Kosher Today, the mouthpiece of the kosher food industry, has a misleading piece on the Conservative Movement's new tzedek hechsher, Rubashkin and the allegations of worker abuse at Agriprocessors Postville, Iowa plant. First, the Kosher Today article in full:
Friendship of Orthodox and Conservative Rabbi in Tatters Over Kashrus Issues
St. Paul: It all began almost a year ago when a local glatt kosher butcher closed its doors leaving many kosher consumers without a source for glatt kosher meat. Rabbi Asher Zeilingold, spiritual leader of the Adath Israel Synagogue, head of United Mehadrin and a respected authority on kashrus, persuaded Cooper's Supermarket to carry glatt kosher meats from Agriprocessors. Celebrating his accomplishments, Rabbi Zeilingold next reached out to his long-time friend Rabbi Morris Allen, the rabbi of the Conservative temple Beth Jacob in Mendota Heights, a suburb of St. Paul. Rabbi Zeilingold had hoped that Rabbi Allen would help him assure that as many Jews as possible patronize the Cooper's special section on glatt kosher meats. But Rabbi Allen insisted that the store not carry regular kosher meats from Agri, which had been the subject of attack by PETA, the extremist animal rights organization. The Conservative Rabbi also made sure to send out to his membership copies of a scathing article by the Forward which accused Agri of abusing its workers. He also refused to accept regular kosher meat from Agri, preferring instead kosher meat from Green Bay. In the process of settling on a supplier of the kosher meats, the American Jewish World in Minneapolis launched a vicious tirade against Twin-City Poultry, accusing the large kosher meat distributor of refusing to sell non-glatt products. The irony of it all is that kosher meat in many markets is more expensive than "glatt kosher" meat.
Within days of the Forward article, Zeilingold and a Spanish speaking congregant, Dr. Carlos Carbonera, visited the Postville, Iowa plant of Agriprocessors. They freely spoke to many of the Agri employees and found the Forward piece to be patently false. The Orthodox rabbi invited his friend Allen to see for himself. He and a group of Conservative rabbis turned up in Postville, only to take part in the latest efforts by the Union to unionize Agri employees. The Union had in fact advertised the rabbi's appearance. Said Rabbi Zeilingold: "From the Forward article, and from Rabbi Allen's deceptive behavior, it was obvious to me that Rabbi Allen, Victor Rosenthal, and the other members of the Conservative commission did NOT visit Agriprocessors in order to evaluate the validity of the Forward's May 26 attack on Agri. They were delighted to accept all the lies and slander of the Forward article as absolute truth because it gave them a pretext by which they could gain entry into Agriprocessors and other plants posing as the champions of "kashrut" and the rights of workers. The lies of the Forward article gave them fertile ground to plant the seeds of the "tzedek hechsher," a new Conservative certification that includes social concerns.
To put the entire matter to rest, Rabbi Zeilingold arranged for a high ranking official of the United States Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) to visit the Agri plant. After two-full days at the plant, the OSHA official reported having "no issues of concern." According to OSHA records, Agriprocessors has a far better safety record than the plant named by the commission of Conservative rabbis, with approximately sixty percent fewer citations. The OSHA official further stated that, â€œa program addressing each and every one of the hazards recognized by OSHA inspectors "was working strongly at the plant" and further, that "Agriprocessors inspection history stands within normal parameters compared to other companies within this industry." He ends his report by stating definitively: "Agriprocessors is committed to providing a safe work environment to their employees. They have the tools that allow them to improve the safety of their working environment." With the record straight, Zeilingold still hopes that a fair-minded Allen will take his hand in friendship once again.
The friendship issue. To call Asher Zeilingold and Morris Allen "friends" is a stretch. They worked together on to get kosher meat for their community. They didn't party together, vacation together or study together. They didn't see each other socially. They didn't visit each others synagogues, give drashot there, or pray together. Their "friendship" was conditional, based on a achieving a specific, limited goal. When worker abuse allegations against Rubashkin surfaced, Allen's attempts to clean up Rubashkin put him at odds with Zeilingold.
Further, Zeilingold has a business interest with Rubashkin. His supervision mark is on Rubashkin's non-glatt product. He has a vested interest in freeing Rubashkin from the cloud that hangs over him. Kosher Today does not mention this business relationship, even though ethically it should have.
OSHA. I spoke with OSHA officials in Washington, in the regional office that covers Iowa, and the officials in Iowa who administer the state's OSHA-approved program. This is what I learned:
- No Federal or State OSHA inspection took place at Agriprocessors during the time frame set out in the Kosher Today article.
- Federal OSHA does not have jurisdiction over Agriprocessors, because Iowa is a State Plan state, and all OSHA work is handled locally.
- Mary Bryant, the woman who administers OSHA enforcement for the State of Iowa, told me no inspections or enforcement actions took place during that time. This is current through yesterday, the day of publication of the Kosher Today article.
So what could have happened? Perhaps this. OSHA has a consultancy program. A company can confidentially call OSHA (in this case, Iowa-administered OSHA) and get a consult. OSHA will look at a plant's operations as it is on that day (not how it was the day before, not how it will be the day after) and give the company a report to help them get into compliance. But any plant can prepare for one of these consults, get into perfect working order, then have OSHA look, and then publicize this consult. Rubashkin did just this with Dr. Temple Grandin's consult. Did Rubashkin do this with OSHA, too?
Maybe. Steve Slater, the man who runs this program for the State of Iowa, can't say, because he is bound by the consult program's pledge of confidentiality. He did say that he, the most senior OSHA-related person in Iowa, did not make the statements quoted in Kosher Today and he is unaware of any other senior staff making them, as well.
For their part, Federal OSHA is clear. Charles "Chuck" Atkins, the head of OSHA for the region that includes Iowa, told me no Federal OSHA people had been in Iowa for the past year. "We have to be very careful about going in there, because Iowa is a State Plan state," Atkins said. Keven Ropp, OSHA's spokesman in Washington, DC, could find no record of any Federal OSHA presence in Iowa or at Agriprocessors.
Who has more violations? On this, Kosher Today has a point, although it is very weak. Empire has more violations over the past two years than Rubashkin. But Empire's violations are largely related to specific equipment. Rubashkin's violations are fewer in number but more holistic. For example, Empire is often cited for a violation involving "powered industrial trucks." Rubashkin is cited for "respiratory protection," "hazard protection," "general requirements," and "general requirements for all machines." (Rubashkin also has a "powered industrial truck" violation.)
Additionally, State and Federal enforcement are not equal. While State Plan states must meet Federal requirements, enforcement of those requirements vary from state to state. Pennsylvania is not a State Plan state, and Empire's enforcement comes from Federal OSHA, which is considered stricter than some State Plan enforcement.
The price of non-glatt meat. Kosher today wrote: "The irony of it all is that kosher meat in many markets is more expensive than "glatt kosher" meat." This is part of the Justice Department's investigation into price-fixing in the kosher meat industry. Rubashkin is said to be a target of that investigation.
Rabbi Asher Zeilingold. Much of Rubashkin's defense comes down to the trustworthiness and veracity of Rabbi Asher Zeilingold. For details on him, please read this.
[I should also note that Rabbi Zeilingold is the rabbi who excommunicated me.]
UPDATE: 2-8-07– I have now confirmed the "OSHA inspection" was done by an employee of Federal OSHA on his own time. It was not a full inspection, was not sanctioned or approved by OSHA, and was arranged by Carlos Carbonera (this "inspector" is a friend of Carbonera's). OSHA's regional head Chuck Adkins told me again today that he will "bring the hammer down" on anyone, this inspector included, who uses OSHA's name without permission. He also pointed out that what this inspector did was a violation of OSHA's "internal rules and regulations."