By Menachem Lubinsky
Reprinted with permission of Hamodia
The explosion of kosher foods in America, specifically over the last decade, is well documented. Perhaps the most important gain is the accessibility of kosher food to Jews all over America and not just in major Jewish centers. Even as late as the early â€˜90s, chareidi Jews who lived outside of the major cities had to travel long distances for cholov Yisrael and glatt kosher products. That has largely changed as the nationâ€™s supermarkets, and, of late, discount chains, have opened their doors to kosher food; the beneficiaries have been the smaller kehillos all over America.
A major player in that expansion was Agriprocessors, based in Postville, Iowa, and owned by the family of Aaron Rubashkin. The Rubashkins have invested in the technology to prolong shelf life, so that meat and poultry could be shipped to even small markets.Their products are currently available in 37 of the 50 states, and in such chains as Albertsonâ€™s, H.E. Butt Grocery Co., Kroger, Schnuck and Wal- Mart, as well as all of the large chains in the big cities. While it is true that many non-Orthodox Jews buy the Agri products, the widespread availability of their products has made life easier for all of the frum Jews who live in smaller communities from coast to coast.
The companyâ€™s troubles began more than three years ago with the release of a clandestine video by the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), the extremist animal rights group that one can see demonstrating in major cities against fur coats and many other similar causes. The video is alleged to show the abuse of animals at the Agri plant. The USDA, which monitors the plant and has a team of more than 30 inspectors on site, never closed the plant for even one hour and never corroborated the video. Nevertheless, Agri improved procedures to avoid the perception of any tzaar baal hachaim (which certainly the large team of Rabbanim and shochtim would not condone), which was subsequently supported by Temple Grandin, one of the nationâ€™s leading experts and advocates for humane slaughter. To date, Agri has passed five more independent audits, not to speak of various supermarket chains that do their own audits.
The PETA incident triggered an onslaught of negative press, largely inspired by Conservative Jews, led by Rabbi Maurice Allen of Minneapolis, who made numerous demands on the company, the USDA notwithstanding, and introduced a novel approach to kashrus, a Heksher Tzedek that would confirm that plants like Agri not only abide by kashrus laws, but also protect the environment and treat animals and workers well. The Heksher Tzedek was immediately dismissed by the OU, the major certifier at Agri, as well as many other Orthodox groups. But the Heksher Tzedek became the rallying cry for left-wing Conservative and even Reform Jews, who never really had an affinity with kashrus.
Meanwhile Agri faced another formidable opponent in the UFCW, a labor union known for its strong-arm tactics in forcing similar businesses into submission. At any given time, the UFCW is in a bitter dispute with some food entity and most probably being sued. Agri and its labor force have refused to come under the Union, with the workers voting repeatedly not to unionize. The Union would make Agri â€œpay,â€ and their tactics extended even to Jewish communities in Boro Park and Flatbush, who received automated phone calls about the â€œsafetyâ€ of Agriâ€™s products. When the company made a change in its hechsher from KAJ (which still stands behind all products produced during its watch up until mid-April) to that of Rabbi M. Weissmandl, in addition to the OU, the Union launched a campaign suggesting that there were kashrus issues at Agri. In addition to the phone calls, they placed ads in the Jewish media.
Then came May 12th, when almost 1,000 law enforcement officials from a variety of federal, state, and local agencies raided the Agriprocessors plant in Postville, Iowa. The affidavit that supported the raid focused on undocumented workers, but it also included incredible charges of factories for illegal substances, abuse of workers (including one affidavit of a worker who claimed he was tied up by a rabbi), weapons and bombs being present in the plant, and more. The raid resulted in 390 arrests of undocumented workers, including one shochet who was released after 5 weeks when the government admitted that his documents were in order.
The raid raised some important questions: Why was Agriprocessors targeted when it is widely known that the livestock industry uses such workers extensively? In fact, the government had previously raided other plants, albeit not on the scope of the Agri raid. With 19 million illegals and a cloudy policy at best, why was Agri singled out? Who was behind all of these wild allegations that were added to the main focus of the affidavit? Some immediately concluded that it had the fingerprints of the anti-Agri cabal, consisting of the PETA people, Union officials, and the left-wing Jewish groups. No one could recall such a formidable opposition to kashrus in the annals of American Jewish history.
The reaction was swift and devastating. The liberal Jewish media embarked on a feeding frenzy with story after story of abuse and negligence by Agri. The JTA ran an almost daily update. Many liberal Jewish journalists showed up in Postville to obtain any information they could. They even went into the local church to find any Spanish-speaking person who could relate how they were abused at Agri. (The reality is that Agri is single-handedly responsible for keeping up the economy in Postville, and has done much to contribute to the infrastructure there, as well as the welfare of its workers.) A liberal Orthodox Jewish fringe, also using the name Tzedek, gathered 1,300 signatures and called for a boycott. The Heksher Tzedek people resurfaced. The leader of Reform called for an investigation of all kashrus.
Nonetheless, the May 12th events have had an enormous impact on the supply of kosher meat and poultry throughout the country. Although it resumed production the day after the raid, Agri was only able to produce a fraction of pre-raid numbers. It would not be easy to replace 390 workers overnight. For the first few days, there was enough in inventory to meet demand, but within a week, shortages were reported in many parts of the country. Another surprise also hit consumers: price increases. Agri had, over the years, managed to keep prices down, but now, with shortages, more expensive labor and general increases in commodity costs, the kosher consumer is looking at steep increases in the next few weeks.
Under enormous pressure from a variety of sources, the Rubashkins announced that they would hire a new compliance officer and also embark on a search to find a new CEO. The new compliance officer turned out to be Jim Martin, a former U.S. Attorney, who immediately set into motion new procedures.
For Agri, the immediate objective was to replace the workers and step up production. Because of the special nature of the work, it would not be easy to find large number of workers who would be willing to do the kind of labor that is required at a livestock production plant. Agri retained recruitment firms to help them fill the vacancies, but the UFCW immediately swung into action, warning the first firm to be retained that conditions were unsafe, even as a large team of federal inspectors watch every move. The intimidation worked: the first firm pulled out, but thankfully, the Jacobson firm, which is doing the bulk of the recruiting now, refused to be intimidated and is helping fill the vacancies.
Productions of most products are closing in on pre-raid levels and the plant appears to be returning to normal. The secular Jewish media onslaught continues with sensation after sensation. A little story of abuse today, the Jewish boycott tomorrow, and so forth.
Thankfully, consumers in the marketplace have continued to buy Agri products. Many charedi people are specifically asking for the products as a counter action to the boycott people. In the aftermath of the PETA issue, sales of Agri products increased by 10%-12%. There is hope that the company will emerge even stronger from this unfortunate episode.
Orthodox Jewish leaders and groups are still trying to figure out how liberal Jewish groups using terms like Tzedek find justification in vilifying a company based on allegations. For Agri, producing enough product, trying to keep prices down and dealing with an unprecedented campaign against them have all become ingredients for an ordinary day.