This Day in Jewish History

2008: Kosher Meat Giant With Unkosher Practices Goes Belly-up

Agriprocessors, based in tiny Postville, Iowa, purported to be cutting-edge but if it cut anything, it was corners on animal welfare and human rights.

Agriprocessors plant based in tiny Postville, Iowa, 2008.
WikiCommons

On November 4, 2008, Agriprocessors, at the time America’s largest producer of kosher meat, filed for bankruptcy protection in federal court in New York.

The Agriprocessors plant was famously situated in the tiny town of Postville, Iowa, but its headquarters was in Brooklyn, where its owner, the Lubavitcher Hasid Aaron Rubashkin lived.

The decision of Aaron Rubashkin and his sons Sholom and Heshy, top executives at the slaughterhouse, to enter Chapter 11, followed the foreclosure a week earlier by a St. Louis bank on a $35 million loan it had made to Agriprocessors. But the company’s path to failure had been precipitated by a raid on the plant on May 12 that year by agents from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. That operation, said to be the largest such raid in U.S. history, ended with the arrest of 389 illegal-alien workers, constituting about half of Agriprocessors’ workforce.

Most of the illegal workers were convicted and briefly imprisoned before being deported from the U.S. And in the court of public opinion, the abbatoir was criticized for paying workers wages far below industry standards, employing underage laborers, and resisting unionization, as well as of cruel treatment of animals and unsanitary conditions.

In October, unable to find replacements for many of the arrested employees, the plant had ceased operation, leading to the foreclosure move by First Bank, in St. Louis, Missouri.

The Lubavitchers come to town

Agriprocessors had first gained widespread attention in 2000, when journalist and Iowa resident Stephen G. Bloom published “Postville: A Clash of Cultures in Heartland America.” The book examined the aftermath of the arrival in the town, whose population was then 1,465, of a community of Lubavitcher Hasidim, who came to operate the operation Aaron Rubashkin had set up in an abandoned Postville slaughterhouse in 1987.

Agriprocessors was said to take advantage of up-to-date methods of slaughter and distribution, and in addition to the approximately 150 ultra-Orthodox Jews it brought to the northeast Iowa town, it also provided jobs at its peak to another 650 people, some local, but many of them recent immigrants. Each day, it slaughtered and processed more than 500 head of cattle, to which it eventually added poultry and lamb.

But from early on, there were also charges of improper practices. In 2004, activists from the animal-welfare organization PETA secretly filmed within the plant, yielding evidence of animal cruelty that also constituted violations of kashrut regulations. Animal science scholar Temple Grandin called the practices at Agriprocessors “an atrocious abomination.” The Rubashkins’ company also faced accusations of violating child-labor and environmental laws and various food-safety regulations.

Sholom Rubashkin walks to the U. S. Courthouse in downtown Sioux Falls, S.D, Oct. 13, 2009.
Argus Leader, Lara Neel, AP Photo

Kosher and ethical too

After the immigration raid, a group of Jewish organizations set up a new kashrut certification they called “Tav Hayosher” (seal of integrity) that was meant to assure that kosher businesses operate in accord not just with kashrut procedures, but also with a variety of ethical standards.

As for Agriprocessors, in the end, most of those in management who were charged had the charges dropped, for a variety of reasons. Sholom Rubashkin, however, was convicted in federal court in 2010 on 86 counts of bank fraud, mail fraud and money laundering, and was sent away for 27 years.

In July 2009, Canadian plastics manufacturer and real-estate entrepreneur Hershy Friedman (in Israel he owns the luxury-property developer Azorim) and his son in-law Daniel Hirsch bought the company at auction. Renaming it Agri Star Meat and Poultry, they invested significant sums to upgrade it, and also agreed to a list of animal-welfare recommendations from PETA.

In January 2016, Friedman assured the Jewish Telegraphic Agency’s Uriel Heilman, in an interview, that, “Everybody working by us is legal [W]e modernized the whole beef department with modern equipment following every standard of the USDA and HACCP [the federal food safety management system] We automated quite a bit, including the cut-up.”

Friedman also assured Heilman that he had made his investment primarily to answer the dietary needs of the Jewish community: “I make very little profit. If I really wanted to make money, I should just double the price and say the hell with it. But this is not a business that you’re into to make a killing.”