By JULIA PRESTON
Published: August 22, 2008
New York Times
An immigration raid at the nation’s largest kosher meatpacking plant has opened a wide rift among Jewish leaders over the company’s ethical conduct and led to new interest in a campaign to create wage and safety standards for workers producing kosher food.
Illegal immigrants caught in a raid at the Agriprocessors plant in Postville, Iowa, told of lax safety rules and under-age workers.
The Agriprocessors Inc. plant in Postville, Iowa, lost about half its work force when 389 illegal immigrants were detained there in May, causing shortages of kosher meat and poultry in butcher shops and supermarkets across the country.
Immigrants caught in the raid told labor investigators of unpaid overtime, lax safety measures and under-age workers at the plant. Their stories have troubled many kosher consumers and given impetus to a campaign known as Hekhsher Tzedek (which means “justice certification” in Hebrew) to create an additional seal of approval for kosher-certified products, indicating that the producers met certain standards for the treatment of workers.
“People want kosher food that is produced in an appropriate manner according to both ritual law and ethical law,” said Rabbi Morris J. Allen of Mendota Heights, Minn., who is leading the effort backed by the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, representing the synagogues of the Conservative movement, and the Rabbinical Assembly, the organization of Conservative rabbis.
But while Rabbi Allen and others have criticized Agriprocessors, some Orthodox Jewish leaders rallied to the company’s defense. After touring the Postville plant on July 31, a delegation of 20 Orthodox rabbis, including leaders of kosher certification organizations from the United States and Canada, concluded Agriprocessors was “an A-1 place,” said Rabbi Pesach Lerner, vice president of the National Council of Young Israel, an Orthodox group.
“An old medieval plant we didn’t see,” said Rabbi Lerner, who organized the trip. “We saw a Cadillac with top-of-the-line machinery and a heavy emphasis on safety, security and health.”
A spokesman for the company, Menachem Lubinsky, said it had been unfairly singled out for labor violations that were unproven accusations. Mr. Lubinsky told The Jewish Week newspaper that Agriprocessors was facing a “Dreyfus trial in the media,” referring to the case of a Jewish military officer in France who was unfairly tried for treason in the late 19th century.
Agriprocessors managers, at first stunned by the immigration raid, have since gone on the offensive, revising management practices and hiring lawyers and public relations advisers in an effort to rebuild the company’s reputation, especially among Jewish consumers.
The Postville plant has been owned since 1987 by Aaron Rubashkin and his family, Lubavitch Hasidic Jews who built the company from a Brooklyn butcher shop into a kosher meat giant controlling more than 60 percent of the market, with annual kosher sales of more than $80 million, according to analysts’ estimates.
Agriprocessors specializes in glatt kosher beef, the highest kosher certification that is reserved for meat from animals with smooth lungs bearing no lesions. The shortages after the raid highlighted the company’s dominance in the kosher meat market, with brands like Aaron’s Best, Shor Harbor and David’s.
Kosher experts said that Mr. Rubashkin and his son Sholom, until recently the chief executive in Postville, had vastly extended the distribution of kosher products across the United States by selling them to major supermarkets along with nonkosher beef.
But workers at the Postville plant had long complained of forced overtime, frequent accidents and extortion by floor supervisors who sold jobs for cash. Their complaints were amplified after the raid, when nearly 300 illegal immigrant workers, most from Guatemala, were criminally prosecuted, with most sentenced to five months in prison followed by deportation.
On Aug. 5, Iowa labor authorities said they had found 57 cases of under-age workers employed at the plant, and they called on the state attorney general to bring criminal charges against Agriprocessors for “egregious violations” of the state’s child labor laws.
On Friday, the Iowa labor department announced 31 citations against Agriprocessors for safety violations and proposed $101,000 in fines. Kerry Koonce, the department’s spokeswoman, said 21 violations were serious and 6 were repeat offenses cited earlier this year by authorities, which the company had agreed to correct.
The violations, found in inspections that began on July 8, included inadequately shielded meat-cutting saws and improper storage of compressed gas cylinders — “a very high number for one inspection,” Ms. Koonce said. One repeat violation was a hole large enough for a worker to fall through in the plant floor, she said.
Mr. Lubinsky, the spokesman, said Agriprocessors was not aware of under-age workers in its plant and had moved swiftly to fire four workers under 18 who were discovered by managers. In a statement on Friday, the company said all of the safety issues identified by Iowa inspectors in July were remedied within days. The company denied that it had failed to correct any earlier violations.
A low-level Agriprocessors floor supervisor pleaded guilty this week to criminal immigration charges, the only manager convicted to date. Higher managers remain under criminal investigation.
The Agriprocessors raid in May fueled a fundamental debate between the Orthodox and Conservative movements of Judaism. The Orthodox, who include the majority of Jews who keep kosher, adhere to a strict interpretation of Jewish law, while the Conservative movement has a more liberal interpretation emphasizing social justice. Among Conservative Jews, a minority observe kosher laws strictly.
Rabbi Allen said the Hekhsher Tzedek campaign grew out of his efforts to promote kosher practice in his synagogue, and his participation in a Jewish commission of inquiry that went to Postville after an article in 2006 in The Forward, the weekly Jewish newspaper, about conditions there. The commission’s report found “significant issues of concern, including health and safety.”
Since then a rift has grown between Rabbi Allen’s group and Agriprocessors and its supporters. Several rabbis supporting the Hekhsher Tzedek campaign joined a protest at the Postville plant in July.
Last month, a New York public relations firm representing Agriprocessors, 5W Public Relations, posted fake blog comments under Rabbi Allen’s name on FailedMessiah.com, a Web site that is fiercely critical of the Rubashkins, and on the Web site of JTA, the Jewish news agency. Shmarya Rosenberg, who runs FailedMessiah.com, traced the fraudulent comments on his site to a 5W address. JTA reported that one false posting in Rabbi Allen’s name came from an address belonging to a 5W executive, Juda Engelmayer.
The postings seemed intended to discredit Rabbi Allen by making him appear to use crude, arrogant language. In a statement, 5W confirmed that the postings came from its offices but said that they had been made by an intern without approval.
The Hekhsher Tzedek campaign has broadened its ambitions beyond Agriprocessors, hoping to see its “God Housekeeping Seal” adopted by kosher food producers nationwide. On Aug. 1, the campaign unveiled proposed “social justice criteria” for the seal, including standards for wages and benefits, worker safety, animal welfare and environmental protection.
In coming days, the two Conservative Jewish organizations behind the campaign will send out a mailing calling on rabbis to preach about it during Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year.
Rabbi Allen said the campaign was not seeking to change ancient kosher dietary laws, which are traditionally administered by Orthodox Jews. “We are not revising, we are enhancing,” he said.
But some Orthodox leaders predicted that the campaign would be spurned by Orthodox Jews. Rabbi Avi Shafran of Agudath Israel, a national Orthodox group, warned that the Hekhsher Tzedek was likely to backfire by raising the price of kosher food.
The campaign’s leaders appear “not so much interested in ensuring fair treatment of employees and the like as they are in redefining the very concept of kashrut” (the Hebrew word referring to kosher laws and practice), Rabbi Shafran said. “That, in our view, is deeply troubling.”
Meanwhile, the negative news from Agriprocessors spurred Orthodox leaders to action. David Eliezrie, a California rabbi who joined the trip to Postville, called the delegation “the New York Yankees of rabbis.” Aaron Troodler, another delegation member, said Agriprocessors had paid for the rabbis’ travel.
They saw changes that Agriprocessors had made since the raid, according to the report of their trip. They met with James Martin, a former federal prosecutor recently hired as a compliance officer, and were told of a toll-free hot line he set up for confidential worker complaints.
Workers interviewed on video by Yair Hoffman, a delegation member, said Agriprocessors now pays a starting wage of $10 an hour, up from $7.25 before the raid. Jacobson Staffing, an outside company that has taken charge of hiring, has enrolled the company in E-Verify, a federal program devised to block illegal immigrants from getting jobs.
After the three-hour tour, the rabbis issued an unqualified endorsement. They said they did not intend to delve into conditions before the raid or address the plight of the immigrant workers caught in the raid.
“I have no firsthand knowledge of what went on before,” Rabbi Lerner said. “But if you take away preraid, you’ve got to say it’s a wonderful situation now.”