American Public Media: Weekend America
June 7, 2008
Across America today, Jews will sit down for a Sabbath meal, and it's likely that they paid a significant premium for their kosher meat. It's not just that food is getting more expensive for everyone -- last month, the largest kosher meat processing plant in America was raided by immigration agents.
The feds arrested around 300 workers -- about one-third of the plant's workforce -- and this has significantly slowed the production of kosher meat. Reporter Kyle Gassiott visited the site of the plant, Postville, Iowa. He tells us what happened:
Postville is not like any other Iowa town. Sure, the streets have German names and corn fields stretch out in direction. But on a recent Sunday, the park was full of Orthodox Jewish boys playing baseball and Latino families picnicking -- not exactly a Grant Wood painting.
Postville is home to Agriprocessors, which provides 60 percent of the country's kosher beef. It's also the biggest employer in the region, with a largely Latino workforce. Last month, the plant was raided by immigration officials and a third were arrested.
Leah -- who wouldn't give her last name -- is one of the Orthodox Jews that lives in the town. She believes the plant was singled out. "I'm a little cynical about the fact that there've been two big raids in the country and it seems to be ironic that this is the biggest raid in the history of the United States," she says. "And it happens to be a the largest Jewish kosher plant in the country."
The raid has of course hurt the plant's operations, but it's also been a blow to the local businesses that cater to the workers. The empty aisles in the town's Latino grocery store give you a good idea about how things have changed. Owner Juan Figueroa moved to Postville five years ago because the business was so good.
"I was doing very, very good until this raid happened," he says. Now he estimates his business is less than half of what it once was.
It can be easy to get the impression that the town has been a victim of federal agents. But for years, Agriprocessors has been at the center of a debate over working conditions, wages and the ethics of kosher meat. The story begins in 1973, when the former owners of the meat-packing plant closed shop. The slaughter business was changing quickly and they couldn't afford to pay union wages anymore.
Fourteen years later, an Orthodox businessman from Brooklyn, Aaron Rubashkin, saw an opportunity: He could re-open as a kosher plant, produce meat cheaply and sell it for top dollar.
University of Iowa journalism professor Stephen Bloom, who wrote a book about Postville, he says the starkest difference is in wages. "In Iowa in 1980, a journeyman butcher who worked in a slaughterhouse who was union made $21 an hour," he says. "The minimum wage is paid to workers at Agriprocessors -- and that's $7.25 an hour. You don't need anything other than a strong stomach or strong back to work at a slaughterhouse."
And so jobs at the plant were quickly filled by unskilled, undocumented laborers. They wield sharp knives, slaughtering and then carving the animals as they roll by on a belt. It's repetitive and dangerous work. When he toured the plant, Bloom saw what workers endured in the kill room. "Knee-high in blood, wearing waders, sloshing around in blood that was pulsating out of a steer's neck -- shooting out in a geyser," he says.
In a five-year period, OSHA reported that workers suffered lost limbs, broken bones, eye injuries and hearing loss while working at the plant.
There are kosher slaughterhouses across the country, but Postville has been subjected to particular criticism -- mostly by Jews themselves. A reporter for the Jewish Daily Forward, Nathaniel Popper, exposed conditions in the plant in 2006.
Rabbi Morris Allen of St. Paul, Minn., read the series of articles and wondered if this meat could actually be considered kosher. "We became more concerned about the lung of a cow than we were in the dignity of the worker processing that cow."
The Postville plant follows the accepted Jewish law to the letter -- they have rabbis in the plant making sure they animal is healthy enough to be considered kosher and that it's slaughtered properly. But Rabbi Allen believes the plant practices violate other laws found in the Old Testament or the Torah: "Also found in the Torah is the verse that says you should not abuse a needy and desperate laborer," he says.
Rabbi Allen wanted to fix the situation, so he approached the owners of the plant with the following three proposals: bring in the Iowa Department of Labor, provide training manuals in Spanish and have a delegate from his group meet with the workers.
"And I believe had they been accepted, and had we entered into a process quietly from one part of the Jewish community working with another part of the Jewish community, we wouldn't be in this particular situation in the way it has," he says.
Even after the raid, officials with Agriprocessors insist they check immigration status and treats workers fairly. But the negative publicity is causing Jews to think twice at the butcher shop. Just this year, a major kosher certification board severed its relationship with the plant. And last month, conservative Jewish leaders effectively called for a boycott of the plant's meat.
For his part, Rabbi Allen has given up on negotiations. He's created his own kosher seal, called "hekhsher tzedek." When Jews see it on a slab of beef, they can be assured that the treatment of the slaughterhouse workers was, well, kosher.