That aint kosher: Feds say slaughterhouse had illegal workers, drug lab

A federal raid this week on the country’s largest kosher slaughterhouse — which allegedly turned up a drug lab and hundreds of illegal immigrants — was the culmination of a six-month investigation.

Agents arrested 390 workers May 12 at the Agriprocessors plant in Postville, Iowa in what Immigration and Customs Enforcement called the largest raid of its kind in U.S. history.

The raid, for which federal authorities rented the entire fairgrounds in nearby Waterloo to house detainees, prompted the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Iowa to temporarily relocate judges and court personnel to the site because the facilities in Cedar Rapids and Sioux City were inadequate.

“There have been other operations where more people have been arrested,” said Tim Counts, an Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokesman. “But as far as we can determine, this is the largest single-site operation as far as number of arrests go.”

The raid involved more than a dozen federal agencies, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Internal Revenue Service, and the Labor and Agriculture departments.

Three Israelis and four Ukrainians were among the detainees held on charges of being in the country illegally, Counts said. Officials are expected to bring criminal charges against some of the detainees as well, most of whom are from Guatemala and Mexico.

Agriprocessors said in a statement May 13 that it “takes the immigration laws seriously” and intended to “continue to cooperate with the government in its investigation.”

“Agriprocessors will also inquire further into the circumstances that led to these events,” the company said. “We extend our heartfelt sympathies to the families whose lives were disrupted and wish them the best. We are deeply committed to meeting the needs of all of our customers and are operating again today.”

In the affidavit filed as part of the 60-page application for a search warrant, additional details were revealed about the government’s investigation of Agriprocessors, a company that has been accused of violating health and safety laws, mistreating workers and using controversial slaughter practices.

According to the document, a former supervisor at the plant — identified only as “Source #1” — told investigators about 80 percent of the workforce was illegal.

The source also said he believed rabbis responsible for kosher supervision entered the United States from Canada without proper immigration documents. According to the affidavit, the source did not provide evidence for his suspicions about the rabbis.

Source #1 also claimed to have discovered active production of methamphetamine at the plant and reported incidents of weapons being carried there.

Methamphetamine, more commonly known as crystal meth, is illegal in the United States. The drug gives users a sense of energy and euphoria that can last for hours.

Agriprocessors employees told investigators that sometimes they were required to work nighttime shifts of 12 hours or more.

The affidavit says that 697 plant employees are believed to have violated federal laws.

Agriprocessors produces more than half of the nation’s kosher meat. The raid has prompted fears of a disruption in supply. Though the plant was back in operation after the raid, it was unclear if the company could meet its normal production capacity with hundreds of its workers in federal custody.

Founded by Brooklyn butcher Aaron Rubashkin, Agriprocessors produces kosher meat and poultry marketed under the labels Aaron’s Best and Rubashkin’s.

The firm gained national attention in 2000 with the publication of the book “Postville,” which described the tensions between the company and the local community. The company has attracted a significant population of Orthodox Jews to a rural pocket of northeast Iowa.

Agriprocessors did not respond to requests for comment from JTA. Asked if there was slaughter taking place May 13, a woman who answered the phone at the plant said, “We’re trying.”

The Des Moines Register reported that more than 100 cars were in the company lot May 13, but quoted a nearby business owner who said that foot and vehicular traffic to the plant was much lower than usual.

Rabbi Menachem Genack, the head of the Orthodox Union’s kosher supervision department — the largest outfit certifying the kosher status of Agri-processors’ meat — said other companies had assured him they could make up for any shortfall from the Postville plant.

Genack reiterated the O.U.’s policy of leaving matters of immigration and labor standards to the government.

“No one else has the resources to do what the federal government can do,” he said.

If the company turns out to be criminally liable, Genack said, it could be grounds for losing its kosher certification.

Genack said he was told by the plant’s supervising rabbi that two foreign rabbis working at the plant had failed to renew their work permits when they expired a few weeks ago. He described the issue as a “technical” violation and insisted the two rabbis had not been detained.

Much of the information the government collected appears to have come from former employees of Agriprocessors who were detained by police on unrelated charges. Sources related similar stories of presenting fraudulent documents and Social Security numbers when seeking employment with the company.

Several said they were aware of undocumented workers employed at the plant who were paid by supervisors in cash.

The affidavit says the government has probable cause to believe that an Agriprocessors supervisor assisted workers in acquiring fake documents in exchange for a cut of the proceeds.

Federal investigators provided documentation for a former Agriprocessors employee, identified in the affidavit as “Source #7,” for the purpose of gaining employment at the plant. Once hired, the source reported on rabbis who insulted the workers and threw meat at them.

In one alleged instance, a “Hasidic Jew” taped a worker’s eyes and then hit him with a meat hook, “apparently not causing serious injuries.”

Agriprocessors has come under fire before for its labor practices, as well as health and safety violations. In March, authorities fined the company $182,000 for violations at the plant.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has clandestinely videotaped a controversial slaughter practice used at the plant.

In addition, an investigation by the Forward weekly newspaper revealed allegations that employees were underpaid and exploited. Agriprocessors officials denied the allegations.

Ben Harris

Ben Harris is a JTA correspondent.