Food Safety Records Add to Woes of Nation's Largest Kosher Slaughterhouse

The nation’s largest kosher slaughterhouse, already the subject of allegations about its treatment of workers and the animals it slaughters, 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 non-compliance 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. While the entire beef, poultry and egg industry had 34 recalls in 2006, AgriProcessors had two during the last eight months, both of them 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 letter in September, the inspector wrote that the slaughterhouse’s efforts to correct the problems had been “ineffective.” The letter concluded: “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, which has been attempting to unionize the workers at the Postville plant. The documents all stem from incidents between January 1, 2006 and January 24, 2007. They are being released to the public by the UFCW at a press conference later today. Amanda Eamich, a spokeswoman for the Food Safety and Inspection Service, told the Forward that “whenever non-compliance is found, non-compliance records are issued. If there are repeated concerns, the letter of warning is issued and we work to address that.”

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

A spokesman for AgriProcessors did not return calls seeking comment before press time.

The documents follow 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 was released last month showing the kill floor at a kosher slaughterhouse in Nebraska that is owned by the same family that owns AgriProcessors.

AgriProcessors has also been criticized for the treatment of its workers, 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 have been publicly raised about the safety of the food from AgriProcessors, and the 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 both government and 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 non-compliance 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 having fecal matter on the animals being prepared. During the last 10 days of December, after AgriProcessors had received its letter of warning, it received six warnings for fecal matter. 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.”

The inspector issued another similar citation a day later.

There were also at least five instances in which AgriProcessors was cited for not taking the required measures to fend off Mad Cow disease. In one instance, an inspector says he asked for a suspicious cow to be taken off the line and later discovered that the cow had been slaughtered with the rest of the animals. The inspector says he informed someone at the company of the “very serious noncompliance that had occurred.”

It is not immediately clear how these statistics compare to those at other similarly sized slaughterhouses. The company did have two major recalls within the last eight months, which can be compared with the 34 recalls made in the entire meat, poultry and egg industry during 2006.

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 due to documents released by the USDA in response to a Freedom of Information Act request. In 2006, the animal rights group 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 United Food and Commercial Workers, said that workers at the plant tipped the union off to food safety problems. Blau said 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.

This article was updated on Friday, August 10, 2007.

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Food Safety Records Add to Woes of Nation's Largest Kosher Slaughterhouse

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