Slaughterhouse fallout: Agriprocessors faces thousands of charges, may lose OU supervision

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The filing of criminal charges against the owners of Agriprocessors has prompted the Orthodox Union, one of the meat company’s kosher certifiers, to threaten to suspend its kosher supervision unless new management is hired.

The OU’s announcement came Sept. 9, 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,” said Rabbi Menachem Genack, the OU’s head of kosher supervision. “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 OU’s lead in suspending supervision, Weissmandl demurred.

“My business is kashrut,” he said. “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 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 said the OU would suspend its supervision on the basis of the charges alone. He also said the Rubashkins could continue to be involved in ownership and operation of the plant and retain OU certification as long as an independent CEO is named.

The criminal complaint and affidavit filed this week 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 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 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.”

Genack said he was not withdrawing supervision immediately because he wanted to act “responsibly, not precipitously.”

The OU’s threat jeopardizes the ability of Agriproces-sors, which controls a sizable portion of the country’s kosher meat and poultry market, to meet the rising demand that typically accompanies the High Holy Days.

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

Its competitors already have moved to fill the void. On Sept. 8, a kosher industry publication reported that Empire Kosher, a poultry producer, is entering the kosher meat market.

Ben Harris

Ben Harris is a JTA correspondent.