The Missing Ethic


A reader asks why I haven’t seen fit to address ethical concerns raised by news reports about a kosher slaughterhouse/meatpacking concern in Postville, Iowa that was the subject of an Immigration and Customs Enforcement raid in May, during which hundreds of illegal immigrant workers were arrested.

He is right to chide me, especially since one ethical concern – perhaps the most important one – has been all but ignored by press and pundits.

The company, Agriprocessors, has been in the news before. In 2005, an animal rights group secretly recorded scenes of unusual post-slaughter procedures that appeared inconsistent with animal welfare and asked the local District Attorney to open an investigation. He declined to do so. Nonetheless, Agriprocessors immediately changed its methods. Subsequently, renowned animal expert Dr. Temple Grandin declared her satisfaction with the changes, and the plant received excellent grades in five independent audits.

Then there were other charges over several years by local authorities of violations of environmental and safety laws. Fines were levied and the plant made the necessary changes.

What has seized the public’s attention, however, was the recent raid on the facility, said to be the largest such ICE action ever. Some of the illegal immigrants arrested, moreover, subsequently accused their erstwhile employer and supervisors of a host of crimes, including exploitation, abuse and illegal drug production.

Jewish reaction came fast and furious. The Conservative movement urged kosher consumers to consider forgoing meat produced by Agriprocessors; a Reform leader called for investigations of all kosher slaughterhouses; a liberal Orthodox group circulated a boycott petition aimed at the concern; well-known activists like Ruth Messinger, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin and Rabbi Avi Weiss signed it; and Jewish newspapers and blogs buzzed with outrage at Agriprocessors and its owners.

The ethical offense I see here is a different one. It violates something not only rooted in Judaism but part and parcel of American jurisprudence and respectable journalism as well. It is called the presumption of innocence.

I don’t know if the violations of regulatory laws on Agriprocessors’ record are unusual for plants of its type and size. But whether they are or are not, the firm corrected whatever needed correcting.

Which brings us to the recent raid, about which we know three things: 1) Illegal aliens presented forged documents to obtain employment at Agriprocessors, 2) Some of those workers subsequently leveled complaints against the company and 3) The company has stated that it had no reason to doubt the workers’ documentation and has vehemently denied all the workers’ charges.

Yet, the petition-circulating Orthodox group has judged Agriprocessors guilty of “knowingly exploiting undocumented workers,” and deemed the situation a “desecration of G-d’s name.” A self-described “leading progressive Zionist movement” has called on Jewish organizations to “avoid serving Agriprocessors products at their kosher functions’ and expressed shock at how “a company devoted to selling… kosher meat can be so inhumane to the people working for it.” A well-read Jewish blog has demanded that the company “make legal all those people whom they’ve brought in illegally, since they deliberately sought out illegal workers so that they could be treated with less care.” A Conservative cantor sermonized about how wrong it would be to “dismiss the events in Postville.” A Reform rabbi demanded to know “what it mean[s] to label something as ‘fit and proper’ that hurts people, exploits people or was produced cruelly.”

Neither I nor Agudath Israel of America has any connection to Agriprocessors. And for all we know, it may yet be shown that the firm indeed knowingly hired illegal aliens. Or that it mistreated them, or that it was a front for a drug operation, a neo-Nazi group or a baby-cannibalizing cult. All under the eyes of the federal inspectors present at the plant at all times.

But unless and until some wrongdoing is actually proven, not merely suspected or charged, no human being – certainly no Jew, bound as we are by the Torah’s clear admonition in such matters – has any right to assume guilt, much less voice condemnation or seek to levy punishment.

To be sure, a Jewish business operating in bad faith, violating the law of the land or mistreating its employees deserves tochacha, halachically appropriate criticism. Its actions violate the Torah and carry great potential for “chilul Hashem,” or desecration of G-d’s name. But, as the Rabbinical Council of America rightly noted in a statement about Agriprocessors, “in the absence of hard facts,” no one may “rush to premature judgments… or impute guilt…”

It’s not at all clear why so many Jewish groups, clergy, papers and pundits are so energetically railing against Agriprocessors in the wake of the recent government raid. The righteous indignation has the smell of adolescent excitement at the discovery of a new “noble” cause. Whatever the motivation, though, until the facts are actually in, the armchair ethicists would do well to give some thought to the Jewish ethic they somehow managed to miss.


[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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Yoel B
7 years 2 months ago

The Agriprocessors story now has the metastory of 5WPR, the PR firm Agriprocessors hired to help protect and rehabilitate its image. Here’s a good summary of the metastory from blogger Gawker:

“•After being hired for its internet PR expertise, 5WPR attempts to plant fake comments from both supporters and (most deviously) critics of the kosher slaughterhouse on various websites.
•This scheme unravels because the company doesn’t bother to leave its office or mask its IP address when posting.
•This scheme also unravels because the company misspells the name of a rabbi when signing a comment in that rabbi’s name.
•CEO Ronn [sic] Torossian claims an ‘investigation’ is under way to find out which of his employees spun a laughably incompetent Web of amoral deception in the service of flackery. This time.
•VP Engelmayer, assigned the slaughterhouse account, blames an unnamed, unpaid ‘intern’ for the fraud. Says this ‘intern’ has been fired.
•This story starts to unravel because, as blog Failed Messiah notes, the first two impersonation posts appeared in February, ‘well before any summer interns were working at 5W.’ Ahem.
•The story unravels further when two* fraudulent Web comments are traced to Engelmayer’s apartment.
•’Intern’ calls to say he was hanging with Engelmayer at his apartment Tuesday night and slipped, undetected, onto Engelmayer’s computer to do some impromptu character assassination, so don’t blame Engelmayer because Engelmayer did not do it…”

*as of this posting, eleven fraudulent comments origination from Engelmayer’s IP address have been found. Y.B.

5WPR is justifying its actions as being in defense of Kashrut and traditional Judaism. Now my question: There have undoubtedly times in Jewish history when actions which in general are completely assur (lying, cheating, forging, stealing) are not only permitted but required. The Va’ad Hatzala’s actions during the Churban Europa seem to me to be a case in point.

Is the current situation with Agriprocessors such a circumstance? 5WPR says that it is. What do the Rabbis say?
Do the actions of Agriprocessors’ chosen spokespeople reflect on the yashrut if not the kashrut of Agriprocessors?

Finally: In my admittedly limited experience as a mashgiach (tmidi and visiting factories) it rapidly became obvious that the willing participation and transparency of the operation being supervised was critical. It would have required many mashgichim throughout the facility– at least 2 or 3 even in small restaurants– to keep an eye on things otherwise. In my experience the yashrut of the business and kashrut were inseparable.
Of course, my work mainly involved supervising non-Jewish and non-observant businesses.
Perhaps on the strictly Orthodox side of kashrut, more compartmentalization has historically taken place and ritual kashrut could coexist with crooked business practices, though where the yirat Shamayim and ne’emanut is in that I don’t know. In today’s information age, however, we can see that the era of compartmentalization is ending. I have often thought that browser cookies and other internet tracking technology are an clear demonstration that what we do leaves traces and that somewhere someone who wants to can find out where we have been and what we have done.

And can it be coincidence that these stories are breaking as we approach Tzom Tammuz?

Yoel B
7 years 2 months ago

A worker illegally in this country illegally has no right to, for example, back pay if his employer unjustly fires him for trying to organize a union. The firing may still be illegal, of course.

But what Daniel said in #1 seems to be correct: “in an NLRB hearing, [Agriprocessors] management argued unsuccesfully and rather short-sightedly that they could prevent their workers from unionizing because the workers were illegal immigrants.”

Let’s parse that:

•Agriprocessors was unjustly trying to prevent its workers from organizing
•Agriprocessors management admitted (against interest?) that it knowingly hired illegals

So management knew (supported by the reports of the discovery of stacks of forged documents in the HR office and the testimony of some of the workers) that many of Agriprocessors’ workers were illegals.

Hebrew National’s advertising has for many years, including in a catchy and popular series of TV ads, proclaimed that being kosher means “We answer to a higher authority.”

That is what many people in this country think that keeping kosher means. Isn’t it wonderful that the defenders of Agriprocessors are correcting this horrible misapprehension by vigorously and eloquently proclaiming that kashrut only means following a set of technical rules about food processing, and that cruelty to animals, working conditions, concern for the environment, and other unethical behavior (see the recent revelations about 5W, Agriprocessors’ PR firm, and its vigorous use of sockpuppets and other forms of geneivat da’at (including impersonating a Hechsher Tzedek official in blog comments!*) have nothing to do with keeping kosher? I’m so happy to have that horrible misunderstanding about Orthodoxy cleared up so that people don’t wrongly think better of us than we deserve.

BTW, so far, 5W is blaming this on “an unpaid intern” who posted the worst impersonating comments from a 5W VP’s house after 10 pm one evening. Others were traced to 5W corporate IP addresses. Classy.


Yoel B
7 years 3 months ago

A recent Des Moines Register story details safety problems at Agriprocessors, including the company forcing workers to buy necessary safety equipment. Some highlights:

“Federal and state records give conflicting information on fines against the company, but for the past few years Agriprocessors appears to have compiled one of the worst safety records of any meatpacking plant in Iowa.”

“During an on-site inspection, an executive asked a state inspector whether she would recommend protective ‘rain suits’ for the workers. ‘Yes!’ she said.

She asked the company’s operations manager and plant engineer whether they would want rain suits if they had to spray caustic chemicals. According to the inspector’s report, both men said, ‘Absolutely.’

But company records indicate that workers had long been forced to either do without the protective gear or purchase it themselves from the company. And because some workers allegedly had no lockers at the plant, they often took their chemical-soaked rain suits home with them at the end of their shift.

Company Vice President Sholom Rubashkin, in a September 2000 memo to all employees, included an ‘equipment price list’ that identifies rain pants and jackets, as well as ‘wrist wraps’ and ‘back support,’ as ‘personal clothing-type equipment,’ rather than mandatory, company-issued safety equipment.

For at least six years, workers were being charged $30 for the pants and $30 for the jackets. Boots were $20.85. At those prices, 100 rain suits would have generated $8,000 in revenue for the company. By comparison, the state fine for this serious safety violation was $1,000.”

“OSHA cited the company for more violations, and federal investigators launched a wide-ranging investigation into allegations of people in the United States illegally who were hired there, of child-labor law violations and of workplace safety issues.

Court records show that in January 2008, federal authorities equipped an informant with a hidden device to record a safety briefing for new employees. During the briefing, employees were allegedly told that their pay would be docked $2 per week to pay for gowns and gloves that they were required to wear.”

7 years 3 months ago

I forgot another option.

4. Fix Mexico. From what I read Mexico’s problems are due to a 3rd world class system (most of the population low class, a few fat cat family at the top, and nothing in the middle). Since the upper class people would like to stay upper class, doing this would probably require conquering Mexico and occupying it for a decade at least.

7 years 3 months ago

Bob Miller: Do they expect to turn the immigrants into productive English-speaking American citizens or to let them deteriorate into a permanently oppressed low-wage class?

Ori: Illegal immigrants cannot sue, so they are not protected by US labor laws. This means that they are likely to be stuck as a permanently oppressed low-wage class.

We have three choices:

1. Close the border effectively, using minefields and armed patrols with orders to shoot the way Israel does it. If 95% of the Mexicans who try to cross the border die in the attempt, illegal immigration will drop to a trickle.

2. Keep illegal immigrants as an oppressed low-wage class. They think it’s better than living as a poor Mexican in Mexico. Since they’ve experienced both, I assume they are correct. I think this is the preferred option from the perspective of US employers who employ them – complying with labor laws costs money.

3. Legalize them, which will give them access to the police and the courts to enforce US labor laws. This will require their employers to obey US labor laws, raising their costs and the costs of their goods and services. It will also raise the salaries of unskilled US employees who compete for the same jobs.

I don’t know which option is preferred according to the Torah, I’d appreciate learning that.