A Kosher Storm

It seems the Forward has kicked up quite a storm with our May 26 report from Postville, Iowa, describing working conditions at AgriProcessors, the world’s largest kosher meatpacking plant. Our Letters page this week and last carries a sampling of the response we’ve gotten from readers across the country, most of them wondering how a religious inspection system that they thought guaranteed a standard of ethical excellence could sanction what appears to be rank exploitation.

And this is only the tip of the iceberg. We’ve heard by phone, fax and e-mail from consumers, rabbis and ordinary folks from coast to coast, in tones ranging from shock and sadness to anger over Nathaniel Popper’s account of low pay, questionable safety measures and abusive supervisors. Local community newspapers around the country have reported on our investigation and gotten their own readers riled up. The blogosphere, the town square of the wired generation, is alight with furious debate, dissecting the rights and wrongs of AgriProcessors’ behavior, our reporting and the proper role of kashrut inspection.

We’ve heard from groups of families in several states who have discussed our report and met with their own rabbis to explore ways that they can act to ensure the ethical integrity of their kosher food supply. We’ve heard from people who want to express their indignation but live in small communities where AgriProcessors’ products are the only kosher food around. We’ve also heard of discussions going on in communities of Jews who aren’t traditionally observant but are now taking a fresh look at kashrut, seeing its potential as a vehicle for living out moral values in daily life. That’s what happens when people and communities step back and take stock of their behavior. It’s not a bad thing.

Perhaps most significant, we’ve learned of earnest discussions now under way within major institutions of Conservative and Orthodox Judaism, looking for ways to address the concerns of their members about ethical treatment of workers.

Their task isn’t a simple one. Rabbinic laws of kosher slaughter have evolved over centuries into a highly specific set of rules and standards, administered by a crazy-quilt network of competing and overlapping authorities. Supervising rabbis gain their authority by virtue of their reputation for adhering to tradition. The system doesn’t lend itself to sudden changes.

The first thing we’ve been asked by officials at agencies charged with supervising kashrut is whether we have any evidence of illegal activity. That’s the easiest question to ask, but it’s the wrong one. AgriProcessors is an efficient, modern company, run by individuals who think of themselves as upstanding citizens. Their labor practices are under the scrutiny of state and federal regulators, and our report does not claim that they are out of compliance with the law.

The trouble is that the law doesn’t work. American labor law has been gutted over the past quarter-century, turning what was supposed to be a safety net for workers into a flimsy shred. Government agencies that were created in the middle of the last century to protect the powerless from exploitation have come to be seen at best as referees in a fair fight between the powerless and the powerful. The current administration has gone a step further, taking supposedly impartial regulatory agencies and packing them, one after another, with representatives of industry.

The question hanging over AgriProcessors’ behavior is not whether it’s legal. The question is whether that’s enough to receive a certificate of moral fitness. If a company operates just inside the limits of the acceptable, under a legal system that has defined acceptability steadily downward for a generation, should that satisfy a standard that is manifestly religious? What does that say about religion and its relevance to the burning questions adherents expect it to answer?

In the swirl of debate, a few respondents have questioned our facts or attacked us for publishing them. That’s to be expected. Some rely on a self-described eyewitness account from the plant that’s been circulating on the Internet, written by a rabbi who happens to perform kosher inspections for AgriProcessors. Others have been impressed by an attack on the Forward’s integrity, written by a distinguished constitutional lawyer who has represented the company in the past. In fairness, both of the individuals in question are respected figures in their communities, and regardless of their financial relationships to AgriProcessors, their words deserve a hearing.

For the record, we have not received evidence that causes us to doubt our previous reporting. Much of the so-called rebuttal we’ve seen in various media consists of disproving charges that we never made, or claiming we overlooked facts that actually appear in black and white in our story. For the most part, our facts speak for themselves. As we noted, AgriProcessors accounted for more than half of all slaughterhouse complaints submitted to the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration so far this year in Iowa, a state with scores of meatpacking plants.

But a newspaper article isn’t an indictment. If community institutions are going to take action — and we believe they should — they need more information. Many of our readers feel the same way; they want to know more before they judge. We’ll be following up, and we expect others to do so as well.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Forward.
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A Kosher Storm

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