Postville: 50 Days Later

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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.

Related Posts:
Interview with an Agriprocessors Mashgiach
No S’more: Food Ethics at Summer Camp
An Update from Uri L’Tzedek

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24 Responses to “Postville: 50 Days Later”

  1. Hannah Lee Says:

    Thank you for this interview, Leah.

  2. Peterson Says:

    Nicely written.
    I however disagree with the statement about the underage workers.
    While the shear number of illegals from Guatemala does suggest Agriprocessors turned a blind eye to thier hiring practices, this population of people are by nature very small statured and extremly young looking throughout thier twenties.
    Out of close to 1000 employees 18 minors using false identification, with the help of thier parents, and family, to fraudulantly secure employement does not equate to intentional wrong doing by Agriprocessors.
    If the applicants produce the required documents mandated by the federal goverment, it is against discrimination laws to ask for additional identification, unless you can “unequivocally prove” the documents are false.

  3. Rebecca Friedman Says:

    Looks like comment #2 – Peterson – is exactly one of the “hired guns” referenced in the article. So even in the same blog post that mentions the PR company hiring folks to do guerrilla blog work for them, you have an example! Wow. I am new to the Jew & The Carrot, but really appreciate the service you are providing. Keep up the good work. Incidentally, my husband and I have been boycotting Rubashkins products for many years now (since PETA broke the scandal) but we are very happy to see the larger community starting to pay attention. In my local community of Passaic, NJ the Kosher supermarket has been stocking many other brands of meat and chicken since the raid. I would assume that will continue, and people don’t seem to be complaining about prices or anything else.

  4. Rabbi Shmuel Says:

    “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.”

    That wouldn’t be anything like the well coordinated attack on Agri coordinated by the UFW as part of their corporate action would it? Just curious

  5. Someone Whoknows Says:

    Most of these posters are looking at this the wrong way.

    There is never an excuse for wrongdoing, yet the plain truth is that it is more than hard, nearing impossible, to get non immigrants to work at places like this. Even Heineman has illegals – probably not as much.

    It’s a slaughterhouse. There is blood, there is sinew, bones, and organs; there are animals sensing death and frightened. It’s everything you’d expect from a the worst slasher films. It’s not for the faint of heart and it is certainly not for the average latte sipping American.

    Yes, this was the biggest raid – but not the biggest secret. Virtually the entire farming and agricultural industry is engined by immigrants, many illegal. The hidden secret here is that it’s done. Ask the folks at HIAS – the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, and they’ll tell you that they feel for the employers here. They know first hand what is happening all over the country.

    One issue may be that Agriprocessors needs to make serious changes to get up to full speed and compliance, but the real issue here is the United States’ immigration policy. It needs fixing and fixing fast. The lesson of Agriprocessors is that this is a problem looming large and will only get worse.

    let Agriprocessors fix up and get the meat back on your plates. Chicken is now $7.49/lb – bizarre. People can’t afford that. Meat is even more now.

    Let’s focus on the real problem – fixing the U.S. immigration policy. Instead of boycotting the meat company, make an even stronger effort to patronize shops with illegals – show our legislators that this is an issue that they need to take seriously and take it seriously now!

  6. Chutzpah Says:

    Agri has many brands names other than Rusbaskins/ Aaron’s /David’s…anyone who is trying to be Agri-free should be on the look out for new brand names they are sure to come out with as well as lesser known names they sell.

  7. Chutzpah Says:

    Someone,
    Non-kosher slaughter houses deliver chicken under $7.49 a pound so the problem must be the Jews who were lucky enough to be able to enter this country to rebuild their lives under post-Holocaust Immigration Policies.

    LACK OF COMPLIANCE with labor laws in the meat processing industry and USDA regulations is THE issue here. Don’t blame it on “latte sipping” Americans not wanting jobs or illegals stealing those unwanted jobs.

  8. Rabbi Shmuel Says:

    “Non-kosher slaughter houses deliver chicken under $7.49 a pound ”

    does the term “economies of scale” mean anything to you?

    “the problem must be the Jews who were lucky enough to be able to enter this country to rebuild their lives under post-Holocaust Immigration Policies.”

    how did I miss that? All those dark coated, mysterious medeval looking people who sound like they speak English as a second language – would society’s problems have been solved had they not survived?

    “LACK OF COMPLIANCE with labor laws in the meat processing industry and USDA regulations is THE issue here”

    Gee – I love how people are able to untangle these massive, complicated societal webs and put their fingers on precisely THE ISSUE. (Thanks for the caps – they add a degree of certainty otherwise unavailable. Do you give lessons? I’ve never been able to do so with your certainty and clarity.

  9. Chutzpah Says:

    This discussion is not about “society’s problems”, it is about the Rubashkin’s and Agriprocessor’s problems.
    The issue here is not a “massive, complicated societal web”. To try to describe it as such is just a smokescreen.

    What’s specifically being discussed is the large and tragic ICE raid of Agri and the consumer boycott of them.

    The problem involves ONE privately-held and very lucrative family business which failed to comply with U.S. laws. The problem was GREED by a select small number of Executives at Agri, some of whom had family who were allowed to enter this country after the Holocaust. Unfortunately didn’t appreciate that enough to be respectful of U.S. laws. They obviously felt they were above U.S. law because they report to God. The truth is they only report to their own bank accounts. No “Rabbi” should be defending that.

  10. Rabbi Shmuel Says:

    That’s the difference – I see Agri as a symptom – you see it as THE problem.

    In chassidus when we see something we don’t like we look inward to see if we contributed in any way to the situation – as the Besht says “the evil we see in others is frequently a function of the evil in ourselves” (echoing the Talmudic dictum “kol haposel, b’mumo posale” or to quote a source you’re probably more familiar with – as Pee Wee Herman said “I know you are but what am I?”)
    There are a number of problems – some serious, some less so. True integrity (and humility) would have called for you saying something like “As a vegetarian, the USDA violations resonate within me” (since its all about you, your likes and dislikes) as opposed to shout outs as to the nature of THE ISSUE with your purported objectivity.

    You’ve never been to Postville, never been inside a slaughterhouse but you keep SHOUTING OUT at the top of your lungs perhaps you will get folks to believe your version of the truth.

    There were 2 schools of Jewish thought – Hillel and Shammai – even though shammai’s students were arguably more intellectually aware than Hillel’s the halacha is invariably like Hillel. Why? The talmud tells us that Hillel considered Shammai’s opinions before formulating his own. The whole problem with you and the rest of the JVNA etc is that you only see things through your own eyes (and spin it as THE TRUTH, THE ISSUE) and spend so much political capital on being right that it comes at the expense of being effective. Pretty sad.
    “Rabbi” Shmuel

    And thanks for telling this “Rabbi” what to defend. What do I have to do to lose the quotes? blindly jump on the social justice carousel or just forget all I have learned?

  11. Chutzpah Says:

    I’m not a vegetarian, never have been. I am a Kosher meat consumer who no longer trusts ANY Rabbanic Supervision and is sick and tired of paying extra to have some Masgiach sit there and pick his nose while animals are tortured and humans are taken advantage of. I now purchase meat that is not under Rabbinic Supervision and trust that it is produced in at least as clean and compassionate an environment as supervised meat.

    The USDA officials have to be at least as honest and knowledgable about compassion as the kids from Yeshiva hired to be Maschiachs who are staring at their holy books rather than watching if an animal’s throat is being slit in the most painless way possible.

    What resonates inside me very painfully is that people who claim to be a “light unto the nations”, people who I trusted with my spirituality,and people who purport to uphold the essence of Torah values are so corrupt…it breaks my heart.

    Agri’s symptoms are Agri’s problems…they better find a cure fast! “Rabbis” who work for PR firms to blog about Agris excuses for doing THE WRONG THING are not going to wash with this generation of kosher meat consumers.

  12. Chutzpah Says:

    To lose the quotes you have to say something like “Jewish Executives who are criminals should be punished to the full extent of the law even if they are Orthodox”

  13. Rabbi Shmuel Says:

    It was a rhetorical question – sorry – I certainly don’t need your approbation and I don’t jump through hoops for people whose righteous indignation is so great they can’t even use their name

    “I now purchase meat that is not under Rabbinic Supervision and trust that it is produced in at least as clean and compassionate an environment as supervised meat.”

    so let me get this straight -clean and compassionate (although traif) is the new kosher (please forgive me I have trouble keeping up with the fad du jour)

    “The USDA officials have to be at least as honest and knowledgable about compassion as the kids from Yeshiva hired to be Maschiachs who are staring at their holy books rather than watching if an animal’s throat is being slit in the most painless way possible.”

    like I said, you’ve obviously never been to Postville – I thought so now you’ve confirmed it

    “What resonates inside me very painfully is that people who claim to be a “light unto the nations”, people who I trusted with my spirituality,and people who purport to uphold the essence of Torah values are so corrupt…it breaks my heart.”

    aaaww – group hug anybody? look at the bright side – you have a boogeyman and you don’t have to take any responsibility for your actions – blame your parents, your teachers, your rabbis, your politicians – when do you step up to the plate and take any responsibility yourself?

    “Rabbis” who work for PR firms to blog about Agris excuses for doing THE WRONG THING are not going to wash with this generation of kosher meat consumers.”

    hey I love this internet – I learn things about myself every day – now I work for an Agri PR firm? you obviously know nothing about who I am or what I do but if I dare disagree with your uninformed second hand smoke, I’m on the Agri payroll! like I said, ya gotta love it

    you on the other hand hide behind a screen of anonymity -how do we know you’re not on the payroll of PETA, the union, etc remember as it says “kol haposale, b’mumo posale”

  14. Chutzpah Says:

    Ok Rabbi Shmuel, you can call me Ms. Levy if you prefer. You seem to be lacking the compassion I’d hope to find in someone who calls himself a Rabbi. You are judgmental and condescending.

    Clean and compassionate might not be “kosher” enough for you, but for this Jewess it is …now you want to tell me I’m not Jewish “enough” for you? I find you not to have a Jewish “enough” spirit for me.

    I take responsibilty for myself…Agri executives should take responsibility for their violations and you should work on learning how to give group hugs…they go along way towards bringing peace and unity to people, even if the men are in one circle and the women are in a different circle.

    Enjoy your meth and guatamalean flavored cholent this shabbos.

  15. Chutzpah Says:

    Let me get this straight…filthy, unsupervised and cruel is the new kosher as long as the processing plant is owned by wealthy Brooklyn Jews?

  16. Rabbi Shmuel Says:

    Ok Rabbi Shmuel, you can call me Ms. Levy if you prefer.

    Good morning Ms. Levy it’s abeautiful morning here in yerushalayim

    You seem to be lacking the compassion I’d hope to find in someone who calls himself a Rabbi. You are judgmental and condescending.

    hey in the words of “Rabbi” John Rambo – you drew first blood – I simply respond in kind

    Clean and compassionate might not be “kosher” enough for you, but for this Jewess it is …now you want to tell me I’m not Jewish “enough” for you?
    I don’t recall anyone questioning your Jewishnness other than you I find you not to have a Jewish “enough” spirit for me.

    understtod – our essential difference is that I try to make my life meaningful to the Torah while you try to make the Torah meaningful to your life. I try not to strive for “spirituality” at the expense of everything else and I’m sure the Hazon community provides ample resources for the spirituality you seek.

    I take responsibilty for myself…Agri executives should take responsibility for their violations and you should work on learning how to give group hugs…they go along way towards bringing peace and unity to people, even if the men are in one circle and the women are in a different circle.

    Enjoy your meth and guatamalean flavored cholent this shabbos.

    “meth”? with all the allegations that come out of Postville why would you try to insult me with the one that has the least likelihood of having any merit?

  17. Rabbi Shmuel Says:

    Let me get this straight…filthy, unsupervised and cruel is the new kosher as long as the processing plant is owned by wealthy Brooklyn Jews?

    I spent time at the plant (on my own terms and on my own dime btw) I simply didn’t find it filthy nor did I find it undupervised (by either the USDA or mashgichim who btw are far from nosepicking yeshiva bochurim) and having seen many many shechitas in my life, I didn’t find the shechita cruel either. Actually I was totally blown away be the reverence of the shochtim as they took their responsibility of “netilas neshama” seriously with the requisite dignity for the life they were taking.

    If you knew anything about who I am and what I do (which obviously you don’t because it woyuld destroy your illusions of those mean, greedy bearded rabbis) you know that I believe that it many ways the Agri model is simply not sustainable. That I choose not to jump on the bandwagon of rumor and innuendo (your meth comment for example)or get in bed with all those who have collateral agendae, simply says that I like to make independent investigations and come to my own conclusions.

    their financial situation, geographical originals or religious persuasion is of little importance to me
    so if you elect not to call me “Rabbi” I’ll understand as I’m certain there are those who will glady tell you what you want to hear

  18. Chutzpah Says:

    Rumor and innuendo? The largest ICE raid in US history was not a rumor. Pictures of immigrant’s children being taken care of by the non-Jewish community after their mother’s were arrested were more than innuendo, they were heart-breaking.

    Maybe the Rubaskin’s cared for the souls of the cows the animals they kill to make money but they certainly did not care for their workers.

    Bottomline: there were violations and arrests, so what are you trying to defend? If you think the model is not sustainable then it should go down with the boycotts, penalties and criminal charges it deserves.

  19. Rabbi Shmuel Says:

    Rumor and innuendo? yes the meth accusation is buried within a 65 page affidavit in support of the search warrant (which I took the trouble to read -did you? if not i’ll gladly get you the URL)- there was no actual evidence of one found at the plant
    but the sensational nature of the allegation has made it a darling in the blogosphere – that’s my point.

    “Pictures of immigrant’s children being taken care of by the non-Jewish community after their mother’s were arrested were more than innuendo, they were heart-breaking.”

    very true and very tragic but the union and the forward have as much responsibility for that state of affairs as Agri – as I said in my first post which stoked the coals of your ire, its a much more nuanced debate then “Rubashkin bad everyone else good” but it unfortunately has been sloganized into a batch of disjointed soundbites by well meaning folks inhaling a lot of second hand smoke

    “Bottomline: there were violations and arrests, so what are you trying to defend?”

    I’m not trying to defend anybody – I’m merely an advocate of full disclosure and informed rather than hysterical kneejerk debate – if I get pilloried for that so be it

    If you think the model is not sustainable then it should go down with the boycotts, penalties and criminal charges it deserves.

    or it can change where needed – I am not necessarily against criminal enforcement and prosecutions provided they are made fairly and not selectively (but I guess the defense attorney in me bridles at the prospect of prosecutors looking to score points in an election year with selective/lopsided enforcement – and yes that happens

    and hey i believe in voting my pocketbook as well – if I like something i buy it (or patronize it) and conversely, if I have a problem with a product or its underlying message and corporate culture (environmental track record, certian other policies) then I too make informed decisions whteher or not to buy

  20. Rabbi Shmuel Says:

    plus its mostly a non-item for me practically – we don’t eat that much meat anyway and there are alternatives. . .

    so I guess our positions aren’t all that far apart but its what we do about them that underscores our differences.

  21. Chutzpah Says:

    I guess the former management-side labor lawyer in me makes me a little bias as well. I also vote with my pocketbook and if a company is even remotely accused of child labor violations in this country, then I’m throwing the baby out with the bathwater when it comes to their products, Blessed by Rabbis or not.

    Lope-sided enforcement? I think going after the biggest fish in the sea scares the little guys, election year or not.

    Go ahead and blame the Unions and Law Enforcement Officials for the crimes of Management if that makes you feel better about being of the same religion as those people, it embarrasses the hell out of me.

    Signed,
    Marisa C. Levy, Esq.
    Clifton, NJ

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