Fearing an onslaught of protestors, kosher meat giant Agriprocessors hastily changed a meeting planned for Tuesday afternoon in Midtown into a conference call.
Agriprocessors’ attorney, Nathan Lewin, and the company’s newly hired compliance officer, former U.S. attorney Jim Martin, spoke to about 20 listeners who had been invited to participate.
They included “distributors and community leaders,” said Juda Engelmayer, senior vice president of the public relations firm 5WPR, which was recently hired by the embattled kosher meat giant.
“Having a meeting in a public forum where too many people RSVP’d, it seemed like it was going to become more of a circus than an informational meeting,” said Engelmayer.
During the 45-minute telephone briefing Tuesday, Martin told his listeners that “ ‘he has zero tolerance for any wrongdoing and that anything it takes to bring [Agriprocessors] up to where they’re supposed to be he’s going to do,” Engelmayer recalled.
He did not cite any specifics about what needs correction at the plant, which is struggling to replenish its workforce after a raid by federal immigration authorities on May 12 removed about half of its production line staff.
Lewin, who did not return phone messages, said during the conference call that “it’s important to correct what’s wrong, but also to separate rumor, gossip and just smearing,” according to the Engelmayer.
Rabbi Pesach Lerner, executive vice president of the National Council of Young Israel, a network of 225 Orthodox synagogues, participated in the conference call. He told The Jewish Week, in a phone interview, “We have a right to demand answers of the Rubashkins [owners of Agriprocessors] but not to convict them before anything happens.”
Immigration authorities at the Postville, Iowa, plant, arrested nearly 400 workers. Most have been sentenced to five-month prison sentences followed by immediate deportation.
The company itself, which is owned by Brooklyn-based Lubavitcher Aaron Rubashkin, has not been charged by the federal government with breaking any laws.
The affidavit for a search warrant filed by federal immigration authorities, however, listed allegations against management, including knowingly hiring underage workers and illegal immigrants and paying them less than the mandated minimum wage, among other things.
The company has also been under scrutiny for the past four years by state and federal workplace-safety monitoring agencies, and the animal-rights group PETA.
In response to the current and past charges relating to workplace conditions, two groups — one aligned with the Conservative movement, the other initiated by Modern Orthodox Jews — are organizing boycotts of Rubashkin products.
The efforts seem to be making some impact.
The B’nai B’rith Youth Organization, which will have some 900 Jewish teens at its three overnight camps this summer, says that it is boycotting the company’s meat.
“A lot of Hillels and restaurants around the country are changing their meat,” said Shmuly Yanklowitz, founder and co-director of Uri L’Tzedek: Awaken to Justice, which, he says, has collected more than 1,500 signatures of people and groups which are now boycotting Agriprocessors products.
Rabbi Lerner of the National Council of Young Israel dismissed the number of petition-signers. “Fifteen hundred signers doesn’t impress me a bit,” he said. “Give me an hour and I’ll get a petition for anything on the Web and get you 5,000 signatures.”
He described Uri L’Tzedek’s organizers as being “young kids who need something to put them on the map” who are taking advantage of Agriprocessor’s current problems.
He said that “we’re a bunch of idiots” to be Jews boycotting other Jews. “We’re going crazy, and I don’t think they [Agriprocessors] deserve it,” he said. “I’ve been eating their meat in places where no other company gets to, and for that the Jewish community owes them a debt of gratitude and at least the benefit of the doubt.”
Still, the boycott seems to be making an impression on Agriprocessors. Representatives of Uri L’Tzedek met with people connected to Agriprocessors on May 11.
“They were very focused on trying to intimidate and prove wrong our positions,” said Yanklowitz. “At the same time they were admitting to a bunch of allegations, saying ‘of course we had children working there but some of them looked over age,’ and that ‘if there was abuse there it probably wasn’t one of the rabbis,’ ” he continued.
His organization asked Agriprocessors to agree, in writing, to pay above minimum wage and to have a workplace sexual misconduct policy. The company has not yet gotten those documents to Uri L’Tzedek.
“They sat down and agreed to the commitments, even if they haven’t fulfilled them yet. We will keep pressure high and increase consumer awareness and refraining from their products while at the same time trying to partner with them from the inside,” he said.
Requests to interview AgriProcessors management were passed along, said Engelmayer, but no one was made available. The company’s former public relations consultant, Menachem Lubinsky, did not return phone messages. AfgriProcessors took on the New York-based firm 5W, which also represents evangelical televangelist Benny Hinn, controversial Pastor John Hagee, the Trinity Broadcasting Network, the Zionist Organization of America and Israel’s Ministry of Tourism, among others, after the bad publicity following the immigration raid.
Agriprocessors’ brands include Aaron’s Best and Rubashkin meats. They were the largest producer of kosher beef products in the country, until the immigration raid, but are now struggling to replenish their staff.
The company reportedly has been hiring homeless people from Amarillo, Tex., through a staff agency there, and bringing them to Postville to work for $10 an hour — double what the search warrant affidavit said they paid the illegal immigrants, and well above the federal minimum wage.
An Iowa staffing company removed 150 people it had placed at Agriprocessors after the raid because of production line safety concerns. A smaller group of Native American workers brought to Postville from another AgriProcessors plant in Nebraska, left shortly after they arrived, citing poor working conditions and unkept promises by the meat manufacturer.
And, it seems, Agriprocessors has not been able to restore its production to pre-raid levels.
The Kosher Marketplace on the Upper West Side has recently not been carrying much Agriprocessors product, said its owner Alan Kaufman.
“There are some questions about whether people should buy their brand or not. Some customers mentioned it to me, so to some degree I guess it’s in the back of my head” when he does ordering, Kaufman said. But in any case, right now Agriprocessors isn’t shipping what they used to.
“They don’t have much on the market.”