Allegations spur debate on what's kosher

Is it OK to eat meat from a processing plant that mistreats workers, even if the meat has your religion's official stamp of approval for physical and spiritual cleanliness?

Should a religious organization even give its stamp of approval to food from a plant facing allegations of violating labor laws, including employing teenagers younger than 16 to handle dangerous slaughterhouse equipment?

Those are questions that have been discussed by many American Jews in the wake of a federal immigration raid on the Agriprocessors Inc. kosher meatpacking plant in Postville, Iowa.

Not just for Jews

 

Jews observing their religious dietary laws aren't the only consumers affected. Many Muslims buy kosher meat and products when halal products (those that comply with Islam's dietary laws) are unavailable. Vegetarians and vegans often look for the kosher designation.

The debate has reached synagogues, supermarket shelves and kitchens in Omaha, where hundreds of Jews observe kosher, a set of Jewish dietary laws.


Last week, the ante went up after Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller filed thousands of criminal child labor charges against Agriprocessors' owner and managers. Then the Orthodox Union threatened to withdraw its certification, and its familiar circled-U seal, from Agriprocessors' products a move that would be devastating to the Iowa plant and could make it harder for consumers to find kosher meat. Agriprocessors had been the nation's largest kosher meatpacker.

"We feel at this point they've lost a lot of credibility," Orthodox Union President Steve Savitsky said Friday in Omaha, where he was visiting a growing Orthodox synagogue, Beth Israel. "We want them to bring in new management, even bring in new equity partners."

The Agriprocessors controversy might seem like an internal Jewish debate. But it strikes universal chords that are growing louder, said
William O. Stephens, a Creighton University professor of philosophy and classical and Near Eastern studies. He also teaches ethics.

It's like not buying clothes manufactured in a sweat shop,
Stephens said, or trying to buy food from farms that pollute less than others.

"That's how people try to make their dollars speak in terms of ethical judgments,"
he said.

Under the moral concept of taint, products created unethically are tainted, regardless of how pure they are physically,
Stephens said.

"Spiritually, you want it to be pure meat it's safe, it's wholesome, it's been killed humanely, and then you can feel good about ingesting it,"
he said.

Savitsky traveled to Omaha from Orthodox Union headquarters in New York to visit Beth Israel Synagogue. Beth Israel is a growing congregation in the Orthodox movement, the most traditional branch of Judaism.

The Agriprocessors controversy wasn't on Savitsky's official Omaha agenda. But it was an unavoidable topic. Beth Israel Rabbi Jonathon Gross welcomed news of the ultimatum from the Orthodox Union. He said it was consistent with Jewish religious law and with the Orthodox Union position on Agriprocessors all along.

"I am incredibly proud as a rabbi to be a member of the Orthodox Union because I think they handled this perfectly," Gross said. "They did not act in a frenzy. They said they would take their leads from the authorities. They waited for the authorities, and then they took decisive action."

Gross said he has had no qualms, so far, buying meat from the plant. But now, Gross said, issues of trust have arisen. If the plant managers can't be trusted to obey state and federal laws, can they be trusted to process the meat correctly? Beyond that, he said, potential mistreatment of workers is an ethical problem in itself.

"Jewish law is not only relegated to the kitchen," Gross said. "It also regulates how we conduct ourselves in business. . . . If a company violates these laws and mistreats people, that's equally if not more egregious" than violating kosher processing laws.

While creating a dilemma for many individual Jews, the issue has also been a controversy between branches of Judaism.

Some leaders reacted quickly after allegations of labor abuse in the wake of a May 12 immigration raid that netted nearly 400 illegal immigrants at Agriprocessors.

A group of Conservative rabbis called for a boycott of products from Agriprocessors, which are sold as Aaron's Best and Rubashkin's, among other brands. Another group of Conservative rabbis launched an effort to create an additional ethical certification, heksher tzedek, for kosher food based on standards for wages and worker safety.

Rabbi Mordechai Levin, who heads the Conservative Beth El congregation in Omaha, said the reports of what he called unacceptable worker conditions at the Agriprocessors plant are "disturbing."

He said by e-mail that Jewish dietary teachings, originating in the Hebrew Bible, "teach reverence for life and humane treatment of animals."

"Judaism teaches among other things about the importance of social justice, the rights and responsibilities of every human being, and the importance of business ethics," Levin said. "If those reports (of labor violations) are accurate, they are in contradiction with the teachings of Judaism."

If the reports of labor violations are true, Levin said, he and his members would have to evaluate whether to buy Agriprocessors products.

A local Reform rabbi, Aryeh Azriel, said he has members who carefully observe kosher laws, even though the Reform movement generally does not adhere to kosher dietary restrictions. But he said his main interest in this matter is not the religious debate, but the question of justice.

"The concern really is seeing that the work is done with dignity, not just for the animals, but for the workers, that there is no abuse of the workers in your plant," Azriel said.

The Iowa Attorney General's Office on Wednesday filed thousands of misdemeanor child labor charges against the Agriprocessors plant's owner, Abraham Aaron Rubashkin, and some of its managers.

Miller accused the plant of hiring 32 illegal immigrant children under age 18, including seven who were under 16. The number of charges is so high because Miller filed a charge for each day that a violation was alleged for each worker.

Chaim Abrams, a manager at the Agriprocessors plant, said in a statement that the company "vehemently denies" the Iowa attorney general's allegations. Abrams said the underage workers not the company are to blame for lying about their age.

Agriprocessors also operates a plant near Gordon, Neb. The Nebraska Department of Labor has said state regulators have checked on the Gordon plant and found no indication of problems with labor laws.

Production problems at the Iowa plant since the raid have led to many bare racks in supermarket kosher aisles, including at the Bag 'N Save at 76th and Dodge Streets, the main place to buy kosher in Omaha. Smaller producers such as Noah's Ark in Minnesota haven't been able to pick up the slack, leading to limited choices for consumers. Bag 'N Save Vice President Leon Shrago said he hopes Agriprocessors can resolve its problems soon.

The Orthodox Union's Savitsky said Friday that the Postville plant's meat still qualifies as kosher. But he said the mounting legal troubles have led to concerns about current managers of the family-owned plant's ability to perform up to standards.

The charges still haven't been proved, he said. But he said it would be in the Agriprocessors owners' interests, as well as the Jewish community's interest, for them to put someone else in charge and let the plant get back to providing kosher meat for the country.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.


Contact the writer: 444-1057, christopher.burbach@owh.com