Their Poultry Is Kosher. Shouldn’t Their Labor Practices Be?

“Birdsboro Kosher Farms is leaving its employees vulnerable to a variety of safety and health hazards that can cause serious injuries,” said Timothy Braun, acting OSHA area director in Harrisburg. “It is critical that the company take appropriate steps to ensure worker protection at its facility. Anything less is unacceptable.” OSHA has fined Birdsboro Kosher Farms over $317,000—one of the highest fines assessed in 2016.

Among other violations, OSHA cited Birdsboro for failing provide sanitary personal protective equipment to employees and for having dangerously high noise levels that can result in deafness. Birdsboro has contested the violations, but did not respond to an emailed request from Lilith for comment. Leni Uddyback-Fortson, a Department of Labor Spokesperson, confirmed to Lilith that the company had contested the violations. “Under the contest the company enters into discussions with OSHA to find a solution which will ensure the protection of employees. We are always willing to discuss effective abatement and proceed with productive discussions with employers and we hope to reach a settlement as quickly as possible,” wrote Uddyback-Fortson.

According to Debbie Berkowitz, Senior Fellow in Workplace Safety and Health at the National Employment Law Project and former senior policy adviser and chief of staff at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, resolving disputed citations “can take a year or more, and during that time the company does not have to correct [what] OSHA found, even though workers are getting seriously injured right now.”

Berkowitz is working with the National Employment Law Project on a campaign to encourage consumers to take action by using their buying power to improve labor conditions on plants. “There’s no excuse, in any industry, to treat workers terribly. You don’t cut corners when it comes to workers,” she says.  Berkowitz notes that the main differences she sees between the labor conditions of poultry plants does not relate to whether the plants are kosher, but rather whether the workers are unionized. Jewish herself, Berkowitz buys Empire Kosher Poultry, a kosher chicken producer whose employees are represented by the United Food and Commercial Workers. According to Berkowitz, the percentage of the workforce that is unionized is at 20 percent in the poultry industry. 

Uri L’Tzedek and Magen Tzedek are two organizations that work towards having fair labor practices amongst kosher food producers. Rabbi Allen Morris, a co-founder of Magen Tzedek, says: “The tragedy at Birdsboro Kosher Farms speaks to the need, once again, of ensuring that Kosher food is produced in ways that meet the ethical standards of the Jewish people—as it relates to worker safety. It is a Hillul hashem (a desecration of God’s name) when a kosher food facility is described as leaving its employees ‘vulnerable to a variety of safety and health hazards that can cause serious injuries.’ What is even worse, is that this company promotes itself as living with the highest standards of kashrut in its food production,” he said, noting Birdsboro’s website claims that an authoritative rabbi is present on site to ensure that the plant meet “the highest standards.” Morris continued: “For Magen Tzedek and for those of us who believe in the dignity of all humanity, there is no higher standard beyond ensuring the safety and health of those who produce the meat we are also obligated to eat. Until the kosher consumer is willing to commit to a serious auditing of kosher food companies’ policies as it relates to workers, animals and the earth—as embodied by the Magen Tzedek standards—we all remain complicit when these tragedies occur.” 

Berkowitz also argues that collectively consumers can have a great impact on the practices of the poultry industry, noting that in the past consumers have been able to change the way the poultry industry raises their chickens. “Write to the company or talk to the store where you buy the chickens. Ask the butcher: ‘Where do you get these chickens?’ And say: ‘I can’t buy this unless you tell me that they’re protecting their workers.’”

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Lilith Magazine.