Former Agriprocessors plant restarts operations

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March 30, 2014 | 10:55 pm

Agri Star Meat and Poultry is on track to rebuild a world-class kosher beef operation in Postville that will restore well-paying jobs and help cattle prices rebound for Iowa producers, officials said Tuesday.

Hershey Friedman, Agri Star chief executive officer, told a Statehouse news conference his company has completed the initial startup of its beef operations and plans to move toward full capacity of its state-of-the-art kosher beef line in hopes of eventually becoming the world’s largest kosher meat plant.

Friedman, the Canadian businessman who bought the troubled Agriprocessors Inc. plant last August and invested $7.5 million to modernize and upgrade the facility, said Agri Star now has grown to 560 employees and is producing a full line of chicken, turkey and beef products for the retail, food service and deli markets.

“We’re proud of our progress at Agri Star,” Friedman said. “It has been a journey, but we have made real progress.”

Currently, the Postville facility slaughters between 85 and 90 cattle per day, he said. Friedman said he expected production to increase to 150 head per day within the next month and grow to 500 head a day in a year’s time. At its peak, he said, Agriprocessors was slaughtering up to 700 cattle per day.

“We feel that we can grow back to the same position that they were,” Friedman said.

“We are on our way,” he added. “We made commitments, we’re honoring those commitments.”

Friedman’s company took over the troubled Agriprocessors plant, which was the nation’s largest kosher slaughterhouse before a May 2008 immigration raid in which nearly 400 employees were arrested or detained. The raid resulted in charges of fraud, other criminal violations and allegations of worker mistreatment — including the conviction of Sholom Rubashkin, one of the top managers for the previous Agriprocessors owners.

Friedman said he overhauled the company’s human resources department with an eye toward ensuring that all employees are legal and used a government-based verification system to check credentials of applicants.

The Agri Star executive said current wages range from $8-$9 per hour for low-end production jobs to $12-$18 an hour in the beef processing operation. He said his goal is to increase production to 1,000 cattle per day and grow the work force to as many as 1,000 employees, but that likely will require future plant expansion.

Bruce Berven, executive vice president of the Iowa Cattlemen’s Association, said Iowa’s beef industry took a

$24 million hit when Agriprocessors stopped buying cattle, producing “a void” in northeast Iowa that forced producers to take animals to Denison or out-of-state facilities and sell in a less competitive market.

Berven said prices paid for Iowa cattle have rebounded since Agri Star resumed beef production and he was optimistic the company’s buying power would provide a significant, positive economic turnaround for Iowa’s 10,000 beef producers, Postville, northeast Iowa and the state in general.

“For the producers, it would be very beneficial,” said Iowa Agriculture Secretary Bill Northey. “Producers want it open but they want it run the right way. It does appear that Mr. Friedman is committed to running this in the right way.”

Postville Mayor Leigh Rekow said his community remains positive and is beginning to see the benefits of renewed employment opportunities. “With the plant opening, all these people have hope again,” he said.

Rekow noted that there are 35 more high school students and houses that stood empty are being repopulated.

“We’re doing well,” Rekow said, although he noted there remain challenges in a small town that went through considerable upheaval due to Agriprocessors’ demise.

“Our community has been very positive that we will survive and we will get back to where we were and maybe even better,” he said. “It has worked out real well and we’re real happy right now. You’ll always have a certain amount of people that don’t accept change. They want things to be the way they were and in this day and age that cannot happen. We need to move forward.”

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