The main organization urging a boycott against the embattled kosher meat giant Agriprocessors reversed course this week, issuing a statement praising “significant steps” taken by the manufacturer and lauding “early signs of reform.”
In announcing the end of its boycott, Shmuly Yanklowitz, director of Uri L’Tzedek (Awaken to Justice), told The Jewish Week, “There has been a victory in the last week.”
Jim Martin, a former U.S. attorney hired by Agriprocessors last month as its new corporate compliance officer, has been “really working with us and assuring us of his level of commitment and that he’s putting practices in place that assure the sustainability of reforms,” Yanklowitz said.
The reforms, all related to worker treatment, include guarantees that the line workers at the Postville, Iowa, kosher meat manufacturer get paid at least the legal minimum wage and receive adequate training and safety precautions at the slaughterhouse, where beef, poultry and lamb are killed and processed.
On May 12, 389 illegal immigrants were arrested there in the largest-ever raid by federal immigration authorities. Most are now serving five-month prison sentences and will be deported back to their home countries immediately upon release. According to local news reports, the raid decimated the local economy of Postville, where AgriProcessors employed about 900 people.
The affidavit accompanying the sweeping arrests outlined allegations against unnamed Agriprocessors supervisors, most relating to the exploitation of the vulnerable illegal aliens who had been hired, some of them teenagers.
Two of those supervisors, Juan Carlos Guerrero-Espinoza and Martin De La Rosa-Loera, were arrested on criminal immigration and identity fraud charges last week. Another supervisor is still at large.
No charges directly connected to the immigration raid have been filed against Aaron Rubashkin, who owns Agriprocessors, or the family members who managed the company for him.
Nonetheless, the business has been damaged, says the public relations exec Rubashkin recently hired. In fact, according to Juda Engelmayer, a senior vice president at 5WPR, Rubashkin is planning to shortly bring some 20 Orthodox community leaders and journalists to Postville to tour the slaughterhouse. “Part of it is goodwill, part of it is trying to get the message to people in the community,” said Engelmayer of the planned trip’s goal.
Despite importing homeless people from Texas to work at its Iowa plant, the company has been unable to return to its pre-raid staffing levels. Last week, just 60 to 70 percent of positions were filled, Engelmayer said. Local kosher butchers and supermarkets report that they are getting less Agriprocessors meat, and at higher prices, than they did before the raid.
And legal problems continue to trail members of the Rubashkin family. According to an article this week in the Des Moines Register, Agriprocessors paid $1.4 million last year to settle allegations that it fraudulently hid the assets of another company, Allou Distributors. Allou, a pharmaceutical company, filed for bankruptcy in 2003, shortly after its Brooklyn warehouse went up in flames. Its principal, Herman Jacobowitz, was sentenced to 15 years in prison and ordered to return $177 million to the investors he defrauded. While Agriprocessors executives were never individually charged with criminal wrongdoing, the company agreed to pay the $1.4 million to settle the trustee’s claims that it accepted payments of about twice that much from Allou, without selling them anything in return.
Much gristle is being chewed over in the press and the blogosphere about the various practices employed at Agriprocessors. But out of the controversy has also come a new consciousness about a Jewish way of eating beyond fulfilling the technical requirements of kashrut.
According to Nigel Savage, executive director of Hazon, a Jewish environmental group, the Agriprocessors issue is spurring a thoughtful discussion among Jews.
“One of the fascinating things about what’s happening now is that it pulls together a series of things we should be thinking of,” Savage said. “When you eat food, ideally you should be thinking about how it was produced, transported and packaged, who produced it and under what circumstances?
“The controversy,” he continued, “has simply caused a much larger number of people to start to think about where their meat comes from and the circumstances of its production.”
His own eyes were opened eight years ago, Savage said, when he and four others on Hazon’s first cross-country fundraising bike ride stopped in Postville and toured the facility.
Two of the five Hazon members became vegan — deciding not to consume any animal products — “on the spot,” Savage said, and continue to be vegan to this day.
But the visit also caused Savage to appreciate what took place there.
“For the first time in my life, I had a real sense that these people were doing a mitzvah on my behalf,” he said. “I don’t believe one should be attacking the kosher meat industry per se.” The goal, Savage said, is to improve it.
What’s more, disparate organizations within the Jewish community — some focused on food, others on immigration, and others still on labor issues — have been coalescing, for the first time, to oppose Agriprocessors’ practices.
Late last month Hazon, along with hunger-relief organization Mazon, Minnesota-based Jewish Community Action, the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs, the Progressive Jewish Alliance, Kol Foods and Jews United for Justice, came together to call attention to “the human tragedy” of the immigration raids, and to call for “long-term structural change” in the kosher meat industry.
They also endorsed Heksher Tzedek, a Conservative movement-based group with the goal of working toward ethical standards in all aspects of kosher food production and sales.
“One of the genuinely significant things is that this pulls together people who have historically only been interested in one piece of this story,” Savage said.
Last week America’s Voice, a newly formed organization that advocates for immigration reform, convened a conference call of Jewish groups including the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, the Jewish Labor Committee and Heksher Tzedek. They called for “a more sensible immigration policy in this country.”