Iowa immigration raid felt in Pikesville stores

Major supplier of kosher meats had to cut production after worker arrests

June 06, 2008|By Jonathan Bor | Jonathan Bor,Sun Reporter

At Baltimore's largest kosher grocery store, meat manager Chaim Fishman has learned to order twice as much poultry from his chief supplier as he used to. He knows that however much he orders, the company will ship half.

Three weeks after federal immigration agents raided the AgriProcessors slaughterhouse in Postville, Iowa, and detained almost half of its work force, Baltimore's kosher markets and caterers are finding ways to satisfy one of the nation's most dedicated clienteles.

"I'm ordering much more because I know they're going to halve me," said Fishman, sitting in an office above the Seven Mile Market in Pikesville.

"I'm getting about 25 percent of my supply from them. It used to be 75 percent."

Markets with customers who eat kosher foods are purchasing more beef, lamb, veal and poultry from other suppliers, including two in Baltimore.

Some customers loyal to Rubashkin - perhaps the best known label marketed by AgriProcessors - are buying, and in some cases hoarding, what they can find on shelves.

Some grocers say they have held off raising prices in response to short supply but may soon be forced to do so.

The raid, which the government called the largest criminal work site enforcement in U.S. history, has also stirred an ethical debate, locally and nationally.

While some rabbis note that the government arrested undocumented workers - not their employers - others say that the company was clearly complicit and that the case reminds them that keeping kosher is about more than what you eat.

"For my family and people who keep kosher, it's beyond how the meat is slaughtered - there has to be an ethical dimension to it, too," said Deborah Wechsler, a rabbi at Chizuk Amuno, a Conservative synagogue in Pikesville.

Wechsler said she is being careful to purchase meat and poultry from other kosher suppliers.

On May 12, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents raided the Postville plant in the latest crackdown at slaughterhouses that have become magnets for illegal immigrants looking for work.

The agency, an arm of the Department of Homeland Security, arrested nearly 400 employees on felony charges of identity theft and false documentation.

So far, almost 300 have pleaded guilty and been sentenced.

The government also alleged that employees were running a methamphetamine lab at the plant and that some workers were receiving less than minimum wage.

A supervisor was said to have attacked a worker with a meat hook, according to a court affidavit.

After shutting down for a day, AgriProcessors reopened with a skeleton crew and has been hiring new employees to bring production up to previous levels.

On its Web site, the company says it is conducting its own investigation "into the circumstances which led to the recent work site enforcement action" and is looking for a new CEO.

Kosher merchants, and their customers, have received something of a break from the Jewish calendar. With Passover already behind them, the raid came during a lull between major Jewish observances.

As a result, retailers have not had to meet the spike in demand that comes when families prepare large holiday dinners.

The problems at AgriProcessors have been a boon for some competitors, including small ones such as Baltimore Kosher Meats, which processes and packages meat at its facility on Menlo Drive.

"People are looking for anything that Rubashkin supplied to them," said Joseph Goliger, the company president.

"That includes beef, lamb, veal and poultry and also deli items.

"Rubashkin did it all."

Kosher slaughterers and processors must observe strict Jewish dietary laws known as kashrut. Besides its prohibition against pork and shellfish, it mandates slaughter under the supervision of a trained rabbi.

Certain veins and fats are removed to drain the blood; the meat is soaked in water, and salt is added to draw additional blood before the meat is finally washed.

As most consumers know, prices have been rising for all meats - kosher and nonkosher - because of higher feed and transportation costs.

"But I have no intention to jack the price up just because of unavailability," said Goliger.

Retailers and customers may only now be feeling the impact of the situation in Postville.

At first, stores had enough inventory on hand to last for several days, said Menachem Lubinsky, president and CEO of Lubicom Marketing and Consulting and editor of Kosher Today.

"But as inventory is depleted, there are spot shortages here and there," said Lubinsky. "Some stores have supply, and others don't."

Shortages are fairly mild for cities like Baltimore with large Jewish populations and kosher markets that do business with multiple suppliers. When one supplier runs short, they can switch to another.

Outside Seven Mile Market, some customers said they have found enough kosher meat to feed their families, and they seemed to be reserving judgment about AgriProcessors' employment practices.

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