NEW YORK The filing of criminal charges against the owners of Agriprocessors has prompted the Orthodox Union, one of the meat companys kosher certifiers, to promise it will suspend its kosher supervision unless new management is hired.
The OUs announcement came Tuesday just hours after Iowas attorney general filed criminal charges against Agriprocessors and its principal owner, Aaron Rubashkin, on more than 9,000 counts of child labor violations related to operations at its plant in Postville.
Within the coming days or, lets say, a week or two we will suspend our supervision unless theres new management in place, Rabbi Menachem Genack, the OUs head of kosher supervision, told JTA.
I hope theyre smart enough to recognize that new management is absolutely required.
Agriprocessors products also are certified as kosher under the label of Rabbi M.M. Weissmandl.
Asked if he would follow the OUs lead in suspending supervision, Weissmandl demurred.
My business is kashrut, he told JTA. As long as the high kosher standards are in place, Im not removing any hechsher. My business is to make sure that the place is 100% kosher.
The attorney generals complaint represents the first criminal charges to be brought against the companys owners since a May 12 immigration raid resulted in the arrest of nearly 400 illegal immigrant workers in Postville.
Each day an underage employee reported for work qualifies as a criminal charge hence the 9,000 counts and each is punishable by up to 30 days in jail and a fine.
Genack emphasized that the OU would suspend its supervision on the basis of the charges alone and not on a conviction.
He also said the Rubashkins could continue to be involved in ownership and operation of the plant and retain OU certification as long as an independent CEO is named.
The criminal complaint and affidavit filed Tuesday in Allamakee County District Court named as defendants Rubashkin, his son Sholom, who managed the Postville plant until late May, and three human resources employees.
The affidavit alleges that the five hired underage workers, retained them as employees or concealed their presence during inspections or assisted in doing those things.
All of the named individual defendants possessed shared knowledge that Agriprocessors employed undocumented aliens, the affidavit alleges.
It was likewise shared knowledge among the defendants that many of those workers were minors.
The companys hiring practices encouraged job applicants to submit identification documents which were forgeries, and known to contain false information as to resident alien status, age and identity.
Agriprocessors issued a statement Tuesday denying the allegations.
The company said that underage workers had lied about their age and that their employment was terminated if they were discovered.
In order to convict, the state is going to have to prove that the defendants willfully violated the child labor laws, the company said.
That means that the state, as to every one of the alleged violations, is going to have to prove that each defendant knew that the employee was underage on the day in question, and knew that it was against the law for the person to be employed in the manner alleged.
The state will not be able to carry this burden of proof.
On Tuesday, Genack said he was not withdrawing supervision immediately because he wanted to act responsibly, not precipitously, and with sensitivity toward the company, its employees and kosher consumers.
We want to be responsible in terms of our obligations, in terms of supply and communal needs, and in terms of the workers there, Genack told JTA.
The OUs threat further jeopardizes the ability of Agriprocessors, which controls a sizable portion of the countrys kosher meat and poultry market, to meet the rising demand that typically accompanies the High Holidays.
Agriprocessors has struggled to restore its production capacity since the May 12 raid, when nearly half its workforce was taken into federal custody.
Its competitors already have moved to fill the void.
On Monday, a kosher industry publication reported that Empire Kosher, a poultry producer, is entering the kosher meat market.
Genack said the OU has been pushing for reforms at Agriprocessors since the May raid, including replacing Sholom Rubashkin as CEO and hiring a compliance officer.
On May 23, the company announced that Sholom Rubashkin would be stepping down from his post, but he remains a presence at the plant and no replacement has been named.
Two weeks later the company hired Jim Martin, a former US Attorney, as compliance officer.
Genack also said he was reaching out to various players in a bid to stabilize the situation in Postville.
He mentioned the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, which he said could be helpful if it unionized the Postville plants workers.
The UFCW long has waged a battle to organize Agriprocessors employees, but so far without success.
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