Abuse of workers and animals: Is it Kosher?

The New York Times has a blunt editorial today about the terrible working conditions at the Agriprocessors plant in Postville, Iowa, which include child labor and incredibly long, arduous, and unsafe work shifts, as well as the brutal treatment of hundreds of undocumented immigrants who were working there by immigration officials and prosecutors.

Agriprocessors is a major supplier of kosher meats nationwide, owned by the Rubashkin family, which is why it is particularly amusing to consult the company's Web site. Here we read about Agriprocessors' service to its local community and the high standards and values it upholds. From its "Code of Conduct":

Honesty, fairness and respect for others are the principles which guide us, and the best way to be successful in business. Whether dealing with fellow employees, customers, vendors, or regulators, Agriprocessors, Inc. is committed to these principles and compliance with applicable laws and regulations. Agriprocessors has adopted this Code of Conduct to demonstrate this commitment. The Code of Conduct applies to all employees, including the highest levels of management of the company.

Now here is a snippet from the Times editorial:

A slaughterhouse in Postville, Iowa, develops an ugly reputation for abusing animals and workers. Reports of dirty, dangerous conditions at the Agriprocessors kosher meatpacking plant accumulate for years, told by workers, union organizers, immigrant advocates and government investigators. A videotape by an animal-rights group shows workers pulling the windpipes out of living cows. A woman with a deformed hand tells a reporter of cutting meat for 12 hours a day, six days a week, for wages that labor experts call the lowest in the industry. This year, federal investigators amass evidence of rampant illegal hiring at the plant, which has been called “a kosher ‘Jungle.’ ”

A "kosher Jungle." By the way, Agriprocessors' Web site also brags about its commitment to environmental protection of its community. That's why it is strange to read this in a 2004 Department of Justice complaint against the company:

The Department of Justice and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced today the filing of a civil action against AgriProcessors, Inc., a meat packaging plant in Postville, Iowa. The complaint, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Iowa, alleges that AgriProcessors has committed Clean Water Act violations by failing to comply with pretreatment requirements for its wastewater going into a lagoon treatment system owned by the City of Postville and then discharged into the Yellow River.

More insights into how Agriprocessors goes about its business can be found in a National Geographic story a few years ago. And all this time, as the company Web site makes clear, rabbis have been crawling all over the place--making sure, of course, that the meat is kosher. They might also have spent some of their time making sure the plant was humane, to people and to animals. But some Jews have forgotten that Judaism is not just about avoiding pork and stealing land from Palestinians, but also a system of ethics and values. That's why it is heartening to read the blog of Rabbi Amy Eilberg and her account of a visit to Postville, which I would urge you to look at. Here is part of what she and others in her group found:

The list of abuses grew more and more chilling. There was a regular pattern of managers extorting money from the impoverished immigrants, by insisting that a worker buy a car on credit from the manager as a condition of employment, creating a kind of indentured servitude. Managers regularly humiliated workers and occasionally struck them. We were told that sexual favors were demanded of female workers, in exchange for work or better work assignments, and we learned that from 40-80 teenagers, age 14-16, worked illegally in the plant, facilitated by a business partner of the plant's owner. We were told that "everyone knew" of the rampant abuses, yet workers who dared to approach the owners to report on abuses at the plant were fired. An atmosphere of intense fear, harassment, and dehumanization prevailed.

And in one of the most heartening parts of her post, Amy declares that the meat from Agriprocessors is no longer kosher:

Until we know that the plant has corrected the many wrongs inflicted on the workers, the meat and poultry from this plant cannot be considered to be kosher in any but the most narrow sense. The Conservative Movement has advised its members to "to evaluate whether it is appropriate to consume Rubashkin products until this situation is addressed” and the Hekhsher Tzedek initiative is moving forward in its plan to supplement traditional kashrut supervision with certification of a producer’s employment practices, including wages and benefits, health and safety, environmental impact, and corporate transparency.

And Amy insists that immigration reform is a Jewish issue too:

Good-hearted people can surely disagree about exactly what must be done to repair our nation's broken immigration system. But one thing is certain: pleading ignorance to the injustices that are committed against immigrant workers to support our familiar ways of eating is no longer an option. The veil has been lifted, and we now know clearly (as many had warned before) that consumption that we consider a normal feature of our life as Americans and as American Jews is intimately related to desperate poverty in Central and South America and to American trade and immigration policy. Thus immigration reform is a Jewish issue, a humanitarian issue, an urgent advocacy issue for all thoughtful Americans. We have not accepted "We didn't know" or even "We didn't know what to do" as an excuse when it has been used by those who acted against us. The Torah calls to us with painful clarity, "Al ta'amod al dam rei'echa," "Do not stand idly by as your neighbor's blood is shed."

And she concludes:

Once we could claim we did not know, but no longer. These acts of theft were committed in our names. We are complicit and so we are responsible. The Torah calls out for verbal confession of sins and restitution to those who are wronged. The call for teshuva here applies not only to the direct perpetrators, but to all of us who literally ate the fruits of their sins.

I hope to meet Rabbi Amy Eilberg one day. She reminds me that I was once proud to be a Jew.

PS--If you want to read a thoroughly racist but nevertheless somewhat illuminating account of what has gone on in Postville, check this out. It might not make you very proud to be an American, however. And here is more very interesting information about the relationship between ethics and keeping kosher, with more too about Agriprocessors, on a blog run by Rabbi Morris Allen.

Apparently a large Jewish protest was held in Postville, it appears yesterday. Lots of details here.

Update (August 6): The New York Times reports today that Iowa labor investigators have asked the state's attorney general to bring charges against Agriprocessors for violation of child labor laws. The paper also features an opinion piece by a member of the Rabbinical Council of America arguing that working conditions are relevant to a kosher certification and criticizing some Orthodox groups for reacting too slowly to the scandal.

Update (August 23): The New York Times features an update on this story, including a visit to Agriprocessors by a rabbinical delegation that gave the plant, surprise, a clean bill of health, and dirty tricks by a PR firm hired by the company to improve its image.

Post a Comment


Richard Parker said…
This is a very good story, but it ain't Jewish. Every single slaughterhouse in the land is nasty, dirty, cruel, and unfeeling. Would you like to be the first person to 'process' a recent, still-warm corpse?


I thought not.

So you have to employ someone who can't afford to have 'feelings' and then you can treat your employees as you like, because thay can't afford to leave - perfectly normal.

It's universal in that business; to suggest that Jews do it worse is nonsense, or more than a little bit biased.

Mind you though, if you'd had evidence that pigs were amongst all this very bloody animal slaughter (which they probably are) you might have had a good storybest


Richard Parker
Siargao Island, Philippines

Richard Parker said…
Mind you -you're criticizing kosher vs halal, as in:

"The Answer, and from His is the truth and rectitude.

The conditions for an Islamic slaughter are as follows:

1) The slaughterer’s being Muslim.

2) That Allah’s name is taken at the time of slaughter.

3) That are cut.

If a single one of these conditions is not meant, the slaughter could not be considered Islamic.

It is understood from the methods of machine cuts presented in the question that the machine does not slaughter all of the chickens at once, but rather one after the other.

In this situation, if a Muslim presses the button (to activate the machine) saying bismillah, the first chicken slaughtered would become halal whilst the following chickens to be slaughtered by (the machine activated) that initial pressing of the button would be haram. This is because in such a situation, it is (still) imperative that bismillah be pronounced prior to the slaughter of each chicken. Merely standing close to the machine and saying Allahu Akbar or, similarly, simply placing a hand on the machine would not be sufficient to render the animal slaughtered halal.


So what's the difference between shariah and kosher practices ?

We Europeans don't go through the practice of cutting the throat, windpipe and jugular veins. We just stun them.

Who's worse?


Michael Balter said…
I think it becomes a Jewish issue if Jews, like me and others (see link below) want to hold other Jews to certain standards and values, especially in the definition of something key to our religion and ethnic identity like the rules of kosher. There are plenty of non-Jewish vilains in the world, but when Jews do ill it reflects badly on all of us--that is also why so many Jews dissociate themselves from Israeli government policies too.

Click here for Jews who feel the same way:

terryt said…
Richard asked, "Would you like to be the first person to 'process' a recent, still-warm corpse?" I grew up on a farm and worked in a slaughterhouse for several years during university holidays so I've done it. I don't like killing but I like meat, someone has to kill and dress the product.

I'm neither Jewish nor Muslim ( I live pork) but I can understand the probable reasoning behind kosher and halal rituals; some sort of respect for the life of the animal to be killed.

I think in the present case what we all have trouble with is that the ritual has become meaningless and is used to justify cruelty before the killing, not to mention the exploitation of the workers.
Anne Gilbert said…
Michael, Richard, ttryt, and all:

I don't want to get into a "religious war" here, but I think the issues Michael riases(and raised even more) by Rabbi Amy Eiler(I think that's her name) have much broader applications than just being Jewish, Muslim, Christian, etc. This is why the situation in Postville(which I've been following with some interest) is so awful: the people are not only doing "degrading" work, they have been exploited in various ways, because bein "illegal immigrants", they have no power of leverage, and some people don't even quite consider them human! This should be an affront to anyone's ethical standards, regardless of what religious tradition --- if any --- they come from. I do find it inspiring, however, that there are plenty of Jews who will speak up for the oppressed, from their own religious understanding, and go to bat for them, as part of what they consider to be a religious obligation. It gives me some hope for the future, since "all" religionists" aren't a bunch of Bible-toting, gun-loving whack-job, but real people, wrestling with real-world problems and trying to make the world a better place than they found it.
Anne G
Richard Parker said…
Sometimes I blow my top before I've read the details. I've just followed through on the Rabbi Amy Eilberg link in Michael's blog, and the other links from that, and I'm duly horrified.

- pregnant women not allowed to pee? - dreadful
- nearly 400 people aarrested and imprisoned because they were seduced by ads in Mexican newspapers? - dreadful
- Conservative, Reform and Orthodox Jews in America all squabbling about who has rights to determine kashrut? - dreadful
- the Rubashkin brothers http://tinyurl.com/6c7zsj
in New York (safely x000 miles from their Iowa 'investment') look like cartoon Jews from any Arabic or Nazi newspaper - maybe some of those depictions are justified by this case.

But all this is a storm in a teacup against what is going on in 'Greater Israel' right now.

See the B'Tselem site

Maybe Conservative, Reform and Orthodox Jews in America should be discussing what's being done to 1.5 million Palestinans in Gaza instead of getting themselves all worked up about 400 people exploited in Iowa.