Kosher Slaughterhouse’s Food-Safety Record Criticized by Regulators

By Nathaniel Popper

Published August 15, 2007, issue of August 17, 2007.
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The nation’s largest kosher slaughterhouse, already the subject of allegations about its treatment of both workers and animals, has also been chastised by government regulators for its food-safety record, according to newly released documents.

The AgriProcessors slaughterhouse in Postville, Iowa, received 250 noncompliance records from the United States Department of Agriculture during 2006, five of them for inadequate safeguards against mad cow disease, and multiple others for fecal matter in the food-production area. The entire beef, poultry and egg industry had 34 recalls in 2006, while AgriProcessors had two during the past eight months alone — both Class I, the highest risk level.

In both March and September of 2006, the USDA sent the AgriProcessors plant manager a “Letter of Warning” reviewing a series of problems. At the end of the three-page September letter, the inspector wrote that the slaughterhouse’s efforts to correct the problems had been “ineffective.” The letter concluded that “these findings lead us to question your ability to maintain sanitary conditions, and to produce a safe and wholesome product.”

AgriProcessors is the largest producer of kosher beef, and markets its product under the Aaron’s Best and Supreme Kosher labels, among others. The Postville slaughterhouse is the only kosher slaughterhouse producing both beef and chicken.

The documents were released in response to a Freedom of Information Act request by the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, which has been attempting to unionize the workers at the Postville plant. The documents all stem from incidents that occurred between January 1, 2006, and January 24, 2007.

Amanda Eamich, a spokeswoman for the Food Safety and Inspection Service, told the Forward that “whenever noncompliance is found, noncompliance records are issued. They are able to adjust whatever problems they are having, and our in-plant personnel work with them to review the plan they submit.”

Eamich said that the Postville plant has addressed the issues and is currently in compliance.

A spokesman for AgriProcessors did not return calls seeking comment. Shalom Rubashkin, the owner of the plant, told the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier that the allegations “paint an unfair picture” of the company’s operations.

Catherine Nettles Cutter, a professor of food science at Penn State University, said it is hard to compare the numbers at AgriProcessors with those at other slaughterhouses because the government does not publish comparative statistics.

She did say that “some plants don’t have these issues because they have new equipment and experienced employees. But it depends on the plant — there are so many dynamics at play.”

Another take came from Felicia Nestor, a Food & Water Watch expert on the meat and poultry industry, who reviewed the USDA documents at the request of the Forward. Nestor said that the issues at the AgriProcessors plant are “systemic problems.”

“It seems like there are just problems throughout this,” said Nestor, who is a senior policy analyst at Food & Water Watch, a consumer advocacy group. “We’re talking about problems in beef, chicken, lamb and turkey.”

The release of these documents follows a series of complaints about AgriProcessors. In 2005, the animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals released a video showing unsettling images of animals being slaughtered at the Postville plant. Another video, released last month, showed the kill floor at a kosher slaughterhouse in Nebraska that is owned by the same family that owns AgriProcessors.

AgriProcessors has been criticized for the treatment of its workers, as well, in part because of a report in the Forward in 2006.

The release of these USDA documents, though, appears to be the first time that concerns about the safety of the food from AgriProcessors have been raised publicly. These documents add a new dimension to AgriProcessor’s problems, given the sensitivity of food safety in the United States. Kosher meat is often marketed as being under stricter supervision because it is overseen by government inspectors and by kosher inspectors.

The AgriProcessors plant is overseen by a number of kosher certifiers who have kosher inspectors in the plant on a regular basis, including the Orthodox Union. The CEO of the Orthodox Union’s kosher division, Rabbi Menachem Genack, said that food safety is something his certifiers leave to government inspectors.

“Our general policy is that we are relying on the USDA and the FDA to make sure that companies are in compliance,” Genack said. “We follow their lead, but we’re only following. They have the expertise and experience to do it.”

The 250 USDA noncompliance records given to AgriProcessors during 2006 vary from benign matters of protocol to what the inspectors term “very serious” violations.

There were at least 18 records in which AgriProcessors was cited for fecal matter appearing on the animals being prepared. During December — after the plant had received its letter of warning — AgriProcessors received six warnings for fecal matter within 10 days. On December 26, the inspector wrote that during multiple checks of 10 chickens, “fecal contamination varied between 70 and 80%.” Other problems, including bile contamination, were noted at the time. After a number of warnings, the inspector wrote that “further planned actions have either not been implemented or have not been effective.”

There were also at least five instances in which AgriProcessors was cited for not taking the required measures to fend off mad cow disease.

The company’s two recalls both came this year, after the period from which the FOIA documents are drawn. In January of this year, AgriProcessors recalled 35,000 pounds of beef due to mislabeling that did not mention egg albumen. Most recently, in July, 2,700 pounds of hot dogs were recalled due to “possible underprocessing.” Both of these were Class I recalls, which are made when there is a “reasonable probability that the use of the product will cause serious, adverse health consequences or death.”

This is not the first time that AgriProcessors has landed in trouble because of documents released by the USDA in response to a request from the FOIA. In 2006, PETA secured the release of documents in which USDA officials censured AgriProcessors for the inhumane treatment of its animals.

Jim Blau, assistant director of strategic resources at the UFCW, said that workers at the plant tipped off the union to food-safety problems. Blau said that his organization, which represents close to 300,000 food production workers, was interested in dealing with the issues at AgriProcessors as a matter of protecting the industry.

“When you see things like this — it’s not good for the industry that there is a company that’s out there behaving like this,” Blau said.

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