In a development with potential repercussions for consumers of kosher meat worldwide, the country’s largest kosher slaughterhouse greatly curtailed production this past week after a raid by federal agents led to the arrest of hundreds of undocumented workers.
On May 12, The United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement stormed the AgriProcessors meatpacking plant in Postville, Iowa, detaining nearly 400 of the slaughterhouse’s 968 employees and prompting others to go into hiding. According to The Des Moines Register, 154 of those arrested in the raid have been charged with criminal offenses relating to identity theft. Most of those taken into custody come from Guatemala or Mexico; a few are from Eastern Europe or Israel.
Though the plant reopened on May 13, it is operating with a skeleton crew. According to Rabbi Menachem Weissmandl, the head rabbi at AgriProcessors, as of May 14 it was producing perhaps 40% of its usual daily output.
Because of increases in the prices of corn, which is used to feed cattle, the price of meat in general is already high. Kosher meat prices, which always skew higher than nonkosher prices, are likely to climb even higher if production at AgriProcessors continues at diminished levels.
“Should they not get the plant up and running, it will have an enormous impact on the consumer,” said Menachem Lubinsky, head of the kosher industry consulting and marketing firm Lubicom. “There’s been a little bit of hoarding going on,” he added.
Mass arrests of suspected undocumented workers at slaughterhouses have been common in recent years and have temporarily shut down or drastically slowed production at major nonkosher plants. But the raid on AgriProcessors may have an unusually severe ripple effect for consumers, as the company produces an enormous share of the kosher meat on the market.
Rabbi Seth Mandel, the Orthodox Union’s head of kosher slaughter, estimated that AgriProcessors produces around 55% of glatt kosher beef sold in the United States and that the plant in Postvillle produces 85% of AgriProcessors beef. The company also produces the greatest share of glatt kosher poultry on the market.
According to Mandel, the impact of a production crisis at AgriProcessors would be most acutely felt in regions that have relatively small numbers of people who keep
kosher. In those areas, AgriProcessors meat — sold under brand names including Aaron’s Best, Supreme Kosher and Rubashkin — is usually the only kosher meat available.
To fill the void in labor, AgriProcessors is busing in workers from a smaller plant that it runs in Gordon, Neb., according to a spokesman for the United Food and Commercial Workers, which is the union that represents slaughterhouse workers. And, Weissmandl said, 15 or 20 yeshiva students have flown out to Iowa from Brooklyn to help out with the slaughter.
Sources say that the company is also trying to attract documented workers by offering wages higher than what the undocumented employees had received.
But replacing a work force of hundreds could take months, experts on slaughterhouse labor say.
“There is no channel to provide legal labor for these kinds of operations,” said Lourdes Gouveia, a professor of sociology at the University of Nebraska who studies immigrant labor in the meatpacking industry.
Because wages are generally so low and conditions in the plants so difficult, meatpacking companies that have been raided by immigration enforcement agencies often hire undocumented workers all over again. In other cases, slaughterhouses have recruited workers from inner-city slums, or refugees who are in the United States legally but lack work permits.
According to Lubinsky, who has consulted for AgriProcessors, the company maintains that the raid will not significantly affect its output. (AgriProcessors representatives declined to comment.)
Gouveia was skeptical. “It took Swift about a year to recover,” she said, referring to the Colorado slaughterhouse Swift & Co, which was raided by ICE in 2006.
The raid on AgriProcessors hit the company especially hard, sources say, as management was the last to see it coming. Weeks ago, ICE leased a fairground in the town of Waterloo, near Postville, as a temporary detention center for the workers whom the agency planned to arrest. But while some union representatives — and possibly some workers — suspected that a raid was in the works, AgriProcessors was apparently in the dark.
That AgriProcessors likely employs undocumented workers is no secret, both because the practice is so common among slaughterhouses nationwide and because the company has been the target of frequent media attention due to accusations of labor and animal-rights abuses. Indeed, lawyers for the company tried, unsuccessfully, to persuade a federal appeals court last year that workers in its Brooklyn distribution center did not have the right to unionize, because many of them were illegal aliens.
“The big issue wasn’t whether this would happen, but when it would happen,” said Stephen Bloom, a professor of journalism at the University of Iowa who in 2001 published a book about the impact that AgriProcessors had on the once homogenously white and Christian town of Postville. “It was the worst-kept secret in Iowa.”
Among the allegations in an affidavit released by ICE was that some AgriProcessors workers bought and sold weapons at work.
The affidavit also included allegations from sources at the plant that employees were running a methamphetamine lab on AgriProcessors premises, that a supervisor struck an employee with a meat hook and that undocumented workers were receiving significantly less than minimum wage.
Since the raid, the small town’s immigrant infrastructure, like the slaughterhouse, has been operating on the brink of collapse. Over half the children in a Postville school were absent the day after the raid, the editor of the town’s newspaper told the Forward, and Mexican and Guatemalan restaurants have closed down. Families of those arrested, and others afraid they might be detained, have taken refuge in the town’s Catholic church, according to The Des Moines Register.
For Jewish activists who advocate tying ethics standards to the requirements of kashrut, the latest incident at AgriProcessors is more fuel for the fire.
“For too long, we’ve ignored that production of kosher food has taken place in a world where we’re concerned about the ritual aspects of food preparation and not the ethical considerations,” said Rabbi Morris Allen, director of the Hechsher Tzedek Commission, which is affiliated with the Conservative movement.
Other kosher consumers simply wish for less controversy mixed in with their meat.
“I think the general sense is that they wish Rubashkin would do what it has to so that it does not wind up in the news all the time,” Mandel said.