Saturday, August 23, 2008

Kosher meat - trial by media?

An immigration raid at the nation’s largest kosher meatpacking plant has opened a wide rift among Jewish leaders over the company’s ethical conduct and led to new interest in a campaign to create wage and safety standards for workers producing kosher food.

The Agriprocessors Inc. plant in Postville, Iowa, lost about half its work force when 389 illegal immigrants were detained there in May, causing shortages of kosher meat and poultry in butcher shops and supermarkets across the country.

Immigrants caught in the raid told labor investigators of unpaid overtime, lax safety measures and under-age workers at the plant. Their stories have troubled many kosher consumers and given impetus to a campaign known as Hekhsher Tzedek (which means “justice certification” in Hebrew) to create an additional seal of approval for kosher-certified products, indicating that the producers met certain standards for the treatment of workers.

“People want kosher food that is produced in an appropriate manner according to both ritual law and ethical law,” said Rabbi Morris J. Allen of Mendota Heights, Minn., who is leading the effort backed by the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, representing the synagogues of the Conservative movement, and the Rabbinical Assembly, the organization of Conservative rabbis.

But while Rabbi Allen and others have criticized Agriprocessors, some Orthodox Jewish leaders rallied to the company’s defense. After touring the Postville plant on July 31, a delegation of 20 Orthodox rabbis, including leaders of kosher certification organizations from the United States and Canada, concluded Agriprocessors was “an A-1 place,” said Rabbi Pesach Lerner, vice president of the National Council of Young Israel, an Orthodox group.

“An old medieval plant we didn’t see,” said Rabbi Lerner, who organized the trip. “We saw a Cadillac with top-of-the-line machinery and a heavy emphasis on safety, security and health.”

A spokesman for the company, Menachem Lubinsky, said it had been unfairly singled out for labor violations that were unproven accusations. Mr. Lubinsky told The Jewish Week newspaper that Agriprocessors was facing a “Dreyfus trial in the media,” referring to the case of a Jewish military officer in France who was unfairly tried for treason in the late 19th century.

Agriprocessors managers, at first stunned by the immigration raid, have since gone on the offensive, revising management practices and hiring lawyers and public relations advisers in an effort to rebuild the company’s reputation, especially among Jewish consumers.

10 comments :

  1. The problem with the OU, Agudah and other defenders of Rubashkins is that this dispute isn't about whether the meat is kosher. The defenders keep focusing on that: the meat is fine! The meat is fine! Why are you condemning them?

    Okay, what about the illegal workers? The child labour allegations? The animal cruelty allegations? What does the testimony of the 25 rabbonim who toured the plant really mean when Rubashkins paid for the trip and arranged all the details including who they spoke to?

    That's the issue that's being avoided by the organizations that make money off of giving Rubashkins its hecher.

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  2. Watch the PETA video.

    Is THAT kosher shechita?

    None of the shochetim I know think so.

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  3. The fact that Rabushkin's paid for and arranged the trip invalidates in my opinion invalidates the entire inspection.

    I have worked in a few meat and food production facilities and I can tell you what happens in those places when there they are informed that there will be an FDA or other health department inspection (I am talking about smaller operations that do not have a daily inspector on the premises). The whole place gets turned upside down in order that everything should be in compliance for when the inspectors get there. It kind of reminds me of certain institutions how they greet donors when they show up. The whole thing is a fraud.

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  4. I also find it hard to believe that what was it six different government agencies? That they allocated resources to investigate this place for a half a year if they did not have serious initial evidence that serious things were going on there. A few NGO activists with an axe to grind could not just cry witch and have the whole Commonwealth of Massachusetts launch a witch hunt.

    You can say whatever you want about how the media handled it. However at the end of the day considerable government resources were brought to bear in this incident. We are talking about a lot of money and manpower here that was allocated and spent before the media went crazy over this. These people all have superiors to answer to as to what they are spending their department budgets and manpower on. Something must have gotten their attention for multiple government agencies to coordinate an investigation for six months. I also do not think that it was anti-semitism.

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  5. It's not antisemitism, but I wouldn't be surprised if it incites some. Rubashkin's practices reflect badly on all Jews.

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  6. Actually my Salem witch hunt analogy was a bad one. The whole witch hunt there started by a couple of teenage girls. What I should have said was that a few NGO activists could not cry witch and have multiple bureaus of the US federal government conduct a Salem witch trial.

    Except may be if it was an issue of homeland security.

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  7. OSHA's records for 1998 to the present are available on line. You can search them. Their record with OSHA (federal) and IOSHA (Iowa) was never good. They were fined by OSHA for severe violations 8 of those 11 years. (Severe violations are those that pose a threat of death or maiming.) Swift (site of another ICE raid), Hormell (also in Iowa, makers of SPAM), and Empire were only similarly fined 3 or 4 times in the same period.

    They had three amputations in the spring of '05. OSHA fined them all of $10,000, which they then were able to negotiate down. Does that sound like victims of a government vendetta?

    They were repeatedly found guilty of far more safety violations than the other shop I named well before before PETA, before the union got involved. In '07 they lost a suit against workers who claimed they were not paying in full. Associating the problems at Agri with the raid does not reflect their actual history.

    And this very summer, after the raid, OSHA inspected them and just dropped another 31 violations on them. 6 repeat violations -- which means not cleaning up something they were caught on in the previous inspection. 21 severe violations. They haven't had time yet to respond to the charges; I'm very curious to hear how this plays out.

    Meanwhile, Labor Ready was brought in to help them staff. They left after 10 days, because of all the meat packers they've staffed, Agri was the only one they found would be a violation of their core principles. The Somali refugees and homeless from Texas also came and went. Are they passing up this money because of a vendetta against Agri? Or because Agri really is that much worse of a working experience than other slaughterhouses?

    When two different gov't offices find them guilty time after time after time, and people who know the busines won't work there, it's hard to say that none of the accusations are true. Can't be that all of them are, either.

    -micha

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  8. The OSHA reports and the PETA video paint a picture much like "The Jungle" by Upton Sinclair.

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  9. Recipients and PublicitySeptember 25, 2008 at 10:25 AM

    Agudath Israel of America and its Moetzes attack and debunk the Conservative's "Hechsher Tzedek"

    Yeshiva World reports http://www.theyeshivaworld.com/news/General+News/23981/Agudath+Israel+Issues+Statement+on+Hekhsher+Tzedek+Initiative.html

    "Agudath Israel Issues Statement on Hekhsher Tzedek Initiative

    September 24, 2008

    Upon consultation with its rabbinic leadership, Agudath Israel of America has issued the following statement regarding the Conservative movement’s new “Hekhsher Tzedek.”

    The Agudath Israel statement stresses the vital importance of ethical behavior in all interpersonal and business dealings but “emphatically rejects” the initiative as distorting the meaning of kashrus. It points to the facts that “Hekhsher Tzedek” is inexplicably aimed only at producers of kosher food and no other merchants or institutions, and that it includes elements that are decidedly beyond halachic mandates as evidence that the larger goal of the new “Hekhsher” is a redefinition of the term kosher. What is more, the statement asserts, the Conservative movement, as a non-halacha-respecting movement, cannot credibly claim to serve as arbiter of halachic suitability.

    The initiative, the statement avers, “is simply the latest manifestation of Conservative leaders’ tradition of exchanging Divine mandates for contemporary constructs.”

    Following is the full text of the Agudath Israel statement:

    The Conservative movement has embraced a brand new certification for kosher foods, the “Hekhsher Tzedek,” which is designed to indicate a kosher food producer’s “compliance with a set of social justice criteria.” Agudath Israel of America regards the Hekhsher Tzedek idea as misguided and misleading. It rests upon, and will likely foster, a distorted understanding of kashrus, and a corruption of the halachic process itself.

    To be sure, Jewish producers of kosher food – like all Jewish businesses – are halachically bound by obligations regarding fair treatment of employees, maintenance of a safe and sanitary work environment, and a host of other strictures that might be called “social justice criteria.” They are, in addition, bound by the principle of dina d’malchusa dina (the law of the kingdom is law), and must comply with all applicable laws and regulations. More generally, Jews are called upon to uphold the highest ethical and moral standards in their personal and business dealings.

    It is of utmost importance that these halachic mandates be observed scrupulously. But it is also important to recognize that they have nothing to do with the laws of kashrus.

    The halachic tradition defines the term “kashrus” as relating to the ritual suitability of food. Jews insist on kosher food not because of ethical considerations, but because Hashem has commanded us to observe certain ritual dietary requirements. Terms like “kosher,” “kashrus” and “hechsher” are, as a result, rightly associated with those requirements – those requirements alone.

    The “Hekhsher Tzedek” blurs this fundamental distinction. Its promoters may assert that the certification is not designed to expand the traditional meaning of kashrus, but that claim is belied by the certification’s very name – and by the fact that it is being offered exclusively to foods that are otherwise under kosher certification. If its purpose is simply to assure consumers that the companies they patronize conduct themselves in accord with social justice ideals, why limit the “Hekhsher Tzedek” to kosher food producers? Why not extend it as well to manufacturers of all goods, services and institutions?

    It is further noteworthy, and telling, that the scope of the proposed “Hekhsher Tzedek” goes well beyond halachic requirements. It speaks of such matters as transparency in corporate governance, generous maternity leave policies and pension plans – worthy objectives, to be sure, but not halachic mandates. If the “Hekhsher Tzedek” is simply interested in ensuring that producers of kosher food comply with the requirements of Jewish law, why incorporate these types of extra-halachic factors into the certification?

    The answer to these questions is clear, and deeply dismaying. The Conservative movement, most of whose constituents do not keep kosher, is attempting with its “Hekhsher Tzedek” a subtle redefinition of the concept of kashrus. As Conservative leaders have done time and time again in a variety of modern-day contexts, they are paying lip service to halacha while in fact seeking to reshape it. The “Hekhsher Tzedek” is simply the latest manifestation of Conservative leaders’ tradition of exchanging Divine mandates for contemporary constructs.

    Sadly, but decidedly, the Conservative movement is not a halacha-respecting movement. Accordingly, any effort on its part to serve as an arbiter of halachic suitability – whether regarding a kosher food producer’s compliance with halachic mandates or anything else – has neither credibility nor legitimacy.

    In summation, standing up for ethical practices is laudable, but not when it is done in a way that redefines a Jewish religious term like kashrus – and not when it is done under the auspices of a movement whose claimed fealty to halacha is in fact an exercise in distortion. For these reasons, Agudath Israel of America emphatically rejects the “Hekhsher Tzedek.”

    At the same time, we appeal to all our fellow Jews to rededicate ourselves to the highest standards of proper and ethical business conduct. Jews are called upon to serve as a light unto the nations, people whose interpersonal dealings cause Hashem and His holy Torah to be loved by all (Tractate Yoma, 86a). During this season of introspection, may we all resolve to strengthen ourselves in this respect, and thereby merit Hashem’s favorable judgment for a blessed new year."

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  10. The Agudah could have done much better than such partisanship.

    Nothing we say is going to slow down the C slide away from even claiming fealty to halakhah. So why say anything? Just to distract from our own lapses of business and human ethics?

    The real test will be whether Agudah will follow up this appeal "to rededicate ourselves to the highest standards of proper and ethical business conduct" is followed up with actual programming, or if it decays into empty words.

    -micha

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