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News From Postville May Be Treyf, but Kosher Consumers Keep Buying

The news of the massive immigration raid on the largest kosher slaughterhouse in the United States has triggered national headlines and outrage among a group of vocal Jewish activists, but the raid seems to be having little impact on consumers’ appetite for kosher meat.

Based on conversations with kosher butchers, rabbinic authorities and consumers across the country, it appears that the demand for meat produced by Agriprocessors — the most commonly available kosher meat in America — has continued unabated since federal agents raided the Agriprocessors plant in Postville, Iowa, on May 12 and arrested 389 workers.

The raid has spawned reports of worker abuse at the plant and has revived discussion among Jewish activists about the nexus between kosher laws and Jewish ethics. But people involved with the kosher meat business report that the greatest challenge has not been finding people willing to buy kosher meat, but rather, given the drop in supply coming out of Postville, finding enough kosher meat to sell to them.

“Most people don’t care where their meat comes from,” said Tibor Rosenberg, owner of Tibor’s Kosher Meat Market in Cleveland. “As long as it’s on the shelf and it looks good, they buy it.”

Indeed, during the past few years, Agriprocessors has been the subject of numerous negative reports, but figures that have emerged since the raid suggest that the company has strengthened its position as the country’s largest supplier of kosher meat, adding to the ranks of employees in the Postville factory.

Since the raid, a range of Jewish organizations have released statements acknowledging the gravity of the concerns that the raid has triggered. The rabbinical and congregational arms of the Conservative movement have urged members to consider avoiding products made by Agriprocessors. The Jewish Labor Committee and the Orthodox social action group Uri L’Tzedek have urged outright boycotts.

Shmuly Yanklowitz, co-founder of Uri L’Tzedek, said that his organization had collected about 1,000 signatures for a petition demanding greater compliance and transparency at Agriprocessors, and threatening a June 15 boycott if there are no changes. The signatories include prominent liberal Orthodox rabbi Avi Weiss; Rabbi Danny Nevins, dean of the Conservative Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, and Ruth Messinger, president of American Jewish World Service.

Yanklowitz said he was surprised to hear the reports that consumers seemed to be buying as normal, given the rapid response his organization had received from restaurants and from community leaders.

“Our inbox is flooded with people saying they’ve changed their convictions,” he told the Forward. He added that he saw it as a sign of progress that Agriprocessors has now contacted Uri L’Tzedek to ask for a meeting.

Mainstream Orthodox organizations have generally refrained from drawing attention to the controversy, but on May 30, the largest professional union of Orthodox rabbis in the United States, the Rabbinical Council of America, released a statement that, despite its refrain from criticizing Agriprocessors, suggested that kosher supervisory agencies could indeed incorporate ethical requirements into their oversight. The RCA is affiliated with the Orthodox Union, which jointly oversees the Agriprocessors plant.

There have been scattered anecdotal reports about consumers responding to these organizational efforts by moving away from Agriprocessors meat; however, calls to a dozen store owners and local kosher supervisors in such places as Houston, Manhattan, Baltimore, Dallas, Miami, Toronto and Los Angeles reported that only a few customers have raised questions about where their meat has come from, and even fewer have suggested that they have soured on Rubashkin’s.

“It doesn’t seem to be as big an issue with the religious community that [Agriprocessors] had illegals there,” said Chaim Fishman, head of the kosher meat department at Seven Mile Market in Baltimore. “A lot of people believe the big companies have illegals working for them.”

The kosher-eating community extends across a broad portion of the Jewish spectrum, though precise data is difficult to come by. According to Steven M. Cohen, a sociology professor at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, data from the 2000-2001 National Jewish Population Survey indicate that self-described Orthodox Jews constitute 40% of adults who keep kosher, with Conservative Jews another 32%, Reform 8%, Reconstructionist 2% and 18% not declaring an affiliation.

Menachem Lubinsky, editor of the trade periodical Kosher Today and a consultant to Agriprocessors, had somewhat different numbers, calculating that in 2006, Orthodox Jews made up 75% of regular kosher consumers, and Conservatives another 20%. A number of factors make the figures difficult to compare directly, including larger Orthodox family sizes and different shopping patterns, but both figures suggest that non-Orthodox Jews constitute a significant bloc of kosher consumers — a bloc that, it appears, has not changed its eating patterns.

One possible reason for the apparent consumer indifference to the raid simply may be ignorance. Despite extensive coverage of the raid and its aftermath by national media and Jewish newspapers of all stripes, an informal survey by the Forward of customers at two kosher meat stores in Brooklyn found that the majority of customers said they had not heard anything about the raid.

“I’m busy with this one,” one female customer said, pointing to her daughter as she wheeled a shopping cart into Moishe’s Supermarket in Brooklyn.

A few people who knew about the raid nonetheless said that it had not changed the way they shop. One woman at Moishe’s, who identified herself as Evelyn, said that while she was conscious of the raid as she shopped for meat, she continued to buy Agriprocessors products as long as they were fresh.

“The same thing must be going on in all the slaughterhouses,” she told the Forward.

Another factor in smaller cities is that Agriprocessors meats are often the only kosher meat available. Rabbi Daniel Isaak of the Conservative-affiliated Congregation Neveh Shalom in Portland, Ore., said that one congregant e-mailed with concerns about Rubashkin’s meat but complained that the only alternatives were to give up kosher meat or stop eating meat altogether, neither of which was desirable. Isaak said the e-mail was the lone mention of the issue, though he estimates that 20% to 25% of his congregants keep kosher in some form.

Cohen suggested that buying patterns might not change unless a clearer message emerges from pulpits and organizations about the moral implications of eating various kosher meats.

“People are unclear about whether all kosher meats are ethically tinged or some, or whether there was a problem in the past and it’s cleared up,” Cohen said. “And people who are committed to eating kosher and having kosher meat as part of their rituals are loathe to give up a part of their religious identity for a point of moral principle.”

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