USDA: RUBASHKIN GUILTY, USDA INSPECTORS TOOK BRIBES – USDA BLOCKED RELEASE OF REPORT FOR 1 YEAR – PETA VINDICATED

As you read this, remember the "improper gifts" were noted after minor investigative work. The gifts may very well have been larger and more extensive than reported. The report also makes clear that line inspectors thought they were not supposed to interfere with the kosher slaughter, no matter what took place. As first reported here, it appears this understanding began immediately after an October 2003 Washington meeting between Rubashkin’s attorney, Nathan Lewin, the OU, Agudath Israel of America, CRC, KAJ, etc., on one hand and officials from the highest levels of the USDA. In that meeting, the rabbis claimed USDA regulations could "mislead" line inspectors and cause them to stop the slaughter. The rabbis asked to rewrite the regulation. (The report is fuzzy about when this regulation was re-written. This may be an attempt to protect the former Secretery of Agriculture and other current and former USDA senior-level officials.) The USDA did so with heavy input from the rabbis and Nathan Lewin. The new regulation called on line inspectors to contact a regional office before stopping a kosher line, and that regional office to confirm its decision with Washington. This convoluted and improbable situation led line inspectors to believe the USDA did not want them to inspect or stop kosher lines. Immediately after this new regulation was released, Rubashkin – with the permission of the OU, KAJ, and many other kosher supervising agencies – began using hooks to rip out the throats of live animals. This awful cruelty was done with the permission and under the oversight of those rabbis. Also note that Rubashkin may have sold you diseased chickens.

The New York Times reports:

Inquiry Finds Lax Federal Inspections at Kosher Meat Plant
By DONALD G. McNEIL Jr.
Published: March 10, 2006

An internal report from the Agriculture Department has found that one of the nation’s leading kosher slaughterhouses violated animal cruelty laws and that government inspectors not only failed to stop the inhumane practices but also took improper gifts of meat from plant managers.

Also, some of the plant’s 10 inspectors made faulty inspections of carcasses, failed to correct unsanitary conditions and were seen sleeping and playing computer games on the job, said the report, by the agency’s inspector general. It was provided to The New York Times by the animal-rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

Conditions at the plant — AgriProcessors Inc. of Postville, Iowa — created a controversy in late 2004, when PETA released a videotape taken clandestinely inside. It showed that after steers were cut by a ritual slaughterer, other workers pulled out the animals’ tracheas with a hook to speed bleeding. In the tape, animals were shown staggering around the killing pen with their windpipes dangling out, slamming their heads against walls and soundlessly trying to bellow. One animal took three minutes to stop moving.

The scenes caused a furor among Jewish organizations around the world. Some accused PETA of promoting anti-Semitic libels that kosher slaughter is torture. But others were angry with AgriProcessors for violating the spirit of religious laws requiring that animals be killed without suffering.

Soon after, the plant changed its practices under pressure from the Agriculture Department, the Orthodox Union kosher certification authority and Israel’s chief rabbinate.

In September, the department told the plant that in light of those changes, "legal action will not be instituted at this time," but warned that future violations could lead to it.

AgriProcessors is the country’s largest producer of meat certified glatt kosher, the highest standard for cleanliness under kosher law. ("Glatt" means smooth, or free of the lung blemishes that might indicate disease.) Employing 700 people and selling under the brands Aaron’s Best, Rubashkin’s and Iowa’s Best Beef, it is the only American plant allowed to export to Israel.

After a six-month investigation, the Agriculture Department suspended one of its own inspectors for 14 days and gave warning letters to two others, a department spokesman said. He declined to describe which offenses brought which punishments.

The inspector general’s office gave its report to federal prosecutors, but "based on the information presented to us, we decided there was not a prosecutable case," said Robert Teig, a lawyer in the United States attorney’s office for the northern district of Iowa.

The investigation ended last April, but the report was released to PETA only after months of appeals under the Freedom of Information Act. The group will release it today on its Web sites, including GoVeg.com.

PETA’s president, Ingrid Newkirk, said the Agriculture Department "should fire all the inspectors who accepted gifts and did nothing about these egregious abuses of the animals whom they are supposed to protect." Bruce Freidrich, a PETA spokesman, added that the punishment "indicates yet again that the U.S.D.A. is completely uninterested in enforcing the law."

At issue was a "second cut" the plant formerly made.

Under Jewish law, an animal cannot be considered kosher if it is stunned before it is killed. The Humane Slaughter Act of 1978 requires stunning in all American slaughterhouses, but has an exception for religious slaughter, as long as the animal’s neck is cut swiftly and no "carcass dressing" is done before the animal is insensible.

But at AgriProcessors, a second worker would step in after the first cut by the shochet, or ritual slaughterer. He would use a knife to open the animal’s neck further and reach in with a hook to pull out the trachea and esophagus, with the carotid arteries attached. This was done to speed bleeding; kosher meat must contain as little blood as possible.

The 15-page report contains summaries of interviews with inspectors and supervisors then or formerly at the plant. All names were whited out, but it is clear that some inspectors thought they were not supposed to interfere with ritual slaughter and usually did not even watch the "kill box." Visiting supervisors also raised no objections to the killing.

But the report also says a district supervisor concluded after the PETA tape was released that the trachea-pulling "should not occur while an animal is conscious or sensory."

Mike Thomas, a spokesman for AgriProcessors, said the practice was immediately discontinued and the shochet was given a stun gun for any animal conscious after the first cut. Meat from that animal would be sold as nonkosher. Mr. Thomas said the shochets never used the stun gun in the first four months they had it, when he was checking regularly.

The report also describes multiple incidents in which plant employees gave inspectors packages of chicken wings, steaks, turkey, sausage or beef bacon. Although it was sometimes delivered with the words "Here’s your sample, Doc," as if it were for laboratory tests, the inspectors sometimes cooked and ate it on the spot.

While the report describes accepting such gifts as "misconduct" and "very serious," investigators concluded that no bribery was involved, a department spokesman said.

Mr. Thomas of AgriProcessors said he knew nothing about gifts of meat, but said that such handouts were not company policy and that "there certainly was no quid pro quo." Someone might have given them "to be neighborly," he said.

The report also described an inspector sleeping as obviously infected chickens came down the line and doing inspections with his hands pocketed instead of checking meat for contamination as required. A supervisor was described as spending hours in the office playing hearts on the government computer.

The report said that the day after the PETA tape was made public, inspectors warned plant management to clean up hides, blood and garbage lying around because supervising investigators were on their way.

Mr. Thomas said the warning was irrelevant. The plant, he said, had invited the Agriculture Department to inspect it more closely after the tape was released "because that was the only way to settle it."

The plant is at the center of a 2000 book, "Postville: A Clash of Cultures in Heartland America," by Stephen G. Bloom, which described the tensions in the tiny farming town between residents and Hasidic Jews from Brooklyn who took over its defunct slaughterhouse in 1987.

UPDATE: Here is the entire (pdf) USDA report. It has been heavily censored by USDA officials. Even so, it is clear why the USDA did not want this report released. It’s inspectors slept on the job, ignored major health and humane slaughter violations, ate free food from Rubashkin (absolutely forbidden by USDA policy), and failed miserably at their jobs. And you, dear readers, ate the meat they "inspected." Keep in mind that more than 60% of Rubashkin’s output is sold to the non-kosher market. If you bought meat in Safeway, Albertsons, and other food chains, along with many restaurants (especially in the Chicago area), you most like ate this meat – even if you do not keep kosher.

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10 Comments

Filed under Kosher Meat Scandal

10 responses to “USDA: RUBASHKIN GUILTY, USDA INSPECTORS TOOK BRIBES – USDA BLOCKED RELEASE OF REPORT FOR 1 YEAR – PETA VINDICATED

  1. nachos

    Rabbi Sokolovsky, here is your chance. Do you think the “Rebbe almighty” would approve of the conduct taking place at agriprocessors. A simple yes or no answer will do. Either endorse or condemn what is going on.

  2. began using hooks to rip out the throats of live animals

    Just for the sake of clarity, what exactly was ripped out?

  3. Neo-Conservaguy

    “Keep in mind that more than 60% of Rubashkin’s output is sold to the non-kosher market. If you bought meat in Safeway, Albertsons, and other food chains, along with many restaurants (especially in the Chicago area), you most like ate this meat – even if you do not keep kosher.”

    …perhaps violating one of God’s laws for all humanity: (Gen. 9:4-5) “…But flesh; with its soul its blood you shall not eat. However, your blood which belongs to your souls I will demand, of every beast will I demand it…”

  4. rebeljew

    Not clear on this:
    Pulling the throat out in this manner is is specifically forbidden as a means of sh’chita, in which case, the meat would be treif by all opinions. However, if the animals were shechted first and then the throats ripped, there would be no particular halacha problem with the sh’chita.

    You seem to be making a different charge here, namely that the latter practice is cruel and should therefore invalidate the sh’chita. While your point that sh’chita may leave an opening for animal cruelty may be well taken, from where do you derive that cruelty to an animal invalidates its kashrut?

    In side point to the question of kashrus, we can definitely wonder why such a practice would continue. A shechted animal does not take that long to die. What is the benefit?

  5. Mavet

    It’s all very simple. If you do a proper cut, there will be a big splash of blood as the main arteries get cut. That means that you have to do the cut hard, fast, deep, and accurate. If done right the animal passes out in 15-20 seconds from low blood pressure

    It appears that the Rubashkin’s schochet’s weren’t able to do that, so to get the drop in blood pressure they reach in and pull out the arteries.

    The scheting is a process, the animal doesn’t go dead instantaniously. No different from a human, first becoming gosez before death. As it is forbidden to do anything to hasten the death of a gosez.So it is with scheita, the death must be caused by the first cut, and nothing else.

  6. rebeljew

    C-Girl

    It is not we that are being complacent, but the mashgichim and rabanim behind them. If the charge that the shchita is not halachicly sufficient were true, then the meat should be treif, l’kula dayos. The ripping violates, not only nekuva, but every one of categories of invalid shchita, that is, if it is done while the animal is not “shechted”. If it occurs after shchita, then it is not relevant to the shchita, and the animal is kosher.

    That said, where does the issue of cruelty play into the kashrus question? One is permitted to eat an animal that has been shechted halachicly, even if it were treated cruelly.

    Third point, do we have any power to stop the animal cruelty which apparently goes on. I hope so, but attacking through kashrus may not be the answer. Consumers have all kinds methods to get their point across to an arrogant vendor, without resorting to charges that the majority of the public may consider “trumped up”, in terms of kashrus only.

  7. C-Girl

    If we’re going to talk in vague terms about “ethical kashrus”, then animal cruelty does come into play. For example, when Rav Feinstein wrote that penned veal should not be eaten due to the conditions under which it was raised, this brought up the issue of whether something could be fit to eat based on conditions that occurred prior to schechita. Unfortunately, there has been little progress into the field of ethics and kashrus- note the example of geese raised for foie gras and the controversy generated by that issue.

    The issue of animal cruelty presented in the Agriprocessors case, while being an embarassment and an affront to Hashem, does not, unfortunately, add up to halachic treif-ness. This is why I have stressed that the issue appears to be the one you brought up regarding invalid schechita, namely that the USDA has backed up claims that, in at least the several cases that were specified in the testimony of their agents, the animals were not properly killed and yet made their way down the line as kosher beef.

    And that all of the “powers that be”, gave this their approval, at least publically. Now, kashrut was never meant to be something that was too difficult for the populace to understand. It’s only in recent history that we’ve gotten to the point where we need someone to even tell us that our bottled water is kosher. But we’ve abdicated our own responsibility to make sure our meat is kosher to commercial entities; people who have a financial stake in making sure that their clients, the producers, are happy with them so that they continue to write them big checks. D’ya see where I’m going with this? Sometimes, as the the (paraphrased) line goes, you know pornography when you see it.

    You write with skepticism about the ability of the consumer to sway industry. This works only with momentum. If people couldn’t care less about tsaar baalei chayim, I can’t do much about that. They may have to answer for it later, but that’s their problem. If there’s even a (legitimate) *toehold* to establish a valid issue of “treif”, well, that’s the fault of the company that did wrong, and I have no problem if it’s blown wide open. They shoulda known better. But people have to be willing to see what’s in front of them, and I don’t think many kosher meat consumers are willing to face the social risks of acknowledging the issues and making sure they’re publicly addressed.

  8. rebeljew

    “You write with skepticism about the ability of the consumer to sway industry.”

    Actually, my point was that consumers could sway industry, but not through the argument that the food is treif. Even RMF only forbid veal to be eaten to sway the conditions under which it was raised. He never paskened that it had the din of treif, he only made a gezeira. Perhaps consumers should attack the cruelty issue on its own.

  9. Neo-Conservaguy

    If the Jewish people could be counted on to do everything we’re supposed to do then we wouldn’t have needed revelation at Sinai. We would have just waltzed out of Mitzraim and started living good Torah lives. Instead, the spiritual and metal slavery continued and we started a process – a cycle – of being told “the rules” and then turning around and making a golden calf that continues to this day.

    Someone is supposed to stand up and say, “Uh – wait a minute – this isn’t good”, and these days that someone is supposed to the rabbinate. Instead, they have either allowed themselves to be ignorant or, God forbid, have been active participants in acts of incompetence and arrogance in the meat industry that they will once day answer for before the heavenly court. For now, the courts they must answer to appear to be the civil legal courts. The court of public opinion seems to be asleep at the switch on this issue, no doubt lulled to slumber by bellies full of Quail – I mean, Postville beef.

  10. cb

    Does anyone know if there have been any efforts at community organization/consumer pressure around this issue within the kosher-keeping community?

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