One of the nation’s largest unions is escalating its public fight with the country’s largest kosher slaughterhouse, AgriProcessors.
Activists with United Food and Commercial Workers stood outside kosher supermarkets and Trader Joe’s stores around the country last Wednesday, distributing fliers that purported to be a “Kosher Food Safety Alert.” The fliers cited controversial reports — many of them published in the Forward — about food-safety issues at the Postville, Iowa, slaughterhouse.
Perhaps most provocatively, the flier claims that in 2006, AgriProcessors was cited five times for “violations of ‘mad cow’ safety rules.”
The UFCW echoed these claims in full-page advertisements in Jewish newspapers and in automated phone calls to thousands of households in Orthodox neighborhoods.
AgriProcessors responded with a letter signed by the company’s vice president, Sholom Rubashkin, and published on its Web site and in Yeshiva World News.
“Concerns about Mad Cow disease are simply wrong,” the letter said. “We have never had product from any suspect animals leave our plant.”
The debate stems from a series of documents released by the United States Department of Agriculture after a Freedom of Information Act request from the UFCW. These documents show that the plant was cited for violating rules designed to control mad cow disease, though they did not suggest that any contaminated meat had left the plant.
The food-safety concerns are only the latest controversy that has beset AgriProcessors. The slaughterhouse has also been criticized for the labor conditions at the plant and for the treatment of animals there.
KosherToday, a trade publication that has defended AgriProcessors, wrote about the UFCW’s campaign this week and said that it had not hurt AgriProcessors sales and in fact may have helped.
“The net effect of the onslaught against Agri was that sales of its products in some stores have risen by as much as 30% and it has opened an unprecedented number of new accounts,” KosherToday wrote.
Rubashkin’s letter alleged that the UFCW is going after AgriProcessors because the workers at the plant have not joined the union. Rubashkin accused the UFCW of orchestrating “a textbook campaign… to force a company into submission to unionize a plant even when it is against the wishes of the workers.”
A spokeswoman for the UFCW, Jill Cashen, told the Forward that AgriProcessors had never asked employees if they wanted to unionize.
“The [AgriProcessors] plant isn’t a free and open environment,” Cashen said. “We don’t speak for the workers, and neither does AgriProcessors. Workers there have never had a chance to vote one way or another.”
In the materials it handed out last week, the UFCW cited two major meat recalls that AgriProcessors has made during the past year. In his letter, Rubashkin wrote that no “raw, fresh or frozen poultry and beef products” had been recalled. Cashen called this response “technically correct but extremely misleading,” noting that the recalled products were precooked frozen foods.
The Jewish Labor Committee, a national organization, has worked with the UFCW on this issue.