Kosher Industry Looks to Future in Wake of Agriprocessors Charges

Child Labor Counts Put O.U. Certification in Doubt

By Nathaniel Popper

Published September 10, 2008, issue of September 19, 2008.
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Just weeks before the High Holy Days, when demand for kosher food is at its peak, the kosher industry has been thrown into flux by criminal charges against what was, until recently, the largest supplier of kosher meat in America.

Agriprocessors and its owners, Aaron and Sholom Rubashkin, were charged with more than 9,000 counts of child labor violations by the Iowa Attorney General. Aaron Rubashkin, 82, along with his sons and daughters, built Agriprocessors into the dominant player in both the kosher beef and poultry markets. But the company has struggled since an immigration raid at its Postville, Iowa, plant in May in which nearly 400 of its employees were arrested.

Immediately after the criminal charges were announced on September 9, the leading certifier of kosher food in the United States, the Orthodox Union, announced that it would withdraw certification of Agriprocessors food within a few weeks unless new management takes over operation of the Postville plant. The CEO of O.U. Kosher, Rabbi Menachem Genack, said that he is helping the company look for new management and is also talking with the Rubashkins and a labor union about allowing the workers at the plant to unionize.

Genack said that the O.U. is trying to proceed in a way that will cause the least disruption to the kosher food industry during the run-up to the Jewish High Holy Days, and he hesitated to set a firm deadline for the change in management. Agriprocessors distributes its kosher meat nationwide under several labels, including Aaron’s Best, Rubashkins and Shor Habor.

“It would be hard to fill the void” that would be created if Agriprocessors exited the market, Genack said. “There aren’t just those kind of slaughterhouses so easily available.”

It appears that other kosher producers are making moves to fill at least some of the market demand. A day before the charges were announced, word leaked out that the nation’s largest kosher poultry producer, Empire Poultry, plans to begin producing kosher beef. Meanwhile, Alle Processing, which since the raid has become the leading kosher beef producer, faces criticism from its workers for alleged mistreatment at its plant in Queens.

“I don’t know whether there will be someone new coming onto the block moving forward,” said Menachem Lubinsky, the kosher food marketing expert who reported Empire’s plans in his weekly newsletter Kosher Today. “It’s in a state of flux, and in the meantime, the Rubashkins’ phone lines are ringing off the hook for product, and they are trying to deal with it.”

The charges filed against Agriprocessors, the Rubashkins and two human resources managers at the plant would carry a maximum of 30 days in jail or a fine for each count. Each day worked by a minor counts as a single charge. The complaint says that many of the workers were under the age of 16.

“All of the named individual Defendants possessed shared knowledge that Agriprocessors employed undocumented aliens,” said a statement from the Iowa attorney general’s office. “It was likewise shared knowledge among the Defendants that many of those workers were minors.”

A statement from the company spokesman, Chaim Abrahams, denied that the company knew about the underage workers.

“Agriprocessors acted in good faith on the child labor issue,” he said in the statement. “We look forward to our day in court.”

“All of the minors at issue lied about their age in order to gain employment at the company. At the time of hiring, all of the minors, like all job applicants, presented and signed documents stating that they were over 18,” his statement said.

The defendants are set to appear in Iowa court on September 17.

Agriprocessors has been under scrutiny for its labor practices since the publication of a 2006 article in the Forward about working conditions at the Iowa slaughterhouse. On May 12 of this year, immigration officials arrested nearly 400 undocumented immigrant workers at the plant. Nearly 300 of those workers were sent to jail, and there has been some question about whether anyone in the company’s ownership would be held culpable.

Immediately after the May raid, the O.U. said that it would push Agriprocessors to find new management if the current management faced criminal charges. At that point, Agriprocessors announced that Sholom Rubashkin would step down as the CEO of the operations in Iowa, but since then there have been media reports that he has remained in control of the slaughterhouse.

The O.U.’s Genack said that Agriprocessors has been interviewing potential candidates for its CEO position but that the company has struggled to find people willing to take the job.

It was unclear whether the O.U.’s new demand for a change at the company would also extend to other members of the Rubashkin family, who are heavily involved in Agriprocessors’ operations. In addition to Sholom Rubashkin, another son and a son-in-law of Aaron Rubashkin have run operations at the Iowa plant.

Lubinsky, the kosher marketing expert, who has served as a spokesman for Agriprocessors, said it is the company’s understanding that the O.U. is not requiring it to make any changes other than finding a new CEO.

When asked about the fate of other Rubashkin family members, Genack said he could not comment. He did say that in addition to changes in management he has been pushing the Rubashkins to meet with the United Food and Commercial Workers, the labor union that has been attempting to organize workers at the plant for three years.

“The union could help them get a stable work force and the union could protect the workforce,” Genack said.

Production at the Agriprocessors plant has been severely curtailed since the May immigration raid because of the difficulty of drawing new employees to Postville, Iowa. Lubinsky said that beef production is operating at just above 50% of where it had been before the raid. The shortages have had their biggest impact in smaller cities where Agriprocessors often is the only source of kosher meat.

For a look at the Forward’s ongoing coverage of the turmoil in the kosher industry, click here.

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