Raid on Slaughterhouse May Mean Shortage of Kosher Meat

By Michelle Boorstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 22, 2008

A huge immigration raid last week on the country's largest kosher slaughterhouse could have a substantial impact on the thousands of Jews who follow Jewish dietary laws, as well as on non-Jews who purchase kosher meat.

The Agriprocessors Inc. plant in Postville, Iowa, is one of the largest of a small number of U.S. meat producers that satisfy Jewish dietary restrictions, called kashrut. Federal authorities arrested 400 people in the raid, and the Justice Department said this week that 85 had pleaded guilty to felony charges involving the use of false identifications to obtain employment.

They also admitted to being in the country illegally and now face deportation, the department said. As a result, the plant, which was shut down the day of the arrests, will face a challenge replenishing its 800-person workforce.

"I don't think the Jewish community can survive at this point without Rubashkin," Mordechai Yitzhaky, owner of KosherMart in Rockville, said of the family that owns Agriprocessors.

Industry-watchers and butchers say they have heard reports of hoarding since the raid, but the impact will not be known for several days, as individuals and stores still have frozen supplies. Muslims also sometimes buy kosher meat, as Islamic dietary restrictions are similar to kashrut, and it can be hard to find halal -- or acceptable by Islamic law -- food in most U.S. communities.

For the estimated 1 million Americans who observe kosher restrictions, Agriprocessors' latest troubles ramp up a discussion that has been underway for several years: Can a company meet religious standards if it violates ethical ones?

Agriprocessors has been cited multiple times by federal and state regulators for food-safety, environmental, labor and animal cruelty violations. The violations were widely reported by a Jewish newspaper, the Forward, prompting Jewish advocacy groups to note that Jewish law protects workers and forbids inflicting unnecessary pain on animals.

So far, no officials from Agriprocessors have been charged in the immigration case. The company has been fined hundreds of thousands of dollars for labor and environmental charges in previous years, and it faced two recent meat recalls.

But Agriprocessors' record has provoked calls for an extra certification -- or stamp -- for kosher food companies based on practices that go beyond kashrut rules, which dictate matters such as how an animal's throat is cut or how thoroughly blood is removed after an animal is killed. The aim would be to supplement these rules with requirements satisfying the broader spirit of Jewish law.

The additional certification requirement, already endorsed by the national body of Conservative rabbis, would also include how a company treats its workers and the animals it slaughters.

"How can those who are responsible for preparing religiously fit meat not conduct themselves in a religiously proper manner? It's an embarrassment to the Jewish community -- how can this be seen as Jewishly fit?" asked Henry Karp, a Reform rabbi in Davenport, Iowa. The word "kosher" in English means "fit."

Last week's affidavit filed by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement quoted unnamed informants alleging that Agriprocessors paid undocumented workers $5 an hour and underreported worker injuries. The informants also asserted that there was a methamphetamine lab in the plant and that weapons were either "traded for drugs or sold" on the premises. Agriprocessors declined to comment on the allegations but said it is cooperating with the government.

Some rabbis say that even past and current allegations of mistreatment should not be confused with a scriptural mandate. These rabbis argue that although such allegations may violate other aspects of Jewish law or ethics, they do not disqualify the meat as technically kosher.

Rabbi Menachem Genack is head of the kashrut division at Orthodox Union, which certifies as kosher the most products in the world. He said he has worked with Agriprocessors on its issues, even bringing the meat company together with animal rights activists. But Genack said issues such as food and worker safety do not violate kashrut.

"The Bible talks about issues like workers' welfare, and they are important to us, but the authority and expertise on such issues should be with government agencies," he said. "We rely on them, and I've said many times we will follow their lead." Genack said it would sever its relationship with a firm if it had "some serious violation of the law," such as a felony conviction.

The system of kashrut, or how to "keep kosher," was laid down in the Torah and in later, centuries-old rabbinical writings. The system exists for health reasons, to encourage humane treatment of animals, and as a constant ritual that reminds Jews of their identity. Kashrut governs what not to eat (shellfish, pork, insects, milk and meat together), how to eat (wait a certain period between meat and milk) and even how to organize one's kitchen (separate plates and sinks for milk and meat). Kashrut requires special certifiers to inspect food factories and ingredient lists to be sure no items that are not kosher get into the mix.

Joe Regenstein, a Cornell University food scientist who works with the kosher and halal food industries, said Orthodox Jews are becoming "a little impatient" with ethical issues and are beginning to reject some food even if it has a kashrut stamp. However, he said, the industry is tiny, so Orthodox Jews do not have a lot of options.

Genack said there are only two or three companies producing meat that is glatt kosher, an even higher standard of kashrut. Agriprocessors is the largest glatt producer. More small- and medium-size ones existed in the 1950s and 1960s in U.S. cities but began to close as costs grew, Genack said. "That's what has made Rubashkin so important."

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