Religion & Beliefs

The Heretic: Stop Whispering, Start Shouting

Earlier this week, our friends at Agriprocessors, America’s largest supplier of glatt kosher meat, were charged with more than 9000 counts of child labor violations. Named in the Iowa affidavit are Aaron Rubashkin, Agriprocessors owner, his son Sholom M. Rubashkin, … Read More

By / September 11, 2008

Earlier this week, our friends at Agriprocessors, America’s largest supplier of glatt kosher meat, were charged with more than 9000 counts of child labor violations. Named in the Iowa affidavit are Aaron Rubashkin, Agriprocessors owner, his son Sholom M. Rubashkin, and Agriprocessors Human Resources director, and its two HR managers. The New York Times reports that fines could total more than $5 million. Jail time could stretch for years. One of the child laborers was 13 years old. Coincidentally, on the same day and time that Iowa’s charges against Agriprocessors were announced, the two named HR managers, Laura Althouse and Karina Freund, were arrested by federal agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Althouse is charged with aiding and abetting document fraud, aiding and abetting aggravated identity theft, and conspiracy to harbor undocumented aliens.  Freund was charged with aiding and abetting the harboring of illegal aliens. Two senior Agriprocessors supervisors were previously arrested and both have pleaded guilty. A third fled indictment and is now living in Israel. These indictments, charges, and pleas all stem from ICE’s May 12 immigration raid at Agriprocessors, then the largest single site immigration raid in US history. On the day of the raid, about 75% of Agriprocessors’ workforce was illegal.  ICE agents found stacks of blank Green Cards in Agriprocessors’ HR office, along with forged Green Cards and other fraudulent documents. Sources familiar with federal law enforcement tell me the US government is following an established pattern: indict and charge those lower down while using information gleaned from those relatively minor players to help build stronger cases against the bosses. They think it’s reasonable to expect federal charges against senior Agriprocessors management sometime this fall. But Agriprocessors recent troubles don’t stop there. Last Friday, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) released an undercover videotape showing inhumane slaughter at Agriprocessors. This is the Agriprocessors third undercover video shot by PETA since 2004. All show a variant of the same abuse. The new footage was shot this summer.  In it, a non-Jewish Agriprocessors employee uses a regular carving-style knife to hack inside the gaping throat wounds of still conscious cattle. The USDA cited Agriprocessors for violations of Humane Slaughter law, but called those violations “not egregious.” Temple Grandin, the noted animal welfare expert who serves as an advisor to the USDA, put it a bit differently.  Dr. Grandin told the New York Times the animals would “definitely” feel pain from those hacking cuts.  She called on the USDA to install 24/7 Internet streaming video monitoring of Agriprocessors in order to stop Agriprocessors from abusing cattle.  You can sign a petition to that effect here. Agriprocessors claims the procedure shown on PETA’s video is a protected part of the kosher slaughter process. Its spokesman, Menachem Lubinsky, even claims that procedure, known as a “second cut,” is common. When the first PETA video showing this second cut was released in 2004, I asked dozens of Orthodox rabbis about the procedure. Not one of them had ever seen it done. All but a small handful did not even know it could be done. Grandin, who has consulted for more than 30 different kosher slaughter plants in her long career, has only seen this procedure done by one company – Agriprocessors – which first did it using a meat hook. It was the most horrific violation of Humane Slaughter law Grandin had ever seen. The furor around that video caused the OU – one of Agriprocessors kosher supervising agencies – to announce that the “procedure” would no longer be done. The head of the OU’s kosher division, Rabbi Menachem Genack, clearly stated in an article he wrote that the second cut is not a part of the shechita (ritual slaughter) process at all.

Yet the only exemption to allow this brutal procedure is that it is a part of the shechita process. If it is not a part of that process, no exemption legally exists. Last year I sent Freedom of Information Act requests to the USDA. What I found is chilling. In response to requests made by Orthodox rabbis – including Orthodox rabbis from the OU – the USDA had broadened the ritual slaughter exemption to such a degree that even ripping the throat out of live cattle using a meat hook would be considered an exempt, and therefore protected, practice. In other words, a painful and abusive procedure used only at Agriprocessors and defined by the OU itself as something outside the ritual slaughter process is now embedded in US law as a protected part of that ritual slaughter process. And, as Agriprocessors’ spokespeople have been quick to note, US law defines ritual slaughter as humane. How’s that for doublespeak? Agriprocesors quietly switched from a meat hook to a smaller boning hook, was again caught by PETA, said it would stop doing the procedure, surreptitiously switched to using a carving-type knife, got caught by PETA, said it would stop doing the procedure – but its spokesman, Menachem Lubinsky, now says the procedure continues unabated. The OU – the same OU that presides over this second cut that is not a part of the shechita process but still is – now says that Agriprocessors has two weeks to bring in a new management team. If Agriprocessors does not do this, Rabbi Genack says the OU will “suspend” its kosher supervision. But in mid-May, after the ICE raid, Genack said essentially the same thing: "Bring in new management or we’re out of here."  The OU ‘forced’ Sholom M. Rubashkin to ‘step down’ as Agriprocessors’ CEO.  Problem?  No new CEO was hired and Sholom Rubashkin did not leave Agriprocessors.  To this day, he continues to help manage the plant and is still Agriprocessors’ VP. The OU did not pull its kosher supervision. In the aftermath of the ICE raid, Rabbi Genack was asked a tough question. Would the OU remove its supervision if Agriprocessors senior management were charged?  Rabbi Genack said he would, but he hoped new management would be brought in before that time so that decision would not need to be made. But new management was not brought in, the decision had to be made and Genack parsed it.  Rather than pulling the OU’s supervision, Genack gave Agriprocessors a two week deadline to bring in new management. And while that new management has to be “independent,” Rabbi Genack told me  the Rubaskins can continue to control the board of this privately owned family corporation.  Sholom M. Rubashkin can still serve as VP; Aaron Rubashkin can still be president.  And Heshy Rubashkin, Sholom’s as yet unindicted younger brother, can continue to serve on the board and can work in the company’s management as well. Genack, who was once Bill Clinton’s rabbi, dices language finer and faster than a sushi chef on a Red Bull binge.  Was an inhumane procedure stopped?  It depends on what the meanings of “procedure” and “meat hook” are.  Is new management really on Agriprocessors’ horizon?  It depends on how “management” is defined. If the OU had reacted properly to Agriprocessors’ first violations of Humane Slaughter law, the Jewish community would not be suffering through yet another Agriprocessors scandal. But the OU did not properly react – no matter how that term is parsed or who does the parsing. For its part, I’m told Agriprocessors has turned down offers to buy the company, one from a group of Japanese investors. Unless the Rubashkins can get what is described as a very high asking price, any ‘sale’ of Agriprocessors may turn out in the end to be a shell game, with the Rubashkins remaining in full control behind the scenes. I’d like to say that the Jewish community deserves better than this – but we don’t. We stood by silently as Agriprocessors business practices became exponentially more abusive and exploitative.  Having access to kosher meat was more important that how that access was gained or who was hurt as a result. It wasn’t until we felt public shame that we reacted. Have we learned our lesson?  I don’t think so. Two weeks ago the Forward exposed mistreatment of workers at America’s number two glatt kosher meatpacker, Alle Processing. Owned by Satmar hasidim, Alle pays its workers bare minimum wages with no paid sick leave, health insurance, or other benefits, and it engages in what appear to be illegal union-busting tactics. One worker told the Forward that, when seriously injured on the job, Alle punched out his timecard the hour the injury happened. He was paid nothing after that. Worse yet, Alle management told him when he recovers he will be suspended for one month without pay, because he used the machine that injured him improperly. Workers at Alle receive little if any safety training. So far, the Jewish community has remained silent.

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