Media Join Fray over Kosher Plant, but Are Consumers Paying Attention?

Arlene Holtz grew up right behind her grandfather’s kosher butcher shop in downtown Philadelphia. It was there that she learned to be mindful of the mitzvot — among them the laws of keeping kosher. But when news broke that the killing practices at the Agriprocessors plant, America’s largest kosher slaughterhouse, may have been less than ideal — even, some have claimed, less than kosher — Holtz began to think twice about her fidelity to kosher meat.

“I believe the ideas behind kashrut are good,” says Holtz, 59.

Strictures on what sorts of meat can be eaten and how the animals must be killed were intended to ensure humane treatment of the animals, she says. But what if it turns out they’re not always treated so well?

“If I eat that meat, then what am I saying, that it’s OK?” she asks. “It’s not OK. That’s not kosher meat — even if, by the letter of the law, it is.”

The recent spotlight on the esoteric field of kosher slaughtering practices has sparked a mini-tempest in Jewish journalism circles. Some 18 months after an animal rights group’s video showed Agriprocessors using a controversial method for slaughtering cattle — turning the animal upside down and pulling out its trachea after its throat had been slit — the Forward reported that workers at the plant are underpaid, undertrained and exploited.

Hamodia then ran a piece slamming the Forward’s reporting, as did the Jewish Press. The Forward responded to the criticism in an editorial.

Agriprocessors itself took out an ad in The Forward defending its practices. And Steven I. Weiss weighed in on his Canonist blog, calling part of the Jewish Press’ coverage “hilarious” and labeling the Forward’s editorial “ridiculous.”

The Conservative movement, for its part, has established a joint committee of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism and the Rabbinical Assembly to investigate the complaints about working conditions at Agriprocessors.

Aside from the media and denominational interest, however, do concerned consumers like Holtz exist in any great number? Are those who regularly buy kosher meat even paying attention?

For Holtz, the issue has forced a change: After more than half a century keeping kosher, the butcher’s granddaughter has stopped eating kosher meat and begun buying beef at Whole Foods, where she’s more confident the animals have been treated well and slaughtered quickly.

“It was a very, very serious decision that I made,” Holtz says. “I try to be mindful of the mitzvot and do them, not to be blindly mindful.”

The Postville, Iowa-based Agriprocessors, which produces Rubashkin’s and Aaron’s Best meat products, has been in the news since the animal-rights group PETA sent an undercover activist to videotape conditions at its plant. Investigators with the U.S. Agriculture Department later determined that some plant employees violated humane slaughter regulations.

The recent Forward report about working conditions at the plant just added fuel to the fire.

But are kosher eaters paying attention?

“In large part, they’re not,” Weiss says. “The average kosher consumer — like the average consumer in general — just doesn’t give very much thought to the ethical provenance of the products they buy.”

“My sense,” he adds, “is that it’s a far less prominent issue in the mind of the average kosher consumer than many other things going on these days.”

Standing in line at the kosher deli at an Acme market in suburban Philadelphia earlier this week, Uri Monson seemed to confirm Weiss’ impression.

“For most of my friends and me who are faced with the high cost of keeping kosher, we look at what’s on sale that week and save our righteous indignation for Darfur,” he says, referring to the region in southern Sudan where the United States has deplored an ongoing genocide.

The Acme market’s mashgiach, or kosher supervisor, says the Agriprocessors dispute is a non-issue for customers.

“I haven’t had a question about it since the first week or two” after the news broke in 2004, Reuven Wayden tells JTA, his long white beard wrapped protectively in a tight white net.

This week, an expert in slaughtering practices visited the Agriprocessors plant after more than a year and a half of pressure from PETA and found it had “made a lot of improvements.”

The plant, whose kosher practices are monitored by the Orthodox Union, has instituted a quality-assurance lab, built a room for processing meat and has improved its handling of animals, Temple Grandin told JTA.

“What we have to do is make sure we keep them that way,” said Grandin, a professor of animal science at Colorado State University.

The O.U. is hoping Grandin’s findings will put some of the complaints to bed.

“I don’t know if people know about this yet, but I hope those who were concerned will be satisfied with that. They should be,” said Rabbi Menachem Genack, rabbinic administrator of the O.U.’s kosher division, who took part in Grandin’s visit.

Some observers say Grandin’s findings may, indeed, take the wind out of PETA’s sails. Further, they say, the fact that many who keep kosher aren’t even aware of the situation — and that for many of them there’s little alternative to this meat — may deflate the controversy.

But PETA’s Bruce Friedrich insists that the allegations against Agriprocessors “should impact on people’s behavior.”

“It’s a black eye on kosher,” he says.

The Orthodox Union says the practice of removing the trachea after the initial cut has been discontinued, and insists that all the meat that left the plant was kosher.

In the Forward ad, Agriprocessors’ vice president, Rabbi Sholom Rubashkin, says the company “not only meets the highest standards of kashrut but also follows the admonition of the Torah to treat its employees justly.”

Rabbi Morris Allen, who convened the Conservative group, says part of the reason for the concern is “the fear that people will find any excuse to avoid keeping kosher.”

“The production of something that is kosher should be done in a way that is, so to speak, kosher in and of itself,” he says. “Workers’ rights are a concern of the Torah and should continue to be a concern of the Jewish people to this day.”

A spokeswoman for the Reform movement told JTA that, while the movement has guidelines regarding the ethical treatment of animals, the movement has not been involved in any efforts relating to Agriprocessors.

JTA Foreign Editor Peter Ephross contributed to this report.

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