Inquiry Finds Lax Federal Inspections at Kosher Meat Plant

By DONALD G. McNEIL Jr.

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.

http://www.nytimes.com/2006/03/10/national/10kosher.html?_