Charges spark O.U. threat

The Agriprocessors kosher meat plant in Postville, Iowa. (Ben Harris)

The Agriprocessors kosher meat plant in Postville, Iowa. (Ben Harris)

NEW YORK (JTA) – The filing of criminal charges against the owners of Agriprocessors has prompted the Orthodox Union, one of the meat company’s kosher certifiers, to promise it will suspend its kosher supervision unless new management is hired.

The O.U.’s announcement came Tuesday just hours after Iowa’s attorney general filed criminal charges against Agriprocessors and its principal owner, Aaron Rubashkin, on more than 9,000 counts of child labor violations related to operations at its plant in Postville.

“Within the coming days – or, let’s say, a week or two – we will suspend our supervision unless there’s new management in place,” Rabbi Menachem Genack, the O.U.’s head of kosher supervision, told JTA. “I hope they’re smart enough to recognize that new management is absolutely required.”

Agriprocessors’ products also are certified as kosher under the label of Rabbi M.M. Weissmandl. Asked if he would follow the O.U.’s lead in suspending supervision, Weissmandl demurred.

“My business is kashrut,” he told JTA. “As long as the high kosher standards are in place, I’m not removing any hechsher. My business is to make sure that the place is 100 percent kosher.”

The attorney general’s complaint represents the first criminal charges to be brought against the company’s owners since a May 12 immigration raid resulted in the arrest of nearly 400 illegal immigrant workers in Postville. Each day an underage employee reported for work qualifies as a criminal charge – hence the 9,000 counts – and each is punishable by up to 30 days in jail and a fine.

Genack emphasized that the O.U. would suspend its supervision on the basis of the charges alone and not on a conviction. He also said the Rubashkins could continue to be involved in ownership and operation of the plant and retain O.U. certification as long as an independent CEO is named.

The criminal complaint and affidavit filed Tuesday in Allamakee County District Court named as defendants Rubashkin, his son Sholom, who managed the Postville plant until late May, and three human resources employees.

The affidavit alleges that the five hired underage workers, retained them as employees and/or concealed their presence during inspections – or assisted in doing those things.

“All of the named individual defendants possessed shared knowledge that Agriprocessors employed undocumented aliens,” the affidavit alleges. “It was likewise shared knowledge among the defendants that many of those workers were minors. The company’s hiring practices encouraged job applicants to submit identification documents which were forgeries, and known to contain false information as to resident alien status, age and identity.”

Agriprocessors issued a statement Tuesday denying the allegations. The company said that underage workers had lied about their age and that their employment was terminated if they were discovered.

“In order to convict, the state is going to have to prove that the defendants willfully violated the child labor laws,” the company said. “That means that the state, as to every one of the alleged violations, is going to have to prove that each defendant knew that the employee was underage on the day in question, and knew that it was against the law for the person to be employed in the manner alleged. The state will not be able to carry this burden of proof.”

The O.U. had said it would suspend its supervision if criminal charges were brought against the owners of Agriprocessors.

On Tuesday, Genack said he was not withdrawing supervision immediately because he wanted to act “responsibly, not precipitously,” and with sensitivity toward the company, its employees and kosher consumers.

“We want to be responsible in terms of our obligations, in terms of supply and communal needs, and in terms of the workers there,” Genack told JTA.

The O.U.’s threat further jeopardizes the ability of Agriprocessors, which controls a sizable portion of the country’s kosher meat and poultry market, to meet the rising demand that typically accompanies the High Holidays.

Agriprocessors has struggled to restore its production capacity since the May 12 raid, when nearly half its workforce was taken into federal custody.

Its competitors already have moved to fill the void. On Monday, a kosher industry publication reported that Empire Kosher, a poultry producer, is entering the kosher meat market.

Genack said the O.U. has been pushing for reforms at Agriprocessors since the May raid, including replacing Sholom Rubashkin as CEO and hiring a compliance officer.

On May 23, the company announced that Sholom Rubashkin would be stepping down from his post, but he remains a presence at the plant and no replacement has been named. Two weeks later the company hired Jim Martin, a former U.S. Attorney, as compliance officer.

Genack also said he was reaching out to various players in a bid to “stabilize” the situation in Postville. He mentioned the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, which he said could be helpful if it unionized the Postville plant’s workers.

The UFCW long has waged a battle to organize Agriprocessors’ employees, but so far without success.

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