Religious Bodies Move To Probe Conditions At Kosher Meat Plant

Immigration Battle Splitting Locals in Iowa

By Nathaniel Popper; With Reporting by Ami Eden.

Published June 23, 2006, issue of June 23, 2006.
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Two key national bodies of Conservative Judaism have created a task force to investigate and respond to complaints of substandard working conditions at the nation’s largest kosher slaughterhouse, first described in a Forward investigation.

Separately, initial steps have been taken by national bodies of Orthodox Judaism to examine the validity of the allegations and explore possible responses. Sources among Orthodox leadership said the steps came in response to expressions of alarm from “members and constituents.”

The Conservative movement’s task force, spearheaded by Rabbi Morris Allen of St. Paul, Minn., will begin its work with a fact-finding mission to Postville, Iowa, the home of the kosher slaughterhouse, AgriProcessors. The task force is a joint project of the movement’s two national bodies, the Rabbinical Assembly and the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. Allen co-chairs the United Synagogue’s social action committee.

“We are major consumers of this meat,” said Allen, who has made past visits to the Iowa slaughterhouse from his base in nearby Minnesota. “To remain silent in the face of what may be inappropriate business practices is totally inappropriate on our part.”

Initial steps within the Orthodox community have been less decisive. The largest organization of Orthodox rabbis, the Rabbinical Council of America, sent a representative earlier this month to investigate working conditions at the plant, but no findings had been released at press time. Several sources inside the Orthodox Union, the main Orthodox congregational association and the nation’s largest kosher certifying organization, said there has been disagreement about how to assess the conditions and what the movement’s response should be.

Rabbis from both movements said that whatever action they might take, they are not looking to reevaluate the legitimacy of kosher slaughter, which, they noted, has come under attack in Europe. Leaders of the Conservative rabbinate said they want to reconsider the ethical responsibilities of a business that receives an approval from religious authorities.

“We are very much interested in the continued production of kosher meat,” said Rabbi Joel Meyers, executive vice president of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly. “We just don’t want those plants that produce it to be perceived by the public as being somehow terrible.”

The Forward’s article about conditions at Agriprocessors appeared in late May, and came out of interviews with dozens of Hispanic immigrant workers at the plant. It is estimated that some 90% of the plant’s workers are Hispanic immigrants, many of them undocumented.

A spokesman for the plant, Mike Thomas, has since written to the Forward stating that “every Agriprocessors employee must provide documentation” and “all Agriprocessors employees are reported to the government.”

The plant accounts for more than half of all violations handed out to Iowa slaughterhouses by the Occupational Safety Health Administration this year. Industry experts told the Forward that wages paid to workers at AgriProcessors are among the lowest in the slaughterhouse industry, despite the premium price at which AgriProcessors sells its kosher meat. Several workers at the plant also told the Forward they received virtually no safety training, which they said contributed to accidental amputations and other health problems.

The company responded with a full-page advertisement in the Forward denying that the working conditions at the plant were remiss. In addition, an article appeared in the Jewish Press, a Brooklyn weekly with wide circulation in the Orthodox community, repudiating the Forward’s reporting.

The article, written by constitutional lawyer Nathan Lewin, who has represented AgriProcessors, made reference to an alternate report on conditions at the plant that had been written by Minnesota Rabbi Asher Zeilingold. Zeilingold, who is paid by AgriProcessors to provide kosher certification for its meat, visited the plant after the Forward’s report was published and said the workers he met were happy.

“If conditions are as terrible as [the Forward] describes,” Lewin wrote, “how could Rabbi Zeilingold have found, in his words, ‘that here was a food plant in small-town America that had workers who were satisfied and felt their lives had meaning and fulfillment?’”

To date, most religious authorities have avoided making public statements about the specific nature of conditions at the plant. The administrator at one widely accepted kosher certification organization, K’hal Adath Jeshurun, said his organization is not interested in labor questions.

“We can’t get involved in issues of labor, because that’s not our job there, and they have not hired us to do that,” said Rabbi Moshe Edelstein, the administrator.

The director of kosher supervision at the O.U., Rabbi Menachem Genack, said that whether AgriProcessors is on the high or low end of the industry in areas like wages and working conditions, he was confident that the firm is not violating any laws.

The head of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, Meyers, said that he did not know the situation on the ground, but that he had heard enough to warrant a thorough airing of the situation.

“Enough questions have been raised by your paper and other sources we have talked with to warrant concern for us. We want to have a look ourselves,” said Meyers.

The Conservative task force, which includes some 10 people, met by telephone last week. It includes rabbis from across the country, as well as staffers at Jewish Community Action, a social activist organization in St. Paul. The task force plans to travel to Postville and talk with the owners of the plant and with local civic and religious leaders who have dealt with the workers.

The chair of the task force, Allen, comes to the effort after years of involvement with immigrant workers’ rights in St. Paul. He has also pushed to make more non-glatt kosher meat available to Minnesota’s Conservative Jews. Meat that is glatt kosher, referring to the clean lung of a cow, has become the standard in the Orthodox world, but it is more expensive and holds no religious significance for most Conservative rabbis. Allen hopes that the prospect of a major market for non-glatt meat will serve as an incentive to induce producers to improve working conditions at slaughterhouses.

Within the Orthodox movement, action to date has been less public. Several sources inside the O.U. said a meeting took place on June 15 that drew together rabbis from several Orthodox kosher certifying agencies to discuss the situation at AgriProcessors.

Much of that meeting was reportedly devoted to earlier complaints about the slaughter process at AgriProcessors, which arose after the animal rights group PETA released videos from the cattle kill floor.

In one sign of movement on the PETA complaints, O.U. sources said that an animal-behavior expert who was initially one of AgriProcessors’ sharpest critics, Temple Grandin of Colorado State University, is scheduled to visit the plant in the coming weeks.

But last week’s meeting of kosher authorities reportedly also touched on the question of working conditions. The Rabbinical Council of America, which is closely associated with the O.U., sent a rabbi to Iowa to investigate conditions soon after the Forward article appeared. The executive vice president of the council, Rabbi Basil Herring, said he had no comment on the findings.

“The discussions are underway — but as of now there is no public comment,” Herring said. “This is for a matter that is under investigation.”

According to people close to the O.U., the rabbi dispatched by the Rabbinical Council of America returned from his visit with a positive review of the situation at the plant, after receiving a tour from the owners of AgriProcessors.

However, the Forward has learned of other, conflicting reports from the plant that have reached kosher supervising agencies.

In a correspondence that was shared with the Forward, a rabbi who works inside AgriProcessors wrote to one supervising agency supporting the Forward’s investigation, which had found that most workers receive wages under $7, two to three dollars less than the standard at slaughterhouses.

“The workers that I work with get anywhere from $6.00 to $7.50 if they are lucky,” the rabbi said.

Referring to the Forward’s article, the rabbi said, “A lot of us agree that the article is about 98% true.”

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