With the 4th of July coming up, BBQ – corn and veggie dogs, yes, but also steaks, hamburgers, and chicken – is on just about everyone’s mind. But the May 12th raid on Agriprocesors kosher meat plant is likely to cloud the celebration for many kosher keeping consumers. (Take the email I got last night from a friend as an example: “My grand plan to order meat from Fresh Direct was shot, because all their meat is from Aaron’s/Rubashkin.”)
In honor of Independence Day, The Jew & The Carrot spoke with Avram Lyon, a former employee of the Jewish Labor Committee who currently works as an independent consultant for labor and Jewish communal organizations (including Hekhsher Tzedek) for his take on the situation. Lyon spoke about the current state of Postville, BBYO’s recent decision to stop serving Agriprocessor’s meat, and what the raid might mean for the kosher food industry.
Read the interview below the jump.
50 days after the raid, Agriprocessors is still making headlines. What is new on the ground in Postville?
Well, we’re approaching the end of the month. The women that were picked up during the raid and who have no income now have rent coming up that they have to make. That is going to put a substantial dent into the funds that are available in Postville through St. Bridget’s. Most of the women have not gotten court dates yet – a few have, but those dates are mostly in October, November, and December, so that’s a long time that we’re going to have to support these people. If they don’t pay their rent, they could be evicted and would be homeless. A lot of these women have now moved in together. For example, you have three people plus children living in an apartment right now.
Another thing is that Agriprocessors outsourced their hiring to a company called Jacobson Staffing Agency (JSA) because they are desperate for workers. Despite the rumors spread by the PR firms – production is not up. Production remains somewhere around – I believe – 20-23% of the pre-raid numbers for cattle and 30% on chicken. Meaning, they used to slaughter 60,000 birds/day and they’re around 20,000. Beef they used to do 500 head/cattle per day and now they’re doing around 100-125 cattle/day.
We also heard they’re offering $10 an hour for poultry or chicken workers. Before the raid poultry workers were getting around $7.00. For all these years they were paying their workers so poorly, and suddenly they can afford to pay their workers more!
There were a few articles a week or so back that said Agriprocessors was bringing in homeless people from Texas to work at the plant. Are they still doing that?
As far as I know, yes and from other places as well. There was a Town Hall Meeting in Postville on June 23rd. They invited a representative of JSA – a fellow by the name of Ryan Regenold – to come meet with them because people in the town were so angry about the situation.
JSA had promised to keep the bad apples out of town, but there have been lots of complaints about fighting and bringing people to Postville with problems including arrest records and alcohol problems. JSA was helping Agriprocessors recruit workers and assist them with I-9s and e-verifications that they are legal. Ryan stated that the screening process could have also included background checks and drug screening, but Agriprocessors didn’t want to pay for that.
BBYO (Bnai Brith Youth Organization) has gotten a lot of flack for their decision to go “Agri-free” at their summer camps. Could you comment on that?
From my standpoint, I think BBYO’s position is terrific! It’s the right kind of thing to expect Jews who are concerned with social justice to do.
It seems to me from looking at the comments [on the various blogs reporting on the situation, especially JTA] that the people who are attacking BBYO are part of a professional job. According to Menachem Lubinsky, one of the reasons that 5W was hired to come on board as part of Agriprocessors’ PR team was to deal with “blog issues.” The recent email attack looked like the sort of the thing you’d expect to see from a professional company.
What makes you say that?
The tone of the comments was similar and appeared on multiple blogs. It appeared to be the same people going on to different blogs. Also, they showed up very suddenly – they weren’t there and all of a sudden they were. It didn’t appear to be a spontaneous response to BBYO – it appeared to be orchestrated. The other news I heard is there is supposedly a big PR campaign that will hit Jewish papers soon from Rubashkin. They’re going to go on the attack, so to speak. They’re going to be putting out their message.
What are your thoughts about the OU’s response to the raid?
I am still not sure why the Orthodox Union (OU) has taken the position that it has. You would think that given all these problems, the OU would have dropped this place like a hot rock and removed its hashgacha. The fact that they haven’t makes one scratch their head.
They say that someone is innocent until proven guilty. But there’s one proven fact, and that is there were underage kids working at the plant. That Agriprocessors claims that they didn’t know they were underage because they gave them false papers doesn’t hold much water. You go to any bar in this town, and a bouncer can spot an underage kid in two seconds. If a bouncer can do it, you’d think a human resources person working for a big company could too. It doesn’t pass the common sense test. Usually when something is illogical, it’s actually logical, we just haven’t learned all the background information.
Do you think this situation will make any change in the kosher industry towards more ethically-produced food?
I think what will make a change at this plant is a union. I think what will make change in the kosher industry is the Hekhsher Tzedek. If there was ever a poster child for the need to have the Hekhsher Tzedek, this is it. This is a situation that proves that you cannot separate the ethical aspects of Judaism from the ritual aspects. And when you try and do that kind of separation, this is what you get.
I also believe – and this was written in one of the blogs [Editors Note: See The Jew & The Carrot's "Interview with an Agriprocessors Mashgiach"] – that Agriprocessors was under a lot of pressure to produce a lot of meat very quickly. And whenever you do that, something is going to slip through the cracks.
Ultimately, the entire kashrut industry is built on trust. You either do schechita (kosher slaughter) yourself, which isn’t very practical or you trust someone else will do it to the standard that you observe. What’s really gone on here is that trust has been shaken to the core. People are suddenly saying, “We don’t trust.” This has gone on for too many years – and the Rubashkins have lost the trust of many Jewish people.
Interview with an Agriprocessors Mashgiach
No S’more: Food Ethics at Summer Camp
An Update from Uri L’Tzedek