Agriprocessors announces new CEO

Kosher slaughterhouse accused of making drugs in its plant worried by petition calling for buyer boycott.

AgriProcessor 224.88 (photo credit: Courtesy )
AgriProcessor 224.88
(photo credit: Courtesy )
Two weeks after federal agents arrested close to 400 workers at the largest Kosher slaughterhouse in the United States, the family run business is seeking to replace its CEO. Aaron Rubashkin, the founder of Agriprocessors, announced Friday, that he intends to replace his son Sholom as company CEO. "The best course of action for the company, its employees, the local community and our customers is to bring new leadership to Agriprocessors," Aaron said in a statement. The Chabad-Lubavitcher who founded the company in 1987, said "The company has begun the search for a new permanent chief executive officer. We have engaged a team of industry experts to help us identify and secure a new leader who can help us meet the needs of Agriprocessors today and in the future. We will make more information on the search process available by the end of next week." The company would not respond to specific allegations which include underpaying workers, employee abuse and sexual harassment, due to "pending legal issues." The company 's announcement comes in the wake of growing pressure from Jewish groups and threats of possible boycotts. The Jewish Labor Committee issued a statement last week calling for a boycott of Agriprocessors and the Conservative Movement cautioned people to evaluate for themselves whether it is "appropriate" to purchase Rubashkin meat products. At the same time, Uri L'tzedek, a project begun by students at the liberal Orthodox Yeshivat Chovevei Torah in Manhattan, began circulating a petition asking Agriprocessors to pay its workers at least the federal minimum wage, and comply with workers' rights provisions. The petition also calls for the company to establish a department and staff to report to a third party that would deal with these concerns. "Until these changes are made, we feel compelled to refrain from purchasing or consuming meat produced by your company, and will pressure every establishment with which we do business to cease purchase of your meat," the petition reads. "Effective June 15, 2008 we will stop patronizing any restaurant that sells your meat." Early this week, over 450 people had signed the petition. But criticism of the company has been largely limited to non-Orthodox and liberal Jewish voices, which do not make up the core of kosher food consumers. Menachem Lubinsky, head of Lubicom, the kosher food industry's trade and marketing group who also consults for the Rubashkins, welcomed the announcement, but said he doesn't think pressure from these groups accounts for the company's recent announcement to replace its CEO. "Pressure (from non-Orthodox) didn't seem to deter them in the past," said Lubinsky. "These calls were not from the core consumer, and in the past sales kept going up. This might be a factor in the overall picture, but I don't think if that's only thing they would have made this decision." Lubinsky said legal issues and winning the confidence of the Postville community prompted the company's decision to replace the CEO. But in recent days some Orthodox organizations and individual rabbis have begun to join the fray. Orthodox Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld, spiritual leader of Ohev Sholom of Washington, D.C., the National Synagogue, called for the Vaad Harabonim of Washington to take appropriate action. In a letter to the Vaad, Herzfeld urged the Vaad to "temporarily suspend Rubashkin's meat in the stores and caterers that it supervises." Herzfeld said aside from the alleged ethical violations, he is concerned whether the meat at the plant was kosher in light of recent allegations which include production of the drug crystal meth at the plant, and is calling for an independent investigation. "I would like someone to go down there, that is not directly involved, someone independent, who has stature, courage and the authority to verify for us what is going on," said Herzfeld. Though other Orthodox rabbis have been slow to react publicly, Herzfeld said that several have voiced their concern in private conversations. The Vaad did not respond to calls from The Jerusalem Post. Avrom Pollak, president of Star-K, a Baltimore based kosher certification agency, said the recent allegations into Agriprocessors is having a widespread effect, that extends beyond the Jewish world. "Kosher food has enjoyed a reputation for enhanced value, and the general public believes food with a kosher certificate does have certain qualities, and non-Jews buy that food when given a choice," said Pollak. "It is extremely unfortunate that this whole incident has done a great deal to diminish the reputation of kosher food. We think kosher food processors need to be scrupulous in obeying all laws, including civil and animal welfare." In the past, the Orthodox world has been hesitant to speak up. Following the recent raid, the Orthodox Union, which certifies Rubashkin meat products, said it will follow the lead of the government. "They (Rubashkin) are an extremely important part of the kosher food industry, and the hard core consumer doesn't want to damage the potential of supply," said Lubinsky. "They feel Rubashkin has been more a victim than anything else, and that this is a left wing gang up." The recent raid is the latest trouble to befall the Rubashkin family, the Chabad-affiliated owners of the country's largest kosher slaughtering plant. Earlier this year, the company was fined $182,000 for violations at the plant. And in the past few years the company has been the target of an undercover investigation by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, an animals' rights group, which criticized the company for certain slaughter practices. Rubashkin has called previous allegations against the company anti-Semitic. "I don't know whether the Rubashkins are guilty, but this has been going on for years, and certainly these issues should have been cleared up long time ago," said Pollak. "To claim it is anti-Semitism is ridiculous actually." The May 12th federal raid on Agriprocessors is said to be the largest immigration raid in US history. Of the 389 illegal immigrants apprehended, 297 pleaded guilty and were sentenced to short prison term, or probation followed by deportation. It remains unclear whether prosecutors will be investigating the company itself. But some members of Congress have called on the government to target employers alongside their employees. US Rep. Bruce Braley (D-Iowa) who represents the area where the Agriprocessors plant in located, has called for an investigation of the company. "Until we enforce our immigration laws equally against both employers and employees who break the law, we will continue to have a problem with illegal immigration," Braley said in a statement.