MIFFLINTOWN, Pa. — Every few minutes, the endless chain of poultry moving through Empire Kosher in Juniata County comes to a halt so a rabbi can inspect the knife he uses to cut clean through chicken necks.
The ritual blade, known as a chalef, must be kept impossibly sharp, so the rabbi runs a fingernail over its edge to check for nicks. Then he sharpens the tool once more, and the slaughtering at the nation’s largest kosher poultry supplier continues.
“There cannot be any imperfections,” Rabbi Menachem Genack, CEO of the Orthodox Union Kosher Division, said of the blade.
Empire is unique among Pennsylvania poultry suppliers because the company must have rabbis on the killing floor at all times, putting 65,000 chickens to death daily in the manner prescribed by the Torah. The Jewish community is small here near the state’s center, but Empire is one of Juniata County’s largest employers, with a workforce of 601 employees. Sixty of them are rabbis who travel back and forth between the rural plant and their homes in more densely populated areas including New York, New Jersey, and Maryland — places hit far harder than Mifflintown by the coronavirus.
Given the commuting rabbis, some of whom carpool, Empire has faced a unique challenge in keeping COVID-19 at bay over the last four months.
“A lot of people depend on that plant for food,” said Gregory Martin, a poultry expert for the Penn State Extension. “That’s why the plant made such an extensive effort to keep its workers safe.”
In May, according to a memo obtained by The Inquirer, the Pennsylvania Department of Health requested “technical assistance” from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in six food processing and distribution centers in the state. The CDC subsequently visited three facilities: a Tyson plant in New Holland, Nicholas Meats in Loganton, and Empire. A July CDC report found 17,000 cases of COVID among U.S. meat-processing employees for April and May. Pennsylvania had 1,169 during that period, fourth highest among the 23 states that reported cases. Nebraska topped that list, with 3,438.
Some of those Pennsylvania cases stemmed from Bell & Evans, a poultry processor based in Lebanon County that sells its pricey organic birds at Whole Foods. In April, The Inquirer exposed a coronavirus outbreak at the company’s Fredericksburg campus that killed at least three people and sickened many more. Workers who contracted the virus said recently that they were pressured to return before they fully recovered — a violation of CDC guidelines on limiting the virus’ spread.
Empire took a different approach.
The company closed voluntarily for two weeks in early April, during the height of the busy Passover season, after multiple employees tested positive for COVID-19. At the time, Wendell Young, president of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1776 Keystone State, told the Lewistown Sentinel that the plant was closing out of an “abundance of caution.” He described Empire as likely the “cleanest poultry plant you’ll find on the planet.”
The CDC visited Empire on May 19, and its overall assessment of the protocols in place there was positive. “The company has implemented many controls at the plant to help reduce and mitigate the spread of SARS-CoV-2 between workers while in the plant,” the agency wrote.
In the 12-page report, the CDC documented how workers undergo temperature screenings, twice, before entering the plant. Empire, it noted, reduced production to implement more social distancing. The CDC pointed out that there was an empty hand sanitizer unit in a restroom and said “most” employees were wearing masks properly. Fliers about COVID-19 symptoms were prevalent, along with messages on televisions. The agency did find a hand-written sign, however, that read “OK to go back to work when sick.” The CDC did not go into detail about the sign, but Empire officials, Young, and one longtime employee all said it didn’t mean what it said. It has since been taken down.
“The intent of the written message was that, if an employee reported to the nurse’s office, was examined, and found not to be experiencing any symptoms of illness, that person could return to work,” the company said in a statement.
“They’ve been very responsible,” Young told The Inquirer. “If every meat processor across the country had done the same, we wouldn’t have read about these outbreaks.”
Employee Holly Bearley, 58, a shop steward at Empire who works in chicken evisceration alongside the rabbis, said she had neither seen nor heard of the sign, and said no employee would be expected to work while sick. “Oh, gosh, no,” she said. “If you had any symptoms, you would not be working.”
The CDC said about 44 Empire employees had tested positive by the time of the inspectors’ visit. Most had returned to work. Two required hospitalization, and one employee died.
Six of the confirmed COVID-19 cases were rabbis.
Because of the immense size of its operation, Empire said it has long been unable to “staff the rabbinical team with enough rabbis solely from Pennsylvania” and must reach out-of-state. The rabbis, according to the CDC, live in single-room, dormitory-style housing at Empire from Sunday to Thursday, then travel home. Those who live in the Baltimore area, about 115 miles south of Empire, were permitted to carpool back and forth during the week instead of living in the dorms, the CDC said. Empire even has an on-site synagogue, which was closed per Gov. Tom Wolf’s orders.
In its recommendations for Empire, the CDC made no issue of the rabbis’ commutes and did not speculate about how the virus first came to the plant.
Young told The Inquirer that he worried about the rabbis’ travels early on, given the rate of infection in New York City, where many of them live, and said it was a factor in Empire’s decision to shut down for two weeks in April.
“Again,” Young said, “they did the right thing.”
Kosher laws about food preparation, according to the Orthodox Union, date to the Bible and the Talmud, the body of Jewish law. In the U.S., the only fowl that can be kosher at chicken, turkey, duck, and goose. Eagles and owls cannot. The slaughtering process is known as shechita, and rabbis use the smooth, sharp blade to cause “instantaneous death” by cutting the trachea and esophagus in one motion. Afterward, rabbis inspect the chickens for defects. If approved, they are given the OU stamp, a symbol of being kosher on tens of thousands of products across the globe, including Coca-Cola.
“Kosher is a basic tenet of the religion, but there’s different levels of observance,” Genack said. “During Passover, a very large number of Jews observe kosher.”
Before Empire opened its processing facility in the 1960s, the economy in this part of the state was largely agricultural and the population mostly white. Today, Empire is known as a hub for decent jobs, and the population is starting to diversify. About a quarter of the company’s laborers are Latino.
Alice Gray, a Juniata County commissioner, said she even occasionally sees rabbis at the local supermarket now.
“It’s all very new,” Gray said, “and very positive.”
But until the pandemic subsides, said Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, Empire should rethink its commitment to kosher meat processing and ask the rabbis to stay home. The heightened risk that the virus could spread from them to other workers or spread among members of the communities where the rabbis live is not worth the reward, he said.
”When physicians run up against someone’s religious beliefs as they’re trying to treat a patient — for example, if someone doesn’t believe in blood transfusions but needs one to survive — we advocate for a suspension of the rules,” said Adalja, who identified himself as an atheist. “If the kosher meat production process puts lives at risk, you have to question the value of that process.”
Empire doesn’t believe it has endangered anyone by sticking with the kosher food preparation process.
Asked whether the rabbis’ commute to and from coronavirus hot spots may have contributed to the spread of the disease, Empire noted that incidents of COVID-19 had been reported in Pennsylvania well before the company had its first case. The hundreds of non-rabbinical employees who work at the plant commute from 11 counties within the state, all of which had confirmed cases of COVID-19 in March. The rabbis are essential employees, and any speculation that they were the source of the transmissions is “hurtful,” the company said in a statement to The Inquirer: “The rabbis were cooperative and engaged with this effort, despite the significant disruption to their own personal lives including not seeing family and missing prayer services.”
Rabbi Israel Weiss, executive vice president at Empire, said the company’s rabbinical workers volunteered to stay in the dormitories and hotels for two weeks in April, instead of traveling home. They held synagogue services outside, in a tent, while six feet apart.