NEW YORK (JTA)—An undercover video shot at the Agriprocessors kosher meat plant in Postville, Iowa, is prompting new claims that the company engages in inhumane slaughter and that it misled a delegation of Orthodox rabbis who visited the plant in July.
The video, shot undercover on Aug. 13 by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, known as PETA, appears to have cost the company the support of Temple Grandin, a well-known expert in slaughterhouse methods. It shows workers making saw-like cuts into the necks of animals after ritual slaughter, or shechita, has been performed by a rabbi.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, a second cut may be made only under direct rabbinical supervision.
No such second cuts were evident in an earlier video released by a Long Island Jewish newspaper following the visit by 25 Orthodox rabbis to the Postville plant on July 31. That visit led the clergymen to conclude that the plant adhered to the highest standards of kosher practice. The rabbis also declared that they saw no evidence of worker mistreatment or health and safety risks in the plant, as had been alleged in media reports and by state and federal authorities.
PETA’s video, first reported Friday by The New York Times, is the latest public relations challenge for the kosher meatpacker, the country’s largest.
In May, federal authorities conducted what was at the time the largest immigration raid in American history, arresting nearly 400 illegal workers at the plant. The raid led to claims by former employees of long hours and forced overtime shifts, sexual harassment, and shorted pay. Iowa’s labor commissioner also has referred 57 alleged child labor cases to the state attorney general for prosecution.
The company has denied allegations that it mistreated its workers, and no criminal charges have been brought against the company or its upper management.
According to The New York Times, the USDA has reviewed the new PETA footage and determined that, while its own investigators had witnessed a similar violation after the video was shot, the violations were “not egregious.”
PETA, a group that readily admits it opposes all animal slaughter, is asserting that its new video proves that Agriprocessors has misled other outside observers, including the Orthodox rabbis and Grandin, who previously vouched for the company and said its slaughter methods were humane.
“From an animal welfare standpoint, the deep gouging second cut performed immediately after the cut made by the shochet would cause suffering,” said Grandin, in a statement circulated by PETA. “When I toured the Agriprocessors Postville plant, there was no second cut. While I was watching, the procedures were acceptable. The tour video, done on July 31, 2008, also had no second cut. The undercover video clearly showed that when they think nobody is looking—they do bad things in this plant.”
Grandin said she had never seen a “gouging” second cut at a kosher plant and concluded that the only way to ensure proper procedures at Agriprocessors was to install video cameras that could be monitored over the Internet.
In a formal complaint to the U.S. Department of Agriculture on Aug. 26, PETA endorsed that recommendation and called for slaughter at the plant to be shut down and for criminal charges to be brought against the owners—the Rubashkin family of Brooklyn—for violation of the Humane Slaughter Act.
In response to PETA’s charges, company representatives released the following statement Friday: “Agriprocessors fully complies with federal humane slaughter laws and is monitored by inspectors of the United States Department of Agriculture. All kosher slaughter procedures are under the exclusive direction of the supervising agencies and rabbis who certify the kosher status of the animals, as is provided by law.”
Rabbi Dovid Eliezrie, a Chabad rabbi from California who occasionally speaks on behalf of Agriprocessors, told JTA that PETA’s “radical” agenda makes their reporting “questionable.” He added that nothing was staged during the rabbinical delegation’s visit and said that “friends and associates” of the rabbis who have worked at the plant confirmed that what was witnessed during the visit was typical of the plant’s operations.
“The accusations that a delegation of 25 leading Orthodox rabbis that visited Agriprocessors were duped are ludicrous,” Eliezrie wrote in an e-mail. “Many of the rabbis on the trip were experts in kosher slaughter and were very impressed by the plant operations. The goal of PETA is to end kosher slaughter in the United States. They have a radical agenda and used illegal methods to obtain dubious information.”
The new video reprises an earlier tussle between Agriprocessors and PETA, which filmed a similar undercover video at the plant in 2004. Following the release of the earlier video, the USDA reported that the company engaged in inhumane slaughter.
Despite Agriprocessors’ adamant denials of wrongdoing in response to the bevy of claims made against it, liberal Jewish groups have criticized the company. One even called for a boycott but rescinded its call shortly thereafter.
Most Orthodox groups have urged consumers to reserve judgment until government investigations have run their course.
It was in this climate that a group of Orthodox rabbis, organized by an Orthodox synagogue association and financed by Agriprocessors, went to Postville on July 31. A video shot during that visit by a reporter for the Five Towns Jewish Times shows a steer slaughtered with one smooth motion across its throat and no further cuts.
In a letter sent Friday to tour participants, PETA said the rabbis’ group appears to have been deceived during its visit. PETA accused the company of “staged slaughters” intended to show its compliance with humane slaughter regulations.
“Agriprocessors and its owners, the Rubashkin family, they cannot be trusted to provide humane treatment to animals or to people,” said Hannah Schein, an investigations specialist at PETA.
She added that her group would prefer to see no animals slaughtered in Postville or anywhere else.
“We certainly hope that if Agriprocessors is going to continue slaughtering animals, the least they can do is wait till they don’t feel the pain before cutting into them,” she said.