In the months since Agriprocessors – formerly America’s largest kosher meatpacking plant – declared bankruptcy in the wake of allegations of unethical and illegal business practices, speculation has abounded: Who will fill the gap in the kosher meat market? Will meat prices go up? Will an Orthodox Jew buy the Postville, Iowa plant?
Close to a year later, answers are finally emerging. Montreal-based Hershey Friedman, a well-known businessman and philanthropist – who, among numerous other ventures, sponsored the publication of the popular Oz Vehadar Shas – took over the plant in August, renaming it Agri Star Meat & Poultry.
In a recent interview with The Jewish Press, Friedman discussed his reasons for buying the plant and his plans for its future.
The Jewish Press: What’s your background?
Friedman: I was born and raised in Montreal. My father came from Czechoslovakia and my mother came from Hungary. Both went through the war and in 1949 moved to Montreal where my father established himself as one of the Jewish community’s leading businessmen.
When I was only about 10 years old, my father was seriously injured in a car accident. He remained a paraplegic for the remaining 23 years of his life.
As a young boy my elementary school education was in the Satmar cheder in Montreal. After my bar mitzvah, I went to litvishe yeshivas – Ner Yisroel in Baltimore and then Bais Shraga in Monsey.
In 1967 I returned to Montreal, joining our family business in order to help my mother run it and enable my two brothers to continue learning in yeshiva. In 1975 I married Raisy Stuhl in Montreal and today we have six wonderful children, five of whom are married and have their own children. All of my married children are part of my business.
Why did you buy the Postville plant, considering all the controversies surrounding it?
That’s a very interesting question. Let me give you a little background. In Canada there is only one kosher milk provider. As a result of this monopoly, the price of milk products is extremely expensive – nearly double the price in the United States. While the difference in price doesn’t really affect average and well-to-do people, it makes a real difference to large families that are not well off.
We cannot afford this type of problem with glatt kosher meat in America. If you only have one glatt kosher meat supplier, within a couple of years you’ll end up paying double what you’re paying today.
Now, as a Canadian, what have I got to do with it? I’m very involved with klal Yisrael worldwide and it just didn’t make sense to sit idly by and watch a monopoly develop. Buying and reinvigorating Agriprocessors’s plant was the best opportunity to try maintaining two glatt kosher producers in America.
What’s your vision for Agri Star? Will it match Agriprocessors’s level of production?
Operations at the plant will hopefully go back to their original size. Right now production is limited to chickens and some deli, but we’re aiming to begin returning to beef production sometime within the next few months.
We’re currently working on modernizing many areas in the facility and are trying to change or fix a lot of the facility’s handicaps in order to make it more efficient.
We also want to add many products that are not produced today. Our deli will be expanded tremendously. Deli doesn’t only mean salami, pastrami and turkey. It also means pre-cooked frozen products that you can take home and re-warm.
Many people accused Agriprocessors of mistreating its workers.
I don’t want to discuss the past. What happened in the past is not only history, it’s irrelevant to Agri Star. We are a completely new company with new management, new ideas and new resources, and we’re looking positively toward the future. We want to be good citizens in the state of Iowa and the city of Postville. We will be treating and paying all of our employees properly, fairly, and equally.