A Half-Hearted Defense of AgriProcessors

Since the raid on the Agriprocessors plant on May 12th, bashing the kosher meat giant has become something of a sport. Everyone from the New York Times to failed messiah to yours truly has taken a few shots (some cheap, some well-deserved) at the Rubashkin family and the business they run out of Postville, Iowa.

I’ve never been big fans of the Rubashkin family. In fact, I called for a boycott of their meat in January, months before Uri L’Tzedek was on the case. But I’m getting a little frustrated with the way the scandal is being dealt with by liberal-minded people like me.

More, after the jump.

First of all, the boycott was a joke. It was called off too early, but even if it was still going on it wouldn’t be having any effect on the company itself. Aside from the Uri L’Tzedek organizers, many, if not most, of the people involved in the boycott are not regular purchasers of kosher meat to begin with. Either they’re vegetarians, or they buy non-kosher meat. So while it’s admirable that they want to be on the record against the practices at the AgriProcessors plant, they’re not creating much of a business loss for the company. Case in point: A good friend of mine manages a kosher restaurant in Chicago, and said he received an irate phone call from a Reform rabbi who demanded that the restaurant stop buying Rubashkin meat. But the rabbi in question had never eaten at the restaurant before. My friend just hung up on him. AgriProcessors is having business trouble these days, but it has to do with a lack of workers, not a lack of demand. If their workers weren’t mostly incarcerated, they would likely be producing as much as ever.

Like many lefty issues, the decision to buy other brands of kosher meat, if they’re even available, and especially to push kosher organic meat, is only viable for the people who can afford the significant price tag that comes with most AgriProcessors alternatives. An ultra-Orthodox mother of 10 in Borough Park might care deeply about labor practices and animal treatment, but if she can’t afford organic kosher meat, she’ll end up with Rubashkins.

I’d love to say that vegetarianism is the answer to this crisis. As a milchigatarian I’ve observed the Rubashkin uproar with an admittedly smug smile. But while I think vegetarianism would be great for the Jewish community, I think the sell would be about as effective as the abstinence pitch for teenagers. It might work on a select few, but for most, the allure of a hamburger is just too great.

If we want to change the way AgriProcessors does business we have to recognize how important their product is to our community and be respectful and cognizant of what they need to stay a profitable business. We should also not forget ways in which the Rubashkins have been generous in the past. This includes donating kosher meat to various Jewish institutions, and exporting members of their small community to even smaller communities that otherwise wouldn’t have had a minyan for the High Holidays.

As far as I can tell, the most effective way of dealing with the Rubashkin family would be within a halachic framework. It is clear that they don’t feel any obligation to the American legal system, but they have to pay at least lip service to halacha, so an appropriate conversation with them would focus on the halachic violations in their plant (of which there were many) and how they could change their behavior to be compliant with halacha and maintain whatever profit margin they require. Obviously this conversation needs to be initiated by someone within the frum community, preferably someone within Chabad. A liberal activist, even one with smicha, is unlikely to be taken seriously by Rubashkin.

I have some pretty serious doubts as to whether AgriProcessors is likely to ever change its ways significantly enough that it would pass inspection by the liberal Jews I identify with. But if there’s any chance it will ever happen I think we need to be realistic about what would be the most effective way of negotiating with a company that doesn’t take us seriously.

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7 Responses to “A Half-Hearted Defense of AgriProcessors”

  1. Leah Koenig Says:

    I agree with you Tamar that a halachic framework is the right one for actually pressuring/encouraging Agriprocessors to make serious change. That’s why I’m disappointed in the OU for not taking a larger stand. Forget Chabad! If the OU seriously threatened to drop their hekhsher, I have a feeling that Agri would spring to attention.

  2. WoolSilkCotton Says:

    The most effective way of dealing with the Rubashkin family would be jail and/or heavy fines. If they cannot operate legally, they should not be in business. It is not simply a matter of making corrections and letting bygones be bygones. Serious crimes have been committed.

    Don’t become a Rubashkin sycophant.

    The Gotti and Gambino crime families also display a lot of largesse with ‘charitable’ donations and ‘gifts’ for their neighborhoods and community.

    If there is a shortage of kosher meat for a while, until some other company starts up, so what. How do you plan to explain to the media that the Jews need a rogue business in order to be supplied with kosher meat? The term ‘kosher’ would officially become a joke.

    The Orthodox community has circled the wagons around the Rubashkins, and nobody has the backbone to confront these thugs. The Rubashkin fiasco will not be resolved in the manner you describe; I wish it could. Sociopathic criminals only respond to jail and heavy fines.

  3. Michael Kay Says:

    I agree that if we want Agri to be persuaded to change its ways, a halachic approach is most likely to work. Leah’s point about the OU is spot-on. However, whether Agri cares about US law or not, if they violated it, which they obviously have, they should be prosecuted. That would affect their ability to continue in the way they always have.

    Also, between buying Rubashkin’s blindly and being a vegetarian there is middle ground: eat less meat, and when you do, buy the more ethical stuff (if you can get it – that, I admit, can be difficult).

    Your point about your friend who manages the kosher restaurant is partly a “duh” but also disturbing: so your friend only cares if his customers care? The way Agri treats its workers and processes its meat means nothing? That essentially proves WoolSilkCotton’s point that kosher has officially become a joke.

  4. Ari Hart Says:

    I’m surprised you are so quick to write off the Uri boycott. The boycott was a targeted action to put pressure on the company to hire an outside party to bring the way Agri treats its workers in compliance with US law.

    I can say with confidence that the experience of working at Agri today is much different than it was before Jim Martin (the CCO we asked for) was hired. Before the raid, most workers on the killing floor and in the meatpacking departments were making only the Iowa minimum wage of $7.25, possibly less. Those same positions are now being paid $10.00. Safety information is now posted in Spanish. There is an anonymous tip line workers can report problems to without fear of punishment. Those things did not exist before.

    Once Martin was hired, began implementing some change, and established a degree of transparency with the work he was doing, it did not make sense sustaining the boycott, since our conditions had been met.

    I understand people’s anger and frustration at the company, but the purpose of the boycott was not to be a punitive action. We wanted to help make change.

    Regarding the signers: where did you get the idea that no one who signed the boycott keeps kosher except Uri members? We had hundreds, literally hundreds, of observant Jews who observe kashrut reach out to us, sign and tell us how important this was to them and that they were no longer purchasing the meat. Orthodox Rabbis called us to ask what restaurants they could frequent. Orthodox weddings switched caterers. You cited an anecdote about a reform rabbi in Chicago, I fail to see how that proves that “many, if not most, of the people involved in the boycott are not regular purchasers of kosher meat to begin with.”

    Even if none of the above had happened, the serious conversations about halachah, values, and kosher food that the boycott generated in the Orthodox community have tremendous value. A joke? I must have lost my sense of humor.

  5. Avrumie Goldfein Says:

    I accidentally came across this website searching for something on Google and saw this article. So let me tell you all my experience.

    I worked in agri this summer for one month and I was very happy. I can assure you that all the shechitah was done according to halachah. The workers get treated normal and the plant is full of U.S.D.A officers and quality control and they were there before the raid so dont tell me that the Rubashkins are running an illegal business!

    As far as the treatment of the animals go, no animals are left in the plant overnight. the animals are on farms all around Postville and are brought in the day they get processed.

    There is no meth lab and there are no WMD’S in the plant. All the employees must get e-verified for social security before getting hired. The problem with the raid was the Rubashkins WANTED to use e-verify for the workers but lefty liberals said its racial profiling.

    These alleged underage workers are getting caught more and more the fact that they are just lying for the union.
    One of them said he was 16 but is really 26 and is a file clerk!
    Its all getting uncovered. This is a major Blood Libel for the unions!!

    lets not forget Rabbi Allin who wanted to make a visit to the plant on shabbat!!!and is now making up lies that he’s received death threat from hashgacha agencies

    this whole thing is a massive blood libel and we are all supporting it… shame!

  6. Sharon Says:

    Kudos to Avramie not only for taking the time to see what was going on at Agriprocessors, but also for not being afraid to post the truth. Most of these websites are filled with lies based on heresay or made by illegals who presented false documentation and are now trying to plea bargain their way to more lenient sentences.

    I can’t understand why everyone is being to quick to jump on the company but not on the workers who committed crimes. Why does no one bother to seek out what is real and what is fake – BEFORE

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