POSTVILLE, Iowa - Ever since the arrival of their extraordinary neighbors, folks in this tiny northeastern Iowa town have grown used to being an anomaly.
When a family of Lubavitch Jews, an ultra-Orthodox sect, bought the local slaughterhouse in 1987 and converted it to a kosher plant, Postville became an experiment in cultural diversity as immigrants from up to 30 nations flocked to the town for jobs.
Then, early this month, an animal-rights group released an undercover video that it claims represents inhumane killing practices at the slaughterhouse, and Postville found itself at the center of an international squall involving religion, grass-roots politics, the news media and the humble cow.
Since the Virginia-based People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA, set its sights on practices inside Postville's sprawling Agriprocessors plant, "the buzz [in town] has been 'Leave us alone,'" said Rob Dehli, general manager of KPVL-FM, a local public radio station that broadcasts in English, Spanish, Russian and Hebrew.
"This company keeps people employed in this town."
At the same time, said Dehli, "people are really curious about how they decided on our little town. And why this processing plant?"
PETA's complaint, like any alleged violation of the federal 1978 Humane Methods of Slaughter Act, prompted an investigation by the U.S. Agriculture Department's Food Safety and Inspection Service. Results are expected by the end of the month, said Steven Cohen, an inspection service spokesman.
Meanwhile, both sides have dug in. PETA's allegations have drawn heated debate, even within the kosher community.
PETA, best known for high-profile campaigns against fur and selected fast-food restaurants, posts on its Web site the headline "Undercover Investigation Reveals Slaughter Horrors at Agriprocessors." It has lined up outspoken critics, including Colorado livestock consultant Temple Grandin, who says she has visited 30 kosher slaughterhouses around the world but has never witnessed procedures like those at the Postville plant.
"There are a lot of rabbis that are very, very upset about [the material on the videotape]," she said. "People in the [meat] industry are just furious. It's a black eye to the whole industry."
Agriprocessors, in turn, has launched a public-relations campaign against what plant manager Sholom Rubashkin, calls an "extreme political group" that "will do whatever it can for publicity" and "wants to turn you into a vegetarian."
Late last week, PETA threatened to sue Rubashkin, whose father in Brooklyn owns the Postville packing house, for defamation.
"This story is not about Agriprocessors," said Rubashkin, 45, who runs the plant along with his brother, Heshy, 40. "In my opinion, there's a whole attack here on the ritual [slaughter] process. ... If a person wants to belong to PETA, that's your right. But for heaven's sake, do not attack our sacred religion."
With its name emblazoned across a water tank that towers over the west side of town, Agriprocessors, called Agri by residents, is Postville's largest employer. Fourteen nationalities are represented among its 700 workers, who have helped boost Postville's population from 1,500 in 1990 to 2,500 today.
But it's inside Agriprocessors' vast, white-walled plant, in an area called the kill floor, that an employee collaborating with PETA secretly filmed cattle put into a restraint pen called a Facomia box, which encases a steer's body but not its head. The animal is then turned upside down so that, in keeping with shechita, kosher slaughtering practices, its throat can be cut with an extremely sharp knife by a trained rabbi.
The method is supposed to slit the carotid arteries, causing anemia of the brain and rendering the steer "insensible" within two seconds, said Mike Thomas, a plant spokesman. In the PETA video, each steer's esophagus and trachea are also ripped out by a worker after the rabbi's cut is made.
Several animals are depicted struggling back on their feet after being released from the box and staggering around the kill floor. Agriprocessors and PETA remain at odds over whether this indicates the involuntary movement of a dead steer, the equivalent of a chicken running around with its head cut off, or the slow and tortured death for an animal in pain.
"What's happening in this slaughterhouse is so horrifically cruel that any compassionate person has to be shocked," said PETA's Bruce Friedrich.
"It's not a pretty thing to see," said Thomas, who says that most Americans don't know or don't want to know how their hamburgers travel from barnyard to dinner plate.
"The animal is being killed. There's no way around that," he said.
Last week, the plant agreed to a USDA request to have a stunning device on hand for steers that try to stand after release from the Facomia box. Conventional slaughterhouses use a stunning device to render an animal unconscious before slaughter, but the practice makes the meat non-kosher.
The USDA keeps a veterinarian and four inspectors on site to regulate beef production at the plant.
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