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Reflections on the Prosecution of Sholom Mordechai Rubashkin and the Government Raid of the Agriprocessors Kosher Meat Packing Plant in Postville, Iowa

Activism | Consumer Defense

Reflections on the Prosecution of Sholom Mordechai Rubashkin and the Government Raid of the Agriprocessors Kosher Meat Packing Plant in Postville, Iowa
by Gregory Johnson

Through an odd series of coincidences, I became familiar with the town of Postville in 2001, and later in 2006 the Rubashkin meat packing plant located there.

One might ask why and how a vegetarian would end up visiting a meat packing plant. This article is the story of how these events came to pass.

As you may know, Sholom Rubashkin, the former plant manager who was convicted of fraud is now having his case reviewed by a U.S. Federal Attorney to determine his fate. There is a support website setup in his defense.

As a non-Jewish, vegetarian, animal welfare advocate, and 30-year resident of Iowa, what I’m about to share about Sholom Rubashkin and the Agriprocessors packing plant is probably unusual.

I first visited Postville, Iowa in March of 2001 with my sister. As a small, quaint, Iowa town with antique shops and cultural diversity, it was a local tourist attraction at the time and a delightful place for my sister and I to visit. I didn’t realize then that Postville would take on a greater personal meaning for me years later.

As a long-time vegetarian and animal welfare advocate, in 2006 I learned of the Postville Agriprocessors/Rubashkin meat packing plant when a friend sent me links to the videos widely-publicized by PETA that depicted animal abuse there. News and repercussions of the incident reached Jerusalem and people around the world. I was very troubled by the videos and written reports I’d received, and wanted to confirm the allegations personally.

For decades I’ve served to defend animal welfare and consumer justice. In light of the accusations of animal abuse, the Postville Rubashkin packing plant touched on both of these passions of mine. I felt that consumers needed to know the truth about the situation at the Postville plant. However, I’m not a copy and paste journalist who reports second-hand news. Nor am I someone who can be swayed by special interest groups or paid-off by corporations. So, as difficult as it would be for me, I realized it would be necessary for me to personally visit the Postville Rubashkin packing plant to see the facilities firsthand. People trust, value, and depend on my research and reporting to be authentic, honest, and fair.

By an amazing coincidence, in March of 2006, I was able to join with a scheduled group tour of the plant. What I discovered at the Rubashkin plant was deeply upsetting to me, but not for the reasons I thought it would be. The plant itself was one of the cleanest, most efficient, and most effectively run operations I’d ever seen. The Rabbinical oversight of the meat packing process was an additional check on quality and safety that most packing plants wouldn’t have. Even as a visitor, I felt safe walking through the plant at the peak of production. I hadn’t expected this to be the case.

Observing the killing floor of the plant during full-production was certainly one of the most disturbing experiences I’ve had to witness in my life. In a moment, I realized that the room I was standing in was the same room shown in the PETA videos, with the same procedure in use. I soon had goosebumps from head to toe, when I realized that something was very, very, different than what I’d seen depicted in the videos. After painfully watching numerous cattle killed, I was shocked by the “unedited” reality of this procedure. The cattle were being killed using a method that, to me, appeared to result in instantaneous death. Over an extended period of time, not once did anything occur that had been depicted in the video.

It was immediately clear to me that the several minutes of video footage I’d seen, gathered covertly over many weeks (according to PETA), had been meticulously spliced together for a very manipulative and emotionally dramatic effect. What I’d seen in the video, represented perhaps 0.1% of the truth. There on the killing floor, despite what I was seeing before me, I was even more upset with the knowledge that I’d been deceived by the video, as were many other people who believe that those few minutes of video represented a regular occurrence at the plant.

It’s not that the procedure had changed. They were using the same machinery, the same equipment, and what appeared to be the same knife, perhaps even the same person conducting the procedure. The only difference was that the unedited results of that procedure looked very different than the edited video.

Imagine being secretly followed your entire life by someone with a hidden camera, and having your actions and character reduced to a few minutes of video, the worst few minutes of your life, and then having the public told that the video represents the entirety of who you really are.

Even now, at the time of writing this, Google search results for Sholom Rubashkin include a paid advertisement by Peta with a link to the outdated video claiming that the video shows how the plant is being operated today. It is clearly false advertising and slanderous. How can someone like Sholom Rubashkin have a fair trial with such ongoing public paid slander campaigns? [Note: Some searches may not produce the ad if the daily AdWords quota has been exceeded. I have a PDF archive of the search results page. More recently it seems that PETA has increased their investment in the ad, as it is now showing up with almost every search for Shalom Rubashkin.]

I hate the idea of animals being raised and killed for food. I hope I can live an example of compassion, kindness, and wellness that will inspire others to consider vegetarianism. I believe such an approach is much more effective than being a radical, law-breaking, privacy invading, and confrontational animal rights activist.

I realize that, as long as there is a demand for meat, animals will be killed, and we should do all we can to ensure it is done in the least painful way possible. After further research, I learned that the methods used for animal slaughter by Kosher/Jewish guidelines were much less cruel than traditional methods used by the majority of meat packing plants.[1, 2, 3] This knowledge made me even more upset. Not only had the animal activists distorted the facts, they may have actually slandered and harmed one of the few meat packing plants where animals suffer the least.

I was really left wondering why the Postville plant would have been singled out by animal activists, among all of the meat packing plants in America. There are so many other plants — that are dirty and poorly run — where animal suffering is greater. Why would an animal rights group based in Virginia seek out a family-run locally owned packing plant in a small Iowa town? Why not go after the many larger corporate-run packing plants? I was very upset to think that the fraudulent and groundless defamation of the plant workers and owners would not be challenged, so I wrote an article about my experience:

In May 2008, two years after my visit to the plant, the Rubashkin plant was once again targeted and made an example of through a federal raid that many feel was an excessive misuse of force, and abuse of the justice system.

Once again, I was asking the same question that I’d asked two years prior. Why would the Rubashkin plant, the employees, and plant owners, have been singled out and dealt with so harshly? Why would federal agents aggressively descend on a relatively small family-owned locally-operated packing plant in Iowa? The scope of the raid, the intensity of the raid, and the wide-spread negative impact of the raid, were excessive and harmed many people. The raid was conducted like a military campaign that justifies “acceptable losses” of innocent lives during an attack. The Guantanamo-style of detainment seemed unnecessarily sensational and harmful. It’s clear that a more diplomatic, humane, compassionate, effective, and gradual approach could have been used to reduce and ultimately eliminate the problem of illegal workers at the plant.

It’s not often that a vegetarian would speak out for the rights of those involved in meat packing, but I had to speak out again because this was such a grave injustice. So, I wrote an article about the Rubashkin plant raid:

In summary, I believe the plant employees and operators have been the focus of ongoing injustices and unwarranted harsh treatment for more than four years; first by animal rights activists who where never prosecuted for the laws they broke, and then by officials who were overzealous and unrestrained in their raid on the plant.

As I see it, our justice system serves our society in at least two important ways:

(1) to protect society from dangerous criminals,

(2) to ensure that those who have broken the law are prosecuted, but not persecuted. As a society, we’ve fortunately come a long way from village mobs carrying pitch forks, or people receiving excessively harsh treatment because of their race or religion.

Sholom Rubashkin is not a dangerous criminal. He does not present an imminent threat to our society. Any concerns about his future business dealings can be easily monitored. It would seem that some kind of public service and probation would be a much more effective and less costly sentence than incarceration.

The success of justice, and stability of our society, depend on a strong public trust in the judicial system. Imagine if three people are caught speeding, going 70 MPH in a 65 MPH zone, and one gets a ticket for $500, the other gets a ticket for $50, and the third gets a warning. If there were too many inconsistencies like this, public respect for the legal system would disintegrate and we would have social unrest. The scales of justice must measure out justice equally to all, to be respected by all.

My hope in this case is that justice and equality will prevail and that the decision in this case will help strengthen our society’s respect for the justice system. My hope would be to see a sentence that will be fair, and not place an unwarranted burden on Sholom Rubashkin, his family, or society.

~ Gregory Johnson

“I do not want to be the one in the future to recite, ‘First they came for the Jewish slaughterhouse workers and illegal immigrants, but I did not speak out because I was a non-Jewish vegetarian U.S. Citizen. You know the rest of the story.” ~ Gregory Johnson in a reference to the famous saying attributed to Pastor Martin Niemöller [source]

Photo Credit. During a visit to India in 2008, Gregory Johnson shown in the photo at the top of this page giving prasad (blessed food) to one of the local cows that roam freely in neighborhood streets.

Clarifications. Based on some reader feedback and comments, the following clarifications are offered.

  • Operations Commentary. My primary area of expertise is in the area of computer support. I’m not an official meat packing plant inspector. I’d not previously been to a meat packing plant, so I wasn’t able to make a specific comparison to something I’d seen before at a slaughterhouse. My observations and comments about the packing plant being one of the “one of the cleanest, most efficient, and most effectively run operations I’d ever seen” was in comparison to other businesses and factories I’ve seen in person either as a visitor, or as a computer consultant, or from watching videos about factory and farming operations. I believe these points come through in my longer writing about the plant visit. I did not conduct any formal interviews with employees while at the plant. I only asked a few questions about the function of some of the machinery I saw.
  • Paid Covert Operatives. It’s been asserted by several people that I’m a paid operative of the Orthodox Union, and that I’m working directly with the Rubashkins in an effort to help re-launch their brand. There have also been claims that my sister works with B&H photo in New York, as well as many other odd assertions. I’ve responded to most of these in a lengthy reply. For anyone interested to learn more about the facts of my life, you can find them on my personal web page at https://resourcesforlife.com/g
  • PETA Video. I’d seen both the short and long PETA videos. My assertion that PETA obtained them secretively over a long period of time was based on PETA literature that claimed they obtained them secretively over a long period of time.
  • Scheduled Tours. Some readers of this article have commented that scheduled tour groups, like scheduled inspections of a facility, are often shown the best possible presentation of a facility. While this is generally true, I was not with a group of inspectors, journalists, or outraged citizens. It was a group that would be considered friendly to the plant, so it’s likely they would have been less on their guard with us. The automated assembly-line processes used in many factories today don’t allow much creativity on the part of employees working the line. While floors can be cleaned in a day prior to a visit, infrastructure, machinery, and procedural aspects of the facility are not easily changed. From the informal and candid nature of the tour, I didn’t get the sense that we were being shown a glamorized presentation.

By Greg Johnson

Greg Johnson is a freelance writer and tech consultant in Iowa City. He is also the founder and Director of the ResourcesForLife.com website. Learn more at AboutGregJohnson.com