understood.”

Jewish newspaper the Forward takes an opposite tack, chiding those who insist that kosher certification should steer clear of issues like employee wages and working conditions as promoting the philosophy that “Some other religions may get involved in messy issues like feeding the hungry and clothing the naked, but not ours. Our religion is about keeping our knives sharp. That’s just not good enough. They’re wrong on text, wrong on context and wrong on principle. We are commanded to stand up and be human in a place where there are no humans. We may not finish the job, the Talmud says, but we’re not free to desist. There’s nothing in there about ducking your head or passing the buck. Judaism is better than that.”

Reference: Kosher standards, Agriprocessors updates


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