Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Agriprocessors – An Inside View

For those who haven’t been paying attention to the most dominant story concerning the Jewish community of the past few months, let me fill you in.

On May 12, 2008 - a Federal immigration agency raided Agriprocessors - the kosher meat packing facility in Postville Iowa that is owned by the Rubashkin family. It was described as the largest raid if its type in the history of the United States - resulting in the arrests of hundreds of illegal immigrants. Many other accusations arose as a result of an undercover operation by federal agencies. They have yet to be resolved.

The controversy still goes on. As a result of their effort to restore their reputation Agriprocessors hired a high powered public relations firm. For some inexplicable reason that firm impersonated Conservative Rabbi Morris Allen in a couple of comments on Failed Messiah, a popular blog owned by Shmarya Rosenberg who has been highly critical of Agriprocessors.

Rabbi Allen is the head of the Hekhsher Tzedek Organization which was created to supervise and certify fair treatment of kosher food industry employees. He categorically denied ever making any comments on any blog.

As part of that same effort, Agriprocessors also invited a group of prominent Orthodox Rabbis to inspect their plant. One of those invited was Rabbi Dr. Seth Mandel.

Rabbi Mandel is the Orthodox Union’s (OU) rabbinic coordinator for the meat industry. The OU is the foremost name in kosher supervision and the largest by far. Though we have never personally met, I have ‘known’ Rabbi Mandel for about ten years as a Chaver - a fellow member on the Avodah Aishdas Website. He was a frequent contributor to its e-mail lists of Avodah and Areivim. I know of no one who is more Ehrich – with more integrity than he has. He is honest, forthright, and pulls no punches. I therefore place a very high value on his judgment.

He has responded to the Agriprocessors controversy with the following letter which he has graciously given me permission to publish. It does not allay all of my concerns but it does allay some of the more important ones. Here are his words:

I would like to explain briefly how the OU maintains its supervision -- and the limits to its supervision.

No large plant allows uninvited people to visit. They may be (and often are) spies from other companies or trouble makers. In the case of meat plants, PETA and its fellow travelers are always eager to get inside and cause trouble by taking pictures and then giving misleading or false captions.

However, the OU, and other rabbis who supervise, have a permanent invitation. My visits are unannounced and a surprise; neither the Rubashkins nor other rabbis nor anyone else in the plant know when I will show up. I carry my own gear with me and put on the work clothes outside the plant, so the first anyone knows I am there is when I appear on the work floor. I know the back entrances to the plants and go in where the workers do. If entering the plant needs a pass, I arrange that I have a permanent one.

My visits are more than spot checks. I always spend more than one day in the Agri plant and other large plants, to make sure I can check everything, even places that have no direct connection to kashrut, so that I feel I know what is going on in a plant. No one from the Agri plant nor any of the other meat plants has ever tried to direct me what to see or keep me from walking to anywhere I want to go in the plant, nor does anyone insist on accompanying me.

The OU is the only organization that always does unannounced visits in all meat plants (since I am the one doing the visits, I know that is true). The only exception is a production in South America that occurs irregularly every several months for a few days. I am notified beforehand, and choose the day to show up, but my visits there cannot really be a surprise, because they expect me to show up sometime during the production.

Getting to Postville, or other plants, is not difficult for me, despite what the article implies. I fly to an airport, rent a car, and I am there. It is true that for some plants there is no airport in the vicinity and I may have to drive 6 or7 hours, but that is part of the job.

No one in the plant arranges anything for me, not food, not the hotel, not the car, not the plane. Even in South America I rent my own car, arrange my own tickets and all other necessities of my stay.

I am used to the demands of the job and make frequent visits to all the plants, so the trips do not seem difficult. As far as kashrus goes, I can report that the staff in almost all meat plants under the OU is happy to see me there, and that is the best sign for me that nothing is being hidden. In general, the kosher staff at most meat plant, including Agri in Postville, is extremely happy when a rabbi visits who knows shechita and can appreciate what they do.

I do make a practice of talking with some workers and also the USDA personnel to see if they have any difficulties or something appears to me to be wrong outside of kashrut. Never did I see any worker being mistreated in any of the plants during my surprise visits, nor have I seen any workers who were clearly underage.

However, I do not check identity and other worker documents, nor do I see the workers outside of the plant, so I can of course not comment on what might go on at those times, nor about wage violations. In another meat producer (not Agri), the feds actually found a meth lab -- not in the plant where I could have seen it, but rather in a shed for storage of equipment where I and the regular USDA supervisors had no reason to go, since meat was never brought into there.

The OU is a kashrut supervising agency. Although I do act to improve animal treatment and worker treatment and safety in the plants where I visit (and have caused numerous changes to be made), neither I, nor the OU, nor any kashrut agency, nor almost any rabbi, is qualified or able to investigate OSHA violations and other matters that involve government documentation or involve times or places when and where meat is not produced.

We rely on trained government inspectors for that and hope that they are doing their job. The idea that a rabbi, just because he cares about ethical matters, is qualified to investigate OSHA violations or animal handling violations outside the plant is as ludicrous as thinking that a rabbi, just because he cares about kashrut, is qualified to supervise complex plants or shechita and bedika.

All these matters require specialized training that one cannot get in a yeshiva or in a rabbinic seminary. Most people, including erlikh rabbis, are not qualified to check lungs. I may be, but I am certainly not qualified to investigate wage violations, nor are USDA veterinarians.