Kosher Slaughterhouse Raises Ethical Dilemma

A recent immigration raid targeting the nation's largest kosher meatpacking plant exposed dangerous and brutal working conditions there. That's left many questioning whether meat handled by an abused workforce can ever be considered kosher. Rabbi Menachem Genack, of the Orthodox Union's Kosher Division, and Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld of the National Synagogue, discuss the debate sparked by the questionable processing of kosher food.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Coming up the Barbershop guys discussed what's hot this week. Paris Hilton says she is, so hot she is running for president, sort of. But first we're going to go in a totally different direction. Our weekly Faith Matters conversation. Today, we want to talk about food, faith, and ethics. Agro Processors Inc., a kosher slaughterhouse in Postville, Iowa has been in and out of the news for years now.

In 2004, there were news reports that animals were being slaughtered carelessly and cruelly. Then, in mid-May of this year, a federal raid resulted in the arrest of nearly 300 workers who are alleged to have been illegally employed at the plant. And now those workers are telling investigators about horrible working conditions they say they endured. A lack of safety precautions, very long hours, poor health benefits, and the willingness to employ teenagers for this very dangerous work. While working at a slaughterhouse has never been a picnic, this story raises a question. Are people of faith call to higher standards in choosing what to buy and eat?

To discuss this question, we're joined by Rabbi Menachem Genack. He is the head of the Orthodox Union Kosher Division which supervises and certifies many kosher foods. He's joining us from WBGO in Newark. And Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld is the rabbi of Ohev Sholom, The National Synagogue in Washington D.C. and he's here in the studio with me in Washington. Welcome to you both, rabbis. Thank you for joining us.

Rabbi SHMUEL HERZFELD (Ohev Sholom, The National Synagogue, Washington D.C.): Thank you. Good to be here.

Rabbi MENACHEM GENACK (Orthodox Union Kosher Division): Good to be with you.

MARTIN: Rabbi Genack, I'll start with you. As quickly as you can, because I know this a subject of much discussion, what is kosher?

Rabbi GENACK: Kosher means fit, proper in accordance with Jewish law, Halakha and in this particular context, the way it's usually used is in reference to food products that they meet the kosher standards formulated. Initially actually in the Bible, in Leviticus, and there's rabbinic legislation which expands on it through the centuries.

MARTIN: Rabbi Herzfeld, you recently published an op-ed in the New York Times and you say that, to be kosher, means something actually rather more expansive, ethically and religiously. Would you expand on that?

Rabbi HERZFELD: In today's society in America, there is an expectation by many consumers that kosher means that the product is of a higher standard. I think that OU recognizes that that many companies want to put the OU's name on their product even though it doesn't even need OU certification. For example, water, products like that.

MARTIN: It's the Orthodox Union.

Rabbi HERZFELD: The Orthodox Union is a brand of the OU which is a terrific brand to be associated with it. And my point about Agro Processors was that there's a lot of allegations, and therefore, I feel it's the responsibility of the Jewish community to make sure that we can successfully alleviate those concerns so that the charges against the whole kosher industry can be satisfied to the sufficient needs of the consumer.

MARTIN: Let's just stipulate for the sake of our conversation that some of the allegations, at least some of the allegations against Agro Processors are true, that under aged workers or that workers worked long hours in poor conditions. Is that religiously relevant? Rabbi Shmuel?

Rabbi HERZFELD: Well, I think, it's really religious relevant. I think that it matters to the extent that those allegations are true. You know, it's hard to stipulate. I think everybody is entitled to their due process. But one of things that concerns me is that if Agro Processors has implicated the OU...

MARTIN: The Orthodox Union.

Rabbi HERZFELD: The Orthodox Union is then partially responsible. We don't know how much, but because they were involved in certifying the kosher industry, I think, God forbid, there would be an error of commission there. But even if it's an error of omission and we don't know the extent, it's a concern. And I'm not saying there was those mistakes but the reality is, therefore, I called for an independent investigation to restore the credibility of the OU and of the company involved.

MARTIN: You mean, an investigation on religious grounds by religious people?

Rabbi HERZFELD: Yeah. I - absolutely.

MARTIN: Not the labor department, not some other governmental entity. Rabbi Genack, what about that? I mean, let's just say for the sake of argument that perhaps workers were not treated appropriately. But let's say that the animals were slaughtered according to religious requirements. Is the treatment of the workers religiously relevant?

Rabbi GENACK: Yes. It is religious. All these concerns, the social and ethical concerns, workers' rights, animal welfare, environmental issues. All of these issues actually have a biblical root and certainly are rooted in Jewish tradition, and because the question is what's the action that should be taken. But when these issues arose to our knowledge, and it's by no means trivial that all these claims, even some of the are true, there isn't - we're in the midst of a federal and state investigation.

MARTIN: No, I think we all agree on that that it is true, that the truth or falsity is absolutely relevant. Well, I'm just saying for the sake of our conservation. Yeah.

Rabbi GENACK: Right. So I just want to in terms of, you know, what was the OU's response? So, I must emphasize, these claims and I'm not saying they're true or not true. I would not be surprised if some of them are true. But they're not, by any means, obvious to a person visiting the plant to know whether they have illegal immigrants working there because they all present, in this case, obviously false documentation. The under aged children that were working there is a corollary of that because they're also presenting documentation, false documentation namely both in terms of social security numbers and, you know, in their age.

But what we've done is we insisted on two things, that the company hire a compliance officer who would be by reputation and expertise would bring credibility to their operation. And that people could be comfortable that the system's in place, both in terms of, you know, that the people working there are not illegal aliens, that they're being properly treated, that the safety in the plant is appropriate. And to that end, they hired Jim Martin, who's a former U.S. attorney in St. Louis, and he's put in additional systems, for example, he put in a hotline, he hired a former OSHA official to make sure that the standards in terms of OSHA requirements especially safety in the plants are being properly administered. Every day they begin now with a five minute sort of speech from him, making sure that they know all the different issues, that they brought the proper equipment with them.

MARTIN: But I think that Rabbi Herzfeld's point though is that - and correct me if I'm wrong on this. I think that Rabbi Herzfeld's point is that, first of all, conditions at slaughter houses are notoriously difficult. The work itself for a lot of people is very depressing and challenging. I mean, the whole point is to slaughter animals for people to eat...

Rabbi GENACK: That's correct.

MARTIN: And it's never been easy work. It's never been a comfortable work. I think his argument though is that kosher slaughter houses by dint of the fact that they serve a religious purpose have to meet a higher standard. And part of that higher standard has to be not just compliance. What do you say to that?

Rabbi GENACK: Well, the other requirement that we had - I'm going to come back to your question in a second. It's also that we required that the company bring in new management and new CEO, and that the current CEO, the former announced(ph) family member had to step down. Coming back to your question, the OU's position is, that all of these issues or many of them are regulated by federal or state agencies, environmentalists, EPA, the USDA, OSHA and others. And we believe that the governmental standards that are in place are the ones that, you know, should be adhered to. We, as a cautious agency, don't have expertise. It will be completely arbitrary for us to establish that kind of a standard. It would be very amorphous, so. And similarly, you know, what's the proper pay that people should be paid in the slaughter house. If it's below minimum wage, then, of course, they're breaking law and it is inappropriate. But we don't have, at this point, you know, an independent standard, different than governmental standards. And so, we are hoping that, you know, these government agencies which were created, you know, to get us out of the jungle, in quotes, are the appropriate venue and it's to them we look. In a (unintelligible), you know, people ask me sometimes, how do you get supervision on, you know, certain candy bars, you know, it's not helpful. So, we're not in a position to evaluate what's helpful or not. For that, we turn to the FDA. And these issues and all these various issues, both animal welfare and, of course, workers' rights and safety, also should be regulated by these federal agencies.

MARTIN: Rabbi, I'd like to let Rabbi Herzfeld respond. And, Rabbi Herzfeld, what about Rabbi Genack's point that perhaps some of these issues are really beyond the scope of the Orthodox Union? And frankly if one of the arguments is that Agro Processors is the largest kosher slaughter house in the U.S., it's the only one allowed to export food to Israel. If the standards there don't meet the requirements for kosher, I think the question some would have is, how are people to be in compliance at all? What do you first say, Rabbi Herzfeld?

Rabbi HERZFELD: Well, for the most part, I agree with what Rabbi Genack is saying, that to try to expand the kosher organization, to oversee every single aspect of life. I mean, there's reductio ad absurdum. But the - where I disagree with Rabbi Genack is in this specific case of Agro Processors because the allegations have been going on here and the accusations have been made, and it's been in the papers for so long and there's so much smoke around it that I feel, as a Jew, as a Rabbi, as a kosher customer, that we have an extra responsibility in this specific case to recognize...

MARTIN: But why do you have extra responsibility?

Rabbi HERZFELD: Because I feel that in this case the allegations, if true, will be a great desecration of God's name. And I think Rabbi Genack agrees with that, that if the allegations are true, and then something very terrible went on here, whose fault it is a separate issue, but something terrible went on, if true.

MARTIN: What if the consequence, Rabbi Herzfeld, is you cannot acquire kosher meat that meets your standards, your ethical standards, your religious standard? What if that is in fact the consequence? Are you prepared to live with that?

Rabbi HERZFELD: Oh absolutely. I think if you ask Rabbi Genack if we can't find a kosher animal, he would say, well then we can't eat. God forbid, if something's not kosher, we can't eat it. I have full confidence that we can. We can rectify it. I don't think we need to throw out the system. I think we need to make repairs and to fix it.

MARTIN: If you're just tuning in, you're listening to Tell Me More from NPR News. We're speaking with Rabbi Menachem Genack, the head of the Orthodox Union Kosher Division, and Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld of Ohev Sholom, the national synagogue in Washington, D.C. We're talking about the ethical obligations related to the kosher meat packing plant Agro Processors, Inc. Rabbi Genack, what about - it seems that part of what Rabbi Herzfeld is saying is that too many compromises have gone on along the way, that in order to - that the - it's almost like the forest has obscured the trees. That the ultimate ethical obligation is being buried in the desire to continue to make these products available for people. And that might be, you know, worthwhile and religiously important, but it's not as important as maintaining a standard, even if it's really hard to do.

Rabbi GEMACK: Well, this ultimately comes back to the facts. About two years ago I called the USDA because, as Rabbi Herzfeld correctly says, these stories and allegations have been in the paper, in The Forward and others. And there were 20 USDA inspectors in that plant. There's a squall of inspectors, each - you know, each day, because it has like every meat factory, it has constant supervision from the federal government. And, you know, I asked them, you know, these are the allegations in terms of - and have you seen this? It's not easy for a USDA inspector also to know because, you know, to know if they are illegal aliens or if there is certain instance of abuse, it's - they're not so obvious. If you don't have subpoena powers, it's very hard to know whether documentation is false or not.

MARTIN: Did you ever go to the plant? Did you ever go yourself?

Rabbi GEMACK: I did. Yes, I did.

MARTIN: Did you ever see workers there who looked younger than you thought they should be? Did you ever see practices that kind of caused you some discomfort?

Rabbi GEMACK: No, I did not. And when I was there, I actually spoke to the veterinarians there and different USDA inspectors. I spoke to some of the workers. But I did not see that kind of abuse. You know, all of what Rabbi Herzfeld is speaking about is something I must tell you that I over the - I struggle with each day to try to find the right balance in terms of, you know, due process, what's fair to the company, what's, you know, in terms of responsibility to the consumer. You know, the decisions and the struggle, I'm trying to strike the right balance. There was a group that went out this past week, I wasn't part of it, but they did meet with the mayor of Postville which is a tiny town in Iowa. And he was concerned. He said that if this plant would close, the local economy would just collapse. The school system would collapse because most of the children in the school system are the children of the workers, and some of them of the detained workers.

MARTIN: Rabbi Herzfeld. Well, I mean, because one of the questions I had was what about Rabbi Gemack's point is that I mean there is an issue of the carbon footprint, for example. That the cost, the means by which these products are moved across the country, sort of, has a cost to the environment. Should that be factored in? I mean, how do you decide how to balance these competing ethical questions?

Rabbi HERZFELD: Well, I think that the - there is the torah values which are all-encompassing and very demanding, and we try to attain those values. And then there's what is the OU certifying? And although the OU certifies only in the fact that the animal is slaughtered and prepared properly, there is the expectation by the consumers, and the OU is of course aware of this, and Rabbi Gemack is aware of this, is the expectation that a product is prepared properly. But I also think that because this has gone on for too long, we need another voice from the outside to step in, a great rabbinic voice to also mind credibility. There's a concept in Jewish law that if you - and this is an American law as well. That if you're too involved in the situation, you need to recuse yourself. Therefore, I think he should make space for another Rabbi or independent voice to come in and lend their authority to this situation as well.

MARTIN: Rabbi Gemack, what about that?

Rabbi GEMACK: In terms of the facts of the case, you know, we've said we're going to see where the facts lead. But you know, whatever commission we would establish would be - would pale as compared to a government agency that has subpoena power and, you know, all the resources of government. I must hasten to say, not that I'm so impressed by the way the government handled this. I thought that on the ethical level, taking all these workers who are sort of like on the bottom of the totem pole and putting them in jail for five months, and the way the trial was handled, they were also deprived, to my impression to due - you know, due process. And...

MARTIN: We only have a couple of minutes left, so I did want to ask each of you how significant an issue is this for your communities and congregations? And I know, Rabbi Gemack, if you were serving a congregation at the moment in addition to your other responsibilities but...

Rabbi GEMACK: It is a significant - it is a very significant issue. People are concerned about it, of course. It's playing out now in the national press. And you know, I think maybe I'll be in a - we'll all, not just me, we'll all be in a better position to respond to it when we know all the facts as they play out. And then we'll try to see what's the right balance between these two things. There's a lot of debate within the community, the Jewish community. Those issues are important. They shouldn't be disregarded. They are extremely significant. But who ultimately is responsible for implementation? Is it - should the kashrus agency set that kind of a standard? Or should we work under the aegis of existing laws and federal agencies that have their resources and mandates to monitor these things?

MARTIN: Rabbi Herzfeld, final thought?

Rabbi HERZFELD: Yeah, I really appreciate your question, Michel, because the reason why I spoke out on this matter, and it was a very painful thing for me to do, and I've been attacked by many of my colleagues. And I literally have received countless, countless of requests by congregants and by people in our community who have said that they're embarrassed and that they're ashamed. And they've come to me, and many of them have been crying. And they said this is dragging our name down. And it's one thing if you're in an insular Jewish community to say, OK, well we don't believe that, we can fight through this. But the world at large doesn't see it that way. If these allegations are true, this is absolutely something we need to be ashamed and embarrassed about.

MARTIN: Rabbi Menachem Gemack is the president of the Orthodox Union Kosher Division which supervises and certifies many kosher foods. He was kind enough to join us from member station WBGO in Newark, New Jersey. Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld is the Rabbi of Ohev Sholom, the national synagogue. He joined us in our studio in Washington, D.C. Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

Rabbi GEMACK: Thank you.

Rabbi HERZFELD: Thank you, Michel.

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