OU gets more detailed on Agri

Following up on my earlier post about Seth Mandel, the OU’s head of meat supervision, we obtained a May 26 e-mail in which Rabbi Mandel lays out in more detail his view of the Agriprocessors situation.

The e-mail is quite long, but a few items caught our attention.

The first is Mandel’s assertion that Agri doesn’t “cut corners” with kashrut, but it does push those corners as far as it can. Same is true with other facets of its business. But in both cases, Mandel says, that’s par for the course. “Agri,” he writes, “is no worse than other large meat packers.”

Mandel also wonders whether consumers would be willing to bear the costs of doing more than is minimally required by the law, and has some bracing words on immigration policy. But the real (sorry) meat of the e-mail is where Mandel discusses whether or not the allegations – of drug production, worker mistreatment, underage workers, etc. – are in fact true. He openly admits that he doesn’t know, but what he does know is that if such things were going on, the kosher workers wouldn’t know about it. They don’t associate much with the general workforce, he writes, and they don’t go into “isolated warehouses,” which he says are “the only possible places” that drugs could have been produced. In the meat production areas, Mandel gives the company a clean bill of health: “There are no beatings or sexual mistreatment of workers or drug facilities in the operating areas of the plant. There are also no workers that look underage.”

That last point is perhaps subjective, while offering Mandel some wiggle room (“The workers didn’t look underage”). I interviewed two teenagers in Postville who both claimed to work in production and both looked pretty young to me. I reported on it here.

Here’s the e-mail (Rabbi Mandel says we don’t have the full version, and the one that we have is misleading. He declined to be more specific or supply a complete version of the e-mail):

Date: Mon, 26 May 2008
From: “Mandel, Seth” <mandels@ou.org>
Subject: My response to the Agri issue

There is no question that much of what is said is loshon hora and r’chilus, because there are not that many people who know what actually goes on in meat plants in general and in this one in particular.

My relationship with Agriprocessors (the name of the Rubashkin meat company, which I shall abbreviate as Agri) is a professional one, and I consider it a good one. As with all companies that I supervise (and indeed, almost all companies that the OU supervises), we occasionally have differences, and then we have to make clear to the company that they must change certain practices to conform with OU standards or policies. Most kashrus professionals will tell you that the relationships with Gentiles is usually easier than with Jews, and that holds with meat companies as well. But Agri is by no means worse than most other Jewish companies.

Almost nothing in this world is all black or all white. Although Agri makes mistakes, one is obliged also to take into account the good that Agri does, which is often eclipsed by the latest newspaper articles.

Agri does produce a large share of the glatt kosher beef sold in the US (although I would not rely much on the percentages reported in the newspapers). This is because Agri has made it its business to produce kosher meat at relatively inexpensive prices and make it available throughout the United States. In many places in the US, Agri meat is the only glatt kosher meat available, and it is available in such places because Agri has made it its business to market and ship beef to any supermarket or store that has any interest. There is absolutely no question that there are many Jews who are eating kosher meat today only due to Agri. These are the Jews that would just as soon buy kosher meat, and are willing to pay some premium for it, but will not buy poor quality beef or will not travel long distances to get it. In a sense, just as Lubavitch nowadays generally speaking is in the business of kiruv, Agri is in the business of kiruv as far as meat goes. It aims to make decent quality glatt meat available everywhere it can at a decent price, and has been very successful in doing so.

I can tell you that Agri does not try to cut corners as far as kashrus goes, but does go as far as its rabbinic certification say it can. Most companies do the same. As far as I see, this is generally true of other facets of its business: Agri goes as far as other companies in the business go. Agri is no worse than other large meat packers. One can argue that a Jewish business owner should not be just as good as other comparable businesses, but better. That is a valid argument, but better practices entail higher costs. As I have said many times when I am questioned about more humane treatment of animals, cattle growers and meat packers today would be very happy to institute higher humane standards, but consumers must vote with their wallet. Most consumers will not pay a premium for free-range, natural or organic beef, no matter how much
lip service they pay to the idea. The same thing holds true regarding employees and their working conditions. Meat packers would no problem with paying higher wages and make working conditions better – IF the consumers would pay the premium price thereby entailed.

The law makers in this country have created an impossible situation. They do not allow temporary workers in, knowing full well that much of the agricultural market and the meat market depend on such workers. If the workers cannot get here legally, they come illegally. The fact of the matter is that all large meat packers employ mostly immigrants, because almost no native-born Americans are willing to work in a meat plant for the low pay that makes inexpensive meat possible. Since it is impossible for the Mexicans and Guatamalans to come legally to work, they come illegally. So there are illegal immigrants at almost every large meat packer in the US.

If the government just wanted to arrest illegal immigrants, it could go to any large meat packer. But the government knows that as many illegal immigrants as it arrests and sends home, more will come, unless there is a legal worker program instituted. So it targets companies where it has reason to believe that management is involved in the knowingly hiring illegal aliens or in helping them get fraudulent documentation. Some people made allegations that Agri was involved in this, and so the government has been planning a raid on them for months. The search warrants make it clear that the government was looking for evidence to support this.

Is it true? I do not know, and venture to say that none of the shochatim and mashgichim in the plant know either. Although most shochatim and mashgichim gossip, they do not associate much with the gentile workers except during work, and even then contact is mostly on the work floor, since the kashrus workers have separate lunch rooms and break facilities. So they do not know about allegations of sexual abuse, methamphetamine labs, beatings, and other allegations. Kosher workers do not pry into the lives of gentile workers, nor do they go into the isolated warehouses which are the only possible places to produce illicit materials. There are no beatings or sexual mistreatment of workers or drug facilities in the operating areas of the plant. There are also
no workers that look underage. I go all over the plant when I visit, and the mashgichim that work for the OU also do, but only into areas where meat is processed. We do not visit the water treatment plant, nor the sheds where some materials are stored, nor houses where gentile workers live. We also do not act as OSHA inspectors, interviewing workers to hear their complaints.

In any large plants, some workers have complaints. I have been to other companies where the conditions appear to be worse, and to others where the conditions are better. Many workers who have complaints eventually leave
the company they work for or are fired, and then they spread allegations
to whomever is willing to listen. Some allegations of ex-employees prove
to be true, others prove to be false.

In such situations, I find it repugnant that Jews automatically assume that allegations are correct. According to the G’moro, even in cases where we know the facts of the matter, Jews are obliged to be dan l’khaf z’khus a fellow Jews. All the more so if the facts have not yet been established. The government has not yet indicted any plant manager, let alone any of the Rubashkin family; reportedly they are still sifting through the evidence. The only thing beyond the arrests of workers that has happened is that a guidance counselor in Postville who has worked with immigrants for years has been summoned to appear before a grand jury. He has not been arrested nor has any proof been given that he was involved in illegal activities, and in any event he is not an employee of Agri.

The position of the OU is that we require owners of meat businesses to be shomrei mitzvos and also abide by the law. The OU is following the actions and findings of the federal authorities and will act accordingly; we take violations of law very seriously. But the OU certainly does not assume a person guilty because of allegations, nor is any Jew allowed to. We have certified Rubashkin for years, and I can assure you there are no kashrus problems at Postville more than occasional mistakes that happen anywhere, and when mistakes do happen, they are corrected.

If an individual Jew has a problem with the way any Jew runs his business, he has the right to take his business elsewhere. But a Jew has no right to call for a boycott of another Jew without proof that he is doing something wrong. There is no such proof at Agri, and there have been no reports yet that anyone has such proof.

I fully understand that people wish that there would be no more scandals involving Agri. I wish so as well (and Agri does, too). But as another Jew once said (OK, one who believed that he was the moshiach), only those clean from sin should throw stones at others. The fact that the UFCWI (the union that is trying to unionize Agri) is putting ads in Jewish newspapers featuring all the allegations, rumors and innuendos that anyone has made does not constitute a heter for Jews to follow suit.

Seth Mandel

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