What lessons can we take away from all the embarrassing reports about Agriprocessors, the largest kosher slaughterhouse in America, accused of abuse of both animals and workers in its Postville, Iowa plant?
The plus side is that the controversy has sparked a long-overdue discussion about the larger meaning of the mitzvah of kashrut, a conversation that includes values as well as ritual and could result in some substantive improvements. But there are those who contend that such talk is likely to have little impact on the multi-billion dollar kosher food industry.
The case, you may recall, focused first on alleged violations in the treatment of animals, and then spread to charges of the mistreatment of immigrants and underage employees, failure to pay
minimum wage, and of perverting Jewish ethical values and standards in regards to kashrut.
The giant plant has become the scene of protests in recent days, following the high-profile arrest in May of close to 400 illegal immigrant workers and reports in the media of charges that Agriprocessors is the worst violator of its kind. In response, members of the Rubashkin family of Brooklyn and some of their defenders assert the media is guilty of a modern-day witch-hunt when no charges have been filed against the owners.
Some Jews wonder why it is that only a kosher establishment has endured the full brunt of a government investigation and national media attention. What’s more, a group of more than 20 leading Orthodox rabbis, including Agudath Israel Executive Vice President Rabbi Shmuel Bloom, visited the plant last week and came away impressed, saying the Rubashkins are exceeding the requirements of the law and, according to a joint statement, “working diligently to adhere to the highest workplace standards possible.”
One positive outcome from all this attention is that some elements of the Jewish community are gaining awareness of the notion that kosher qualifications should go beyond the preparation of food and must include Torah values about treating employees, and customers, with dignity and respect.
A movement that began in Israel in 2004, through a nonprofit agency there called Bema’aglei Tzedek (Circles of Justice), has certified about 400 restaurants that comply with fair employment practices and access for the disabled. It began with concern, especially among younger people, about the treatment of foreign workers in Israel. It has caught on in Jerusalem, and elsewhere, as consumers check establishments not only for the traditional te’udah, or certificate, that the food served is kosher, but for the new tav chevrati, or social seal, gained after satisfactory responses to queries about whether wages are fair, working conditions are acceptable and access is provided for the handicapped, etc.
Such concerns have found expression in the U.S. through a new Modern Orthodox group, Uri L’Tzedek (Awaken to Justice), which seeks to emphasize social action, and Hekhsher Tzedek (Seal of Justice), a recent effort by Conservative rabbis to tie ethical standards to approving food products already certified as kosher by existing kosher certification agencies. Mirroring the societal factors in Israel, this initiative was sparked by reports of mistreatment of foreign workers and an attempt to infuse moral and business concerns into kashrut certification.
In a policy statement released the other day by Hekhsher Tzedek, five primary areas were cited for evaluation before a product will be approved: employees’ wages and benefits, employee health and safety, product development, corporate transparency and environmental impact.
(This is just the kind of moral issue that could inspire and reinvigorate Conservative Jewry, which has lost members and been divided internally for the last few years over whether or not to accept gay clergy.)
Traditionally, it is the Orthodox community that has been most interested in and involved with kashrut. And while there is great satisfaction among the kosher clientele in the growing numbers of products certified kosher, there has long been grumbling that prices are too high, with suspicions of monopolies and even corruption. Kashrut is considered such a murky business, especially as it has grown, that few are fully knowledgeable about the economics of it all. And the numbers are staggering.
Kosher food is now an $11.5 billion industry, double what it was a decade ago, with more than 100,000 certified products on the market, according to Menachem Lubinsky, an expert in the field who has also served as a spokesman for Agriprocessors.
The Orthodox Union, the largest kosher certifying agency, now oversees some 7,000 factories in 80 countries, with major growth in China.
Leaders of the Orthodox establishment “are not enthusiastic” about Hekhsher Tzedek, says Lubinsky, who adds that the new certification “will not have any impact” on kosher consumers.
He says “the major certifying agencies don’t want to re-define kosher,” and feel they should deal with kashrut standards per se and let the government handle issues of business standards and compliance.
However, this notion of separating kashrut itself from other activities seems counter to the practice of some leading Orthodox kashrut certifying agencies that withdraw supervision of establishments based on social behavior. A notable case was that of the Glatt Yacht boat rides around Manhattan two decades ago; the proprietors were faced with losing certification by the Kof-K agency if they continued to permit mixed dancing on board.
The Orthodox establishment tends to believe that the laws regarding kashrut and ethical behavior “should not be intertwined,” according to Lubinsky, because it “confuses the marketplace.”
But the head of the Orthodox Union’s kashrut division doesn’t see it that way. Rabbi Menachem Genack, rabbinic administrator and CEO, says he is impressed with the goals and motivation of Hekhsher Tzedek and its founder, Rabbi Morris Allen, a Conservative rabbi in Minnesota.
Rabbi Genack’s concerns are practical, namely the implementation of ethical practices. He raises questions such as who is to determine a fair wage for workers (“is minimum wage sufficient?”) or whether or not a company is polluting the environment.
“Those should be determined by the government and its agencies,” he says.
Rabbi Allen has spent more than two decades of his rabbinate promoting kashrut observance among his congregants, including a project he called Chew By Choice. Hekhsher Tzedek is the culmination of that work, and he sees it as “a win-win” for everyone involved with kashrut, predicting that sales will increase, reaching an additional market of people who would support “products made in an ethical way.”
He said he has been heartened by receiving calls from five kosher certifying agencies in the last few days expressing interest in discussions. His goal would be for products to display both a kashrut and Hekhsher Tzedek label.
For now, though, denominational rivalries are still a factor in the current debate, if under the surface. While some believe the Agriprocessors scandal marks an implicit criticism of the Orthodox leadership for not paying more attention to workers’ conditions, others argue that the Conservative movement has no kashrut certification of its own and is lax about kosher standards.
Surely both sides would agree that the Torah calls for observing laws of kashrut (though definitions vary) as well as showing compassion to workers and treating animals with care and consideration.
For example, the Torah forbids an employer from holding back a worker’s wages overnight (Lev. 19:13) and muzzling an ox working in the field (Deut. 25:4).
However you look at it, there is room for communal pride in the tremendous growth of the kosher food industry — and shame that the word “kosher,” meant to stand for purity, has also come to be associated with carelessness, greed and other traits that surely are “treif.”