Averting Kosher Crisis, Meat Giant Hires Long-time Attorney to be New CEO

By Anthony Weiss

Published September 25, 2008, issue of October 03, 2008.
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The country’s largest supplier of kosher meat has appointed one of its lawyers to be its new CEO, saving itself from the threat of losing kosher certification during one of the busiest times of the kosher shopping calendar.

On September 18, kosher giant Agriprocessors announced that it had hired Bernard Feldman, a Long Island attorney who has previously served as counsel for the company, to be its new CEO.

The move comes five months after the company’s Postville, Iowa, slaughterhouse was raided by federal immigration agents, leading to the arrest of 400 workers. The company has struggled to regain its footing since then. On September 9, the crisis heightened when the Iowa attorney general handed down child labor charges against two members of the Rubashkin family, which has owned and run the company. After the charges were announced, the Orthodox Union had said it would revoke Agriprocessors’ kosher certification if the company did not find new management.

The hiring of Feldman pacified the O.U. and has company supporters looking forward to more stability at Agriprocessors. But the reaction among company critics was mixed, given Feldman’s lack of experience in the meat industry and his previous ties to Agriprocessors. Many adopted a wait-and-see attitude.

“If it’s a new CEO which is really independent, then it’s a good step. The question is, what does it mean?” said Shmuel Herzfeld, a Washington-area Orthodox rabbi who has been critical of Agriprocessors. “I think unless there’s transparency in the process, there’s always going to be questions.”

Feldman will be taking over the company’s national operations, which include slaughterhouses in Iowa and Nebraska and a distribution center in Brooklyn. As CEO, he will answer to the company’s owner and president, Aaron Rubashkin, who was among those charged with child labor counts by the Iowa attorney general. Other members of the Rubashkin family remain employed at various positions in Agriprocessors.

Feldman was vague about what his plans for the company would be, and about whether the family members would remain in place. He did say that “nobody is better suited and has more knowledge of this particular plant, since it was built by the Rubashkin family, than the Rubashkin family.”

Although Feldman worked in his father’s butcher shop growing up, his professional experience has focused on corporate reorganization and refinance. He has served as a special corporate counsel to the Rubashkin family for the past five years. Feldman said that his top priority would be to bring Agriprocessors’ meat production, which has been severely hit since the raid, back up to pre-raid levels, and “to restore [the company’s] reputation in the community,” Feldman told the Forward.

One of the most persistent problems at Agriprocessors has been its relationship with its labor force. The company has been criticized for its working conditions since 2006, when the Forward published an investigative report on poor labor conditions at the slaughterhouse. Agriprocessors has been fined numerous times by government labor and safety agencies, and is currently locked in a legal battle over the attempted unionization of its Brooklyn warehouse.

Feldman said he was open to discussing the possibility of unionizing the company’s workers. An official for the United Food and Commercial Workers, which has been attempting to unionize the Agriprocessors work force for the past three years, said that the union had attempted to contact Feldman but he had not yet responded.

Feldman argued that contrary to the reports from before the raid, the criticism of the company’s labor practices have all come since Agriprocessors was invaded.

“Prior to the raid, you didn’t have any substantial complaints by workers of any sort,” Feldman said. “These allegations and complaints seem to have arisen only after the May 12 raid and were made by people who were in custody primarily.”






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