DES MOINES (AP) - Agriprocessors Inc., the nation's largest kosher meatpacking plant in Postville, is reacting to more criticism, this time from Sen. Barack Obama.
The presumptive Democratic presidential nominee's comments about the plant came days after Iowa Gov. Chet Culver publicly knocked the meatpacker, which is accused of child labor violations and was the site of a huge immigration raid in May.
During a stop in Davenport on Monday, Obama answered a question from a woman who asked about illegal immigrants in Postville, a town of about 2,300.
"We've got to crack down on employers who are taking advantage of undocumented workers," Obama said. "When you read about a meatpacking plant hiring 13-year-olds, 14-year-olds, that is some of the most dangerous, difficult work there is. They have kids in there wielding buzz saws and cleavers - it's ridiculous.
"And the only reason they are hiring these folks is because they want to avoid paying decent wages and providing decent benefits."
A federal raid led to the arrest of 389 people on immigration charges. Hundreds of line workers have been convicted and charges have been filed against two low-level supervisors. The plant's owners haven't faced any charges.
Earlier this month, the Iowa Division of Labor Services accused Agriprocessors of employing dozens of underage workers.
Obama campaign spokeswoman Jenni Lee said Tuesday that, during his Iowa appearance, Obama reiterated that there have been a lot of questions raised by authorities about Agriprocessors' hiring practices and workplace conditions.
"He very clearly stated that a critical part of fixing our broken immigration system is holding accountable companies that break the law," she said. "That's exactly what he'll do as president." Nathan Lewin, a Washington attorney for Agriprocessors, called Obama's statement "shocking." "Before he made public accusations accusing a meatpacking plant of hiring 13- and 14-year-olds 'only … to avoid paying people decent wages and providing them decent benefits' and declared that the minors were assigned to work with 'buzz saws and cleavers,' did Senator Obama look at the evidence or consider the plant's categorical denial of these allegations?" Lewin asked.
Lewin said Agriprocessors recruits and hires only workers older than 18. Some applicants may have lied about their ages to get jobs, but when the company finds out, it immediately fires them, Lewin said. He added that last year the company fired four girls when it discovered from an internal investigation that they were under age.
Lewin added that all Agriprocessors workers receive pay and benefits at or above industry standards.
A day earlier, a guest column by Culver published in the Des Moines Sunday Register denounced the company. He wrote that Agriprocessors has "chosen to take the low road in its business practices." He closed his commentary with a reference to the 1906 Upton Sinclair novel, "The Jungle," about the horrors of the meatpacking industry and its cruelty toward immigrant workers.
"There will be no industrial 'jungles' in Iowa on my watch," Culver wrote.