Within the next few months, consumers will probably see a small symbol — a series of Jewish stars within a white circle — next to the familiar OU or OK or other familiar kosher certification heksher marks on kosher foods in groceries.
The symbol is the sign of Magen Tzedek, a “comprehensive ethical certification” that this week officially announced its certification standards and started accepting applications from interested food producers and processors.
The Magen Tzedek “Seal of Justice” will testify that a company complies with the Torah’s ethical standards, said Rabbi Michael Siegel, national co-chair of the Magen Tzedek Commission. It will be granted after inspection of a firm’s treatment of workers and animals, on-the-job safety standards and compliance with government regulations about “environmental impact.”
“An ever increasing number of both mainstream food processors, as well as specialty producers are adding socially responsible practices to help differentiate their brands in the marketplace,” the organization’s website stated this week in announcing that Magen Tzedek is “open for business.”
The organization, which launched four years ago and has roots in the Conservative movement but is now not affiliated with any denomination of Judaism, will give its symbol on foods that already bear a kosher certification symbol. But it will itself not rule on a product’s kashrut, Rabbi Siegel, who lives in the Chicago area, told The Jewish Week in a telephone interview. “It’s a complementary mark” to a standard kashrut heksher.
Magen Tzedek (magentzedek.org), “a classic faith-based initiative,” will concentrate on factories and plants where kosher food is produced, while the like-minded Uri L’Tzedek social justice organization, which was formed in the Modern Orthodox community, issues its Tav HaYosher certification to some 100 kosher restaurants and food service firms, many of them in the Greater New York area.
“We are [both] speaking the same language,” Rabbi Siegel said of the two programs. “We start with the premise that the Torah is equally concerned with ethics as with ritual — the Torah is a holistic document.”
“A number of companies” that make kosher products have contacted Magen Tzedek about its certification, and the organization’s first marks are likely to appear on items sometime this year, Rabbi Siegel said. He added that producers of halal foods, made in accordance with Islamic law, are also possible recipients of the Magen Tzedek symbol.
A mark of ethical certification will probably have little effect on the sales of foods that bear such a mark, said Menachem Lubinsky, president of Lubicom Marketing Consulting, a specialist in the kosher marketplace. “My sense is that quality and price are the major things people look at.”
Rabbi Avi Shafran, a spokesman for the haredi Agudath Israel of America, said parts of the Orthodox community find such an additional certification unnecessary. “At first, the [Magen Tzedek] seal implied that it signified adherence to kashrut, something the Conservative movement has no standing to determine,” Rabbi Shafran said. “Now it claims to simply mean that the recipient has adopted standards designated by secular environmental and social justice organizations. Products and manufacturers can already avail themselves of those organization’s imprimaturs, rendering Magen Tzedek superfluous. Hence the seal has gone from misleading to meaningless.”
Rabbi Shafran “has been perfectly consistent since the creation of Magen Tzedek,” Rabbi Siegel said. He “has never missed an opportunity to denigrate Conservative Judaism … [claiming] that Magen Tzedek, originally called Hechsher Tzedek, was an attempt by the Conservative movement to replace traditional kashrut standards. This is patently false. In fact, at the urging of several Orthodox colleagues who believed that using the word heksher was confusing, we renamed our product Magen Tzedek.
“The intent remains exactly the same despite the name,” Rabbi Siegel said. “That is, the assurance that kosher food has been manufactured according to the ethical norms of Jewish law and tradition.”