The operator of the country’s largest kosher slaughterhouse appears to be gearing up for a major public relations blitz after being battered by criticism of its labor practices and calls for a boycott of its products.
Agriprocessors, which has come under renewed fire in the wake of a federal raid on its Postville, Iowa, plant, has hired 5W Public Relations, a New York-based P.R. powerhouse that represents clients ranging from hip-hop stars to Fortune 500 companies; in the Jewish world it built a reputation for representing right-wing and Orthodox figures.
Even with the new representation, the beleaguered kosher meat company has run into complications as it tries to counter concerns that have permeated the Jewish community, the media and even the kosher industry. A closed community meeting that representatives of Agriprocessors scheduled for June 24 was canceled after word of the meeting leaked to the press and to the company’s detractors.
Agriprocessors has faced criticism for the past two years over the labor conditions at its large Iowa plant. Those criticisms have sharpened in the wake of a massive federal raid on the slaughterhouse May 12, in the course of which nearly 400 illegal immigrant employees were arrested.
Since the raid, there has been a growing backlash against Agriprocessors in the Jewish community. On June 11, representatives from Agriprocessors met with organizers from Uri L’Tzedek, a liberal Orthodox organization that has called for a boycott of Agriprocessors until the company introduces labor reforms.
Juda Engelmayer, who is handling the Agriprocessors account for 5W, said that Agriprocessors had hired his firm in mid-June to deal with marketing. Engelmayer leads 5W’s corporate and public affairs department, specializing in publicity and crisis management. He has represented several major Jewish organizations and corporations, as well as controversial evangelical Reverend John Hagee.
Menachem Lubinsky, CEO of the kosher industry consulting firm Lubicom and a spokesman for Agriprocessors, told the Forward that he expected 5W to deal with negative publicity and blogs. Asked to confirm this, Engelmayer said 5W’s role is still undefined.
Lubicom organized the June 24 meeting in midtown Manhattan to present the Agriprocessors case. According to an e-mail publicizing the event, the topics slated for discussion included the potential for a kosher meat shortage and “What can be done to stop the slander and vilifications against Agriprocessors?” Among those scheduled to appear, according to the e-mail, were “local community activists from Postville” and “kosher food industry leaders.” In response to inquiries, a Lubicom employee said the event would be closed to the public and to press.
But once word of the meeting began to circulate beyond the intended invitees, the organizers, nervous that it might be disrupted by protesters, canceled it.
“They decided that it’s better to have a meeting where the point of the meeting can be had without a possible ruckus,” Engelmeyer said.
Instead, a conference call was held, featuring presentations by two of Agriprocessors’ lawyers — Nathan Lewin, a constitutional lawyer who previously represented Agriprocessors, and James Martin, a former federal prosecutor who has been hired by Agriprocessors to lead its compliance efforts. Both men defended the company and laid out changes that Agriprocessors has been making. Among the participants in the call were a former member of Postville’s city council and about 20 Jewish community leaders and kosher industry consumers.
Rabbi Pesach Lerner, executive vice president of the National Council of Young Israel and a participant on the call, said that he came away from the discussion reassured that the company had tried to comply with the appropriate laws and that it was making necessary adjustments.
But critics remain concerned. Rabbi Morris Allen, leader of the Conservative movement’s effort to reform labor practices in the kosher food industry, and one of the most prominent critics of Agriprocessors, said he worried that the public relations push was a sign that Agriprocessors was more focused on going after its critics than on changing its practices.
“It appears that sometimes, people’s best defense is not to look at themselves to make change, but rather to attack people who are simply calling for a higher standard to be used in the production of kosher food,” Allen said.