SAN FRANCISCO (JTA) – As federal hearings began this week involving hundreds of employees netted in a government raid on the nation’s largest kosher slaughterhouse, some rabbis and consumers adopted a “wait-and-see” attitude before making any judgments – about the company’s practices or the impact of the arrests on the kosher market.
But for those already concerned about earlier allegations of animal cruelty and worker mistreatment at the Agriprocessors plant in Postville, Iowa, the latest legal turmoil is providing fresh ammunition for tough action against the company, including a potential boycott.
On a practical level, some kosher butchers worry that production slowdowns at the plant, which saw about one-third of its workforce arrested on charges related to misuse of social security numbers and faking their identities in employment documents, will lead to a shortage of kosher meat and poultry – and a resultant price increase.
Agriprocessors, which markets its products as Aaron’s Best and Rubashkin’s, provides an estimated 60 percent of the nation’s kosher meat and 40 percent of its kosher poultry.
Albert Zadeh, the owner of Pico Glatt in Los Angeles, says he is already feeling the effects of the work slowdown.
“If you order five cases of meat, you might get two cases,” he said.
Yuval Atias, the owner of Oakland Kosher in that California city, said he expected to be “short on chickens this week.” He hoped to compensate by ordering more from Empire Kosher, the nation’s second-largest producer of kosher poultry.
Murry Weltz, the co-owner of Park East Kosher in New York City, insisted it’s “too early to tell” whether the plant’s troubles will hurt the nation’s kosher meat supply.
“They have a week to two-week supply,” he said. “People won’t start feeling it for a couple of weeks, and anyone who tells you otherwise is full of it.”
Kosher industry promoter Menachem Lubinsky, the organizer of the annual KosherFest trade show in New York City, predicted that any shortfall will be short-lived. Even if Agriprocessors shut down tomorrow, he said, other kosher entrepreneurs would be ready to step in.
Lubinsky, who does consulting work for Agriprocessors, said that most of what the company has on the market isn’t coming from Postville but from some of its smaller North American plants or South American operation.
“This is a company that has many resources,” he said. “I don’t see a crisis.”
There may, however, be a crisis of a different kind looming.
The Conservative movement, which condemned Agriprocessors last week as bringing “shame upon the entire Jewish community,” may call for some kind of limited boycott later this week.
There is “talk of it,” said Rabbi Joel Meyers, the head of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Association, adding that it is a “divisive issue.”
In December the Conservative movement announced the creation of a hechsher tzedek, or certification of social justice, in response to problems its own investigative commission found during visits to the plant.
But some Conservative rabbis are wary of calling for an all-out boycott that might discourage Jews from keeping kosher, Meyers said. In some communities, the only available kosher meat comes from Agriprocessors.
Some Conservative rabbis say that’s no excuse.
Arthur Levinsky of Beth El Congregation in Phoenix urged congregants in his sermon last Saturday to find alternatives to Agriprocessors.
“This scandal, on top of the earlier ones, may be the catalyst needed to get the Jewish community to find sources of kosher meat that are not tainted by cruelty to animals or human beings,” he said. “If ever I’ve considered vegetarianism, it’s now.”
Despite the company’s dominance of the market, some kosher consumers are actively seeking alternatives.
Sandy Gruenberg, the Judaic studies coordinator at the Solomon Schechter Day School of Westchester in White Plains, N.Y., has been “very concerned” about the allegations against Agriprocessors since first hearing about them last year.
“Buying kosher is something I’ve done my whole life, but the animals have to be treated properly,” she said. One of her friends, who also keeps kosher, has become a vegetarian because of the case.
“The people who run Agriprocessors are supposed to be the most observant, and the fact that this does not figure into their consideration is very bothersome to me,” Gruenberg said, adding that she would be willing to pay more for kosher meat produced under ethical conditions.
The reaction in the Orthodox world is much more muted.
Rabbi Menachem Genack, the CEO of the Orthodox Union’s kosher division – the main kosher certifier of the Chasidic-owned Agriprocessors – refers reporters to the O.U. policy of leaving work conditions, environmentalism and animal welfare in the hands of the appropriate state and federal agencies.
The O.U.’s mandate is to ensure that the meat is kosher according to Jewish law, he said.
Genack said, however, that if a company were convicted of a felony, the O.U. would withdraw its kosher certification. Agriprocessors and its officials have not been charged with any crime, and say they are cooperating with the government’s investigation.
Agriprocessors’ dominance of the market is not incidental, Genack said. Most of the small and medium-sized kosher slaughterhouses in the United States have closed since the 1970s and ‘80s. The O.U. is talking to Empire about increasing its poultry output for the near future, but there is no real substitute when it comes to meat.
“Agriprocessors is an important source of meat for the kosher world,” he said. “Finding other sources is not trivial.”
Rabbi Edward Davis of the Young Israel of Hollywood-Fort Lauderdale, in southern Florida, said that virtually all the kosher meat and poultry in his area comes from Agriprocessors. Some local butchers tried to break the company’s monopoly but failed.
While Davis is concerned about the federal allegations, and said the company “will have to take its lumps,” he’s taking his cue from New York.
“We’ll wait for the big boys to make the decision,” he said.
Referring to the family that owns the Iowa-based business, he added, “There was a world before Rubashkin, and there will be a world after Rubashkin.”
(Amy Klein of the L.A. Jewish Journal contributed to this report.)