5/18/08

UFCW v. Agriprocessors business-as-usual

Related Agriprocessors stories: here.

The Jewish community seems to be taking a wait-and-see attitude toward Agriprocessors, the world’s largest producer of kosher meat, whose plant in Postville, Iowa, was raided by federal agents on Monday.

Authorities charged that the factory employed hundreds of illegal workers and cited claims that illegal narcotics production took place at the plant. Agents arrested 390 workers Monday in what Immigration and Customs Enforcement called the largest raid of its kind in U.S. history.

The plant reopened on Tuesday and its management expects operations to continue, but the large blow to its workforce could result in a slowdown of production, which could cause shortages and/or drive up prices. According to the Rabbinical Council of Bergen County, which oversees the supervision of the majority of the county’s kosher restaurants, all of the meat restaurants under its watch use products from Agriprocessors.

Local restaurateurs did not seem worried, though.

Noam Sokolow, owner of Noah’s Ark deli in Teaneck and New York, said that his restaurant relies on Agriprocessors for 10 percent to 20 percent of its meat. The rest comes from a combination of eight different vendors, including Alle Processing, 999, and Westside Foods.

If buying Agriprocessors meat would become problematic, he said, there would be little difficulty in making up the deficit.

"We’ll find a different supplier," he said. "While we’re not very happy to hear what’s going on over there, we know the company and we know the people in the company and we wish them well."

No decision would be made to phase out Agriprocessors based on the company’s legal troubles until there is a clearer picture of what transpired and why, Sokolow said.

"We’ll wait to hear what really happened," he said.

Similarly, Jonathan Speiser, owner of the Dougies Bar-B-Que franchise in Teaneck, said his restaurant relies on Agriprocessors for only 10 percent of its meat.

Any fluctuations in supply would have "no effect on us whatsoever," he said.

"There are many sources out there for meat. I’m not concerned," said Elie Katz, co-owner of Chopstix, which has locations in Teaneck and West Orange. The Chinese take-out orders specific ingredients on occasion, but not enough to make a difference if it has to switch, he said.

Chickies Chicken & French Fry Bar in Teaneck is an exception among RCBC restaurants as it uses no Agriprocessors products in its kitchen. Co-owner Nir Hason said the restaurant used Agriprocessors chicken during its first week in business last year but switched to other companies because of high costs and issues with freshness.

Menachem Lubinsky, founder and president of Lubicom Marketing, a leading analyst of the kosher industry and creator of the annual Kosherfest in Manhattan, said that it is unlikely that Monday’s raid will have a major effect on the supply of kosher meat. Agriprocessors has enough inventory and other plants that could step up production if necessary.

As of Wednesday, Lubinsky said that production at the plant had already increased from when it reopened on Tuesday, and he expected it to be up to full capacity again soon.

As for whether the charges would affect the cost of kosher meat, he said a price increase was already on the way for the entire meat industry.

Also, he said, the average kosher consumer is unlikely to change his or her purchasing habits.

"Some people are pretty disgusted by the whole thing," he said. "Many people are taking the approach [that Agriprocessors has] become a convenient punching bag for many."

For a number of kosher consumers, Lubinsky said, Agriprocessors represents the only choice for kosher meat because other brands are not carried in certain parts of the country.

Other kosher companies will not be able to capitalize on Agriprocessors’ woes by marketing their products as safer or more ethical. The market still feels that Agriprocessors produces a quality product, he said.

"The main issue if I want to buy a kosher product is not ‘Am I buying an ethical product,’" he said. "In real terms it’s not how consumers behave. They [buy] on price and quality. They don’t care if the owner of a company does this or that. As long as it’s safe and good, they’ll buy."

Rabbi Menachem Genack, the head of the Orthodox Union’s kosher supervision department — the largest kosher certification organization in the Agriprocessors’ plants — said that other companies had assured him that they could make up for any shortfall from the Postville plant.

Genack, religious leader of Shomrei Emunah in Englewood, reiterated the O.U.’s policy of leaving matters of immigration and labor standards to the government.

"No one else has the resources to do what the federal government can do," he said.

If Agriprocessors turns out to be criminally liable, Genack said, that could be grounds for withdrawing its kosher certification.

The raid was the result of a six-month investigation by more than a dozen federal agencies, including the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Internal Revenue Service, and the departments of labor and agriculture.

According to an affidavit filed as part of a 60-page application for a search warrant, a former plant supervisor — identified only as Source #1 — told investigators that some 80 percent of the workforce was illegal.

Source #1 also claimed to have discovered active production of the drug methamphetamine at the plant and reported incidents of weapons being carried there.

Agriprocessors employees told investigators that sometimes they were required to work nighttime shifts of 12 hours or more.

According to the affidavit, 697 Agriprocessors employees are believed to have violated federal laws.

Genack said he was told by the plant’s supervising rabbi that two foreign rabbis working at the plant had failed to renew their work permits when they expired a few weeks ago. He described the issue as a "technical" violation and insisted the two rabbis had not been detained.

According to the affidavit, the government has probable cause to believe that an Agriprocessors supervisor assisted workers in acquiring fake documents in exchange for a cut of the proceeds.

Federal investigators provided documentation for a former Agriprocessors employee, identified in the affidavit as Source #7, for the purpose of gaining employment at the plant. Once hired, the source reported on rabbis who allegedly insulted the workers and threw meat at them.

In one alleged instance, a "chasidic Jew" [sic] duct-taped a worker’s eyes and then hit him with a meat hook, "apparently not causing serious injuries."

Agriprocessors said in a statement on Tuesday that the company’s sympathies were with the families of those arrested and it would investigate the circumstances that led to the raid.

"We extend our heartfelt sympathies to the families whose lives were disrupted and wish them the best." Agriprocessors "takes the immigration laws seriously," the statement said. The company would "continue to cooperate with the government in its investigation" and "inquire further into the circumstances" that led to the raid.

Agriprocessors has long been a target among animal and workers rights groups. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has released several reports on the plant, and the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, the largest union in the country representing food industry employees, has created a campaign to force Agriprocessors to unionize its plants.

The union set up the Website eyeonagriprocessors.com and frequently issues reports on health and safety violations in the plant. After Monday’s incident, UFCW spokesman Scott Frotman said the union would continue its efforts and he hopes the company will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.

"It’s just another example of the Rubashkins’ flagrant violation of the law," said Frotman. "It’s unconscionable that the Rubashkins would exploit children for their own personal profit. Meat-packing is one of the most dangerous jobs in the world and to have children working in the plant is just reprehensible."

In an interview with the Standard in March, Agriprocessors vice president Sholom Rubashkin dismissed the UFCW’s charges and accused the union of carrying out a vendetta against the company because it refused to unionize.

"The workers are quite happy and have not signed any papers to unionize. That’s the whole point," he said.

A letter from Rubashkin on the company’s Website reads: "Agriprocessors, Inc. is a viable company that is committed to maintaining the quality of its product both in full compliance with existing rules and regulations of the USDA and in full compliance with the rules of kashruth. Over the past couple of years the employees of Agriprocessors, Inc. in Iowa have resisted attempts by the United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW) to become their collective bargaining agent."

"I’ve noticed a tendency to blame the workers," said Rosalind Spigel, interim director of the Jewish Labor Committee in Washington. "An undocumented worker is an undocumented worker and undocumented workers need to be brought into compliance with the law. Over the years there have been several opportunities for Agriprocessors to correct" the situation.

The JLC has been a critic of Agriprocessors for many years and helped the Conservative movement create its heksher tzedek, an additional seal to certify that workers and animals involved in the kosher food production were treated ethically.

(jstandard.com)

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