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JewishJournal.com

May 22, 2008

Meat packing raid stirs larger ethical and economic concerns

http://www.jewishjournal.com/los_angeles/article/meat_packing_raid_stirs_larger_ethical_and_economic_concerns

While some Los Angeles kosher supervisors and suppliers see the crackdown on illegal immigrants at the Agriprocessors plant in Postville, Iowa, as a temporary setback, others are concerned with larger economic and ethical implications that reach beyond this particular case.

"They don't have a lot of things," said Albert Zadeh, owner of kosher supermarket Pico Glatt, of Agriprocessors. "If you order five cases of meat, you might get two cases." Chicken is a particular problem, he said.

Most customers -- 80 percent, he said -- are not aware of the problem, so their shopping habits have remained the same. Zadeh said he's not planning to raise prices on meat and poultry.

"Prices are high enough," he said.

Zadeh said that Kehilla, the kosher supervisory agency that oversees his market and receives meat from the Agriprocessors Postville plant, is addressing the issue of obtaining supply.

Rabbi Avrohom Teichman, Kehilla's rabbinic administrator, believes the effects of the raid will be short term.

"As far as I understand, this is a temporary situation," he said, noting that Agriprocessors is trying to address the labor issue. And while there are other kosher meat suppliers, "I don't think anyone can ramp up production to cover the shortfall."

But it's not a crisis, he emphasized -- especially at this time of year; "It's the Omer [the period between Passover and Shavuot when many religious Jews do not eat meat], and generally after Pesach, there is a reduction in spending."

Teichman stressed that this situation has nothing to do with kashrut (dietary law).

"This is an immigration, legal and labor issue -- if they could not maintain the kashrut standard, they would not produce," he said.

But what about the ethical issues pertaining to the use of illegal immigrants as a labor force at a kosher facility? Are kashrut supervisors concerned with issues of Jewish observance beyond the technicalities of the slaughtering process?

Teichman believes the company was not aware of the illegal immigrants who were using fraudulent paperwork.

"We support all legal activities," he said of Kehilla.

Rabbi Yakov Vann agrees. "We do deal with ethical issues," said Vann, director of kashrut services at the Rabbinical Council of California (RCC), the other main kosher supervisory agency here. Although he would not comment on the Agriprocessors case or on immigration violation, he said the RCC is very concerned with "work practice issues and the way you treat your employees."

Coincidentally, the RCC is about to begin importing meat from a new plant in Wichita, Kan., under the label California Delight.

"We have been working on this for a year and a half," he said. The important thing for meat, he said, is "never to rely on one source."

That's what Kosher Club owner Daryl Schwartz does: use more than one source. "It's not affecting me at all," he said.

The ethical issues of "Mitzvot ben Adam L'Chaveiro" -- commandments between human beings (as opposed to those between God and man) -- has prompted some local Orthodox rabbis to consider taking action.

On Sunday, May 18, Rabbi Daniel Korobkin of the Orthodox Union, Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky of B'nai David-Judea Congregation and Rabbi Elazar Muskin of Young Israel of Century City met to discuss creating a hechsher (kosher certification) for ethical issues.

Although the discussions are "way too premature" to know specifics, Muskin said that in general, "we want to make sure that kashrut is not only a ritual issue but a human issue -- that the human interrelationship between proprietor and worker is also according to halacha, or Jewish law."

In fact, he said, the issues of whether workers are being treated well, whether they are getting paid minimum wage, whether they are being paid on time -- and for overtime -- and if the work conditions are sufficient, these are all issues covered in the Shulchan Aruch, the Code of Jewish law.

The rabbis don't yet know how this new oversight would take place but know that "we have to be sensitive to these issues," Muskin said. "If we haven't been in the past, we must now be extra sensitive. This is part of halacha, and it can't be ignored."

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