How Kosher is Kosher Meat?

All is not well in the Kosher meat industry, especially at Agriprocessors, the largest Kosher meat plant in the world. Agriprocessors is owned by the Rubashkin family, part of the Lubavitch Hasidic sect of ultra-Orthodox Judaism (also called Chabad).

The Bush administration is cracking down on large employers who hire illegal aliens. The meat industry is the main target. These illegal immigrants use fake Social Security cards to forge their federal employment documents. This is a nation-wide problem and it is one of those things that everyone knows is happening and everyone allows to continue.

Agriprocessors has endured several waves of controversy in recent months about alleged abuse of worker’s rights, bully tactics to prevent workers from forming a union, failure to pay worker’s overtime, and controversy about low pay for workers. In one article people were asking, “Why am I paying $7 a pound for Kosher steak if they are paying their workers $5 an hour?” (Note: I have no idea what Agriprocessors pays their workers).

Samuel Freedman, in an article in the Jerusalem Post online edition (jpost.com, May 29, 2008,) said:

Should it not matter to us that the meat we buy and consume, ostensibly for the purpose of fulfilling a religious obligation or at least reifying a sense of Jewish community, is coming from a scandalous source? Just what does the separation between kosher and treif mean or matter if kosher depends on the exploitation and endangerment of the human beings who do the supposedly Godly work of preparing our food?

Freedman also comments on the egregious practices of this supposedly religious family running a business to serve a holy purpose:

Between the PETA criticisms four years ago and the federal sweep on May 12, Agriprocessors has repeatedly abrogated basic standards of health and safety for its workers. It has fought against their right to join a union, and failed to provide them training in Spanish, their native tongue. It has, if recent allegations prove correct, forced them to work overtime shifts without overtime pay. Taken together, these labor practices evoke the Triangle Shirtwaist Company.

The bottom line? All Jews need to hold the established Jewish companies to the fire. If it means boycotting products produced unscrupulously that claim to be Kosher, then so be it. Agripocessor’s meat is marketed under the following labels: Aaron’s Best, Aaron’s Choice, Rubashkin’s, European Glatt, Supreme Kosher, David’s and Shor Habor. God is not mocked. People will reap what they sow and sowing human misery is more unkosher than pork on a challah bun.

Here is more on the story from Forward magazine:

From Forward magazine, May 27, 2008, article by Ben Harris writing for the JTA.

Within the Jewish world, the loudest reactions have come from the Conservative movement and the liberal edge of Orthodoxy. Interviews with some of Postville’s Chabad residents and other observers suggest that the fervently Orthodox, or haredi community, is taking the flood of accusations against Agriprocessors with more than a grain of salt.

“The problem is, there’s a mind-set that you have to give the person the benefit of the doubt,” said Binyomin Jolkovsky, the editor of Jewish World Review and a longtime observer of haredi Jewry. “But when 12 government agencies come in and do a sting operation, and after something that was so detailed, you got to wonder.”

In the haredi community, Jolkovsky said, the sentiment tends to be much more focused on the bottom line for the consumer.

“‛They’re paying people $5 an hour labor, how come I’m paying $7 a pound for steak?’ That’s what they were saying,” he said.

Some Jewish Postville residents refused to even consider some of the government’s allegations, such as that methamphetamine was being produced at the plant or that the company was shorting its workers. In the days after the raid, several told JTA that the affair was the product of an anti-Orthodox, if not anti-Semitic, agenda.

“Many of the allegations are ridiculous, like the meth labs,” said Aaron Goldsmith, a Chabad rabbi and former Postville city councilman with ties to the Rubashkins. “Why would somebody want to pour millions and millions of dollars into infrastructure and let a poor man’s drug business run in a plant? It doesn’t make any sense to me. It’s stupid. It’s not in the interest of the company.”

Goldsmith, who runs a custom hospital-bed business headquartered near Agriprocessors, acknowledged that whatever the truth of the allegations, the company’s reputation is “in trouble.”

Asked what he would say to kosher consumers concerned about the charges flying against the company, Goldsmith paused for nearly a minute before answering.

“Clearly the Rubashkins need to rethink a lot of their management style,” he said, “because whatever good they do and whatever errors they made are completely perceived in a way that’s undermining their own company. To me, they need to bring the reality and the perceptions in line with each other.”

About Derek Leman

IT guy working in the associations industry. Formerly a congregational rabbi. Dad of 8. Nerd.
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