Saying the eating of kosher food is a “religious obligation,” the Conservative movement revealed this week that it has established a commission to investigate reports of unsafe working conditions at the nation’s largest kosher meatpacking plant.
Rabbi Morris Allen of Mendota Heights, Minn., chairman of the commission, said its members have visited the plant, AgriProcessors in Postville, Iowa, and are working with its owners to correct the problems. He said also that the commission is studying the feasibility of creating what it calls a “tsedek heksher,” a certificate to attest that companies manufacturing food are doing so in a socially responsible way. “There are Jews who care about keeping kosher but who have additional requirements about the production of kosher meat,” Rabbi Allen said. “We should not be in a situation in which the way kosher food is produced is less than honorable.”
Richard Lederman, director of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism’s Public Policy and Social Action Commission, stressed that were the committee to recommend creating a new heksher, the certification would have no bearing on the way in which the food was prepared or the animal slaughtered. “We are not going to implement a new mark of kashruth,” he said. “And we will give it only to those foods that have a heksher [kosher certification] already.”
Lederman said the commission is still considering what criteria would be used in determining that a company met the standards for a tsedek heksher. Among the ideas under consideration are workers’ rights, their safety and wellbeing, environmental issues, and animal welfare. Although AgriProcessors has kosher food inspectors from the Orthodox Union on the premises, they are concerned exclusively with the kosher aspects of the facility, according to Rabbi Menachem Genack, the OU’s kashruth director.
“It is not that they are ignored,” he said of the safety issues and other concerns expressed by the Conservative movement. “These are areas under the purview of the federal government. There are standards in place regarding worker safety that are monitored by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and product safety is handled by the United States Department of Agriculture. All meat factories have several USDA inspectors on the premises.”
Rabbi Genack said the standards set by the Conservative movement would thus be “more stringent” and he said those standards are “not easy to define because they are subjective.” And he said environmental issues are “fraught with political implications.”
Rabbi Allen said his commission has been asked to submit recommendations about a tsedek heksher to the leadership of the movement’s Rabbinical Assembly and its United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism within six months.
The Conservative movement thus joins the Union for Reform Judaism in taking an interest in the production of kosher food in the United States. The Jewish Telegraphic Agency reported in October that a “handful of Reform rabbis are talking about creating a Reform board of kashrut, which would certify foods as ‘fit to eat’ according to ethical and political, as well as biblical and rabbinic, considerations.”
That interest comes in light of an unpublished 2000 survey that found that half of the movement’s congregations – 344 in all – had some adherence to the kosher laws. It found that fully 10 percent had kosher kitchens, that 80 percent ban pork or shellfish, and that nearly half would not serve milk and meat on the same plate or platter. And the JTA said the Union has been fielding an increasing number of calls from Reform congregations interested in making their kitchens kosher.
Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, said that both his organization and the Rabbinical Assembly are “committed to actively pursuing” the idea of a tsedek heksher. “We believe that because the idea of kashruth is to connect us with God, we are concerned not only with the soul of the animal being slaughtered but also with the soul of the people preparing the food,” he said. “We decided that we have to look into labor practices and making certain that people are treated fairly and appropriately. We have had concerns over the years about this.”
A series of stories in the Forward, a New York-based Jewish weekly, triggered the movement’s latest push in this area. The five-member rabbinic and lay commission members visited AgriProcessors over two days in August and spoke not only with the plant’s management but also with employees and community leaders. It also reviewed reports from the state Department of Labor that found inadequate or non-existent worker safety training; inadequate safety procedures when turning off machines for cleaning; concern about unsafe chemical use; unclean and unsafe lunchroom conditions, and a lack of safety equipment.
Rabbi Allen said the commission recommended that AgriProcessors invite the state Department of Labor to inspect the entire plant to make sure it is in full compliance with the law, that plant management meet regularly with workers, and that all training material be in Spanish. He said that about 85 percent of the 750 plant employees are immigrants. Officials of AgriProcessors did not return calls, but Rabbi Allen said they have been cooperative and would prefer to hire their own consultant to evaluate employee safety and health procedures rather than ask the Department of Labor to conduct the inspection. In addition to discussing work conditions at the plant, commission members also discussed how more non-glatt kosher meat could reach the market, according to Rabbi Joel Meyers, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly.
“Producing more of it would lower the cost to the kosher consumer,” he said. Rabbi Allen said non-glatt kosher meat had virtually disappeared from meat shelves in Minneapolis-St. Paul and that after he spoke with the management at AgriProcessors earlier in the year, it reappeared. “There is a significant price difference between glatt and non-glatt meat,” he said. “If you want people to keep kosher – and since there is no halachic [Jewish law] reason not to eat [non-glatt meat] you want to have it available. There is up to a 20 percent price differential.” Members of the commission also inspected the Empire Poultry plant in Mifflintown, Pa., on Oct. 18 and after meeting with management and employees said it found “working conditions, safety conditions and general worker welfare and community relations not to be issues of concern.”