Iowa meat plant taken to task for abusive practices

'Do you think food produced by a 15-year-old kid is kosher?'

meat beef 88 298 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
meat beef 88 298
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Jewish summer camps have returned shipments of expired meat, an Orthodox-led boycott is under way, contractors have pulled out and an increasing number of Jewish organizations are joining in protest against the largest US kosher meatpacking company, which has been under intense scrutiny since being raided last month. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents arrested nearly 400 Agriprocessors workers last month at the firm's plant in Postville, Iowa. This week Camp Ramah Wisconsin and Camp Interlaken JCC, also in Wisconsin, returned meat that was well past its expiration date. The two summer camps, both part of a consortium that buy food together, told their agent to find alternate sources of kosher meat. And, in a petition effort organized by Uri L'Tzedek, an American Orthodox social justice group, more than 1,300 signators have agreed to refrain from buying meat from Agriprocessors until it meets a list of conditions. Among them are agreeing to pay employees the federal minimum wage ($5.15 per hour), abiding by laws pertaining to worker safety, sexual harassment and physical abuse, and recognizing the right to collective bargaining. Uri L'Tzedek also called on the company to establish a department to address these concerns to be monitored by an objective third party. At a meeting last week between company representatives and Uri L'Tzedek, Agriprocessors executives agreed to produce a document within 48 hours that explained Agriprocessors' worker protection policies and to detail the role of Jim Martin, the former US attorney for the Eastern District of Missouri hired by the company as a compliance officer. A week later, the document has yet to arrive. But the company did put leaders of Uri L'Tzedek in touch with Martin. Their impression: "He seems like a person of integrity," said Shmuly Yanklowitz, founder and co-director of Uri L'Tzedek. But at this point the company is acting to avoid indictment and it remains unclear whether Martin will be authorized to address the reforms the group is demanding, Yanklowitz said. "He intends to let the company know where the problems are and urge changes, but because they are avoiding indictment, it's not clear his role will address concerns we have," said Yanklowitz. "To ensure it will, he needs to not only inform the company but also the consumers." If the owners of Agriprocessors avoid indictment, it remains unclear whether they would return to their current practices "once they are in the clear," said Yanklowitz. "That's why we wanted a third party in place for monitoring." This week, Ameinu, the US arm of the World Labor Zionist Movement, joined the fray. It is urging Jewish groups not to buy meat from Agriprocessors, and on Thursday evening Ameinu co-sponsored an event at Manhattan's Ansche Chesed Synagogue titled "When is Kosher Meat Treif? A First Hand Account of the Agriprocessors Meat Packing Story." Avram Lyon, a longtime activist in the Jewish community and the labor movement, was to share his experiences visiting Postville in the wake of the Immigrations and Customs Enforcement raid. He spoke with Agriprocessors workers and heard troubling stories of their treatment by the managers and owners of the facility. The fact that there were 18 children picked up in the recent raid was reason enough to respond, Lyon said. "You don't have to wait to know that there were children working at the plant; their ages are not something that can be contested," Lyon said. "What else do you have to wait for? Do you think food produced by a 15-year-old kid is kosher?" Three weeks ago, Lyon met a 15-year-old from Mexico who was hired by Agriprocessors, on condition that he buy a $3,500 car from the company. The boy reportedly told the supervisor he could not afford the car, and was told he could pay a small amount each week. At the time, the boy did not know how to drive, nor did he have a license or insurance. Lyon said certifying agencies such as the Orthodox Union were culpable for maintaining that the Agriprocessors meat was kosher and refraining from taking action until the government concluded its investigation. "The position of the OU has been that the only thing they are interested in is how the animal is slaughtered and whether there are imperfections in the meat," Lyon said. "Postville is a poster child of failure of that kind of approach to kashrut. It's proof you can't separate one part of Jewish law from other parts of Jewish law." The fact that there were 18 children picked up in the recent raid was reason enough to respond, he said.