September 15, 2008

A new CEO at Agriprocessors?

Amongst all the tumult surrounding Agriprocessors last week came a controversial threat by the Orthodox Union that unless a new CEO was appointed at the embattled kosher meat producer within two weeks or so, the world’s largest kosher certification organization would withdraw its certification. The OU first suggested the management change in the aftermath of the immigration raid on May 12th and the company had indeed announced that it would be looking for a new CEO. But when the Iowa Attorney General issued a 9000 plus child labor indictment against the Rubashkins and others and no new CEO was in place, the OU issued its threat. Predictably, the move generated a great deal of controversy. While it was applauded by many kosher consumers along with many of the groups that have been bashing Agri (i.e the Jewish Labor Committee, Hechsher Tzedek, PETA), others in the Orthodox community felt that the OU had overstepped its bounds and since kashrut was never in question, some suggested that the agency should not have made the threat. Others even questioned the timing which was right after the indictments were issued.

While it is true that the OU’s move had nothing to do with the kashrus at the plant, OU officials will tell you that it had everything to do with the business of kashrus, which essentially means the reputation and credibility of kashrus. I happen to believe that a new CEO at Agriprocessors would actually be a good idea, if only for the Rubashkins themselves. Despite being vilified in many sectors, including some Jewish media, the Rubashkins can point with pride to what they accomplished in the kosher market, making kosher meat available throughout America and being a driving force in the growth of kosher. Many supermarkets would never have expanded their kosher sections were it not for the quality of the meat the Rubashkins were able to deliver to underserved markets. In addition, it is no secret that the family has been extremely charitable in supporting many causes. I met a young man several weeks ago who had served as a schochet and had to resign because his young son had chronic heart disease. The Rubashkins, he told me, continued paying him to take care of his son and even helped defray some of his medical expenses.

A new CEO would, of course, have to deal with the myriad of legal problems that the company faces, in addition to the awesome task of restoring production to the levels of pre-May 12th, when a significant segment of its work force was arrested and criminally prosecuted as illegal immigrants. He would no doubt be working to restore confidence in one of the world’s premiere kosher food producers, but most importantly, he would take some of the pressure off the family, and that would be a noble task. At the end of the day, I choose to be optimistic that a new CEO will be appointed and that the Orthodox Union will continue its role in safeguarding the supply of kosher meat to kosher consumers. It is, after all, right before Rosh Hashanah, which is a good time to wish for a better year ahead for kosher.