Orthodox Group Pushing Ethical Kosher Guidelines
Julie Wiener • Associate Editor New York Jewish Week
A few months after the Conservative movement unveiled a first draft of its “Magen Tzedek” standards for evaluating whether kosher food companies comply with Jewish ethical teachings, a centrist Orthodox group has issued its own “principles and ethical guidelines” for the kosher food industry.
While Sholom Rubashkin, the former manager of the Agriprocessors kosher slaughterhouse sits in jail awaiting sentencing on 86 counts of financial fraud (and several prominent Orthodox rabbis are pressing the Justice Department to free him until he is sentenced), the Rabbinical Council of America, which represents 1,000 centrist Orthodox rabbis, is unveiling new guidelines calling for kashrut agencies to adopt policies for withdrawing approval from companies engaged in “significant wrongdoing.”
The guidelines are endorsed by the Orthodox Union, the largest certifying agency of kosher food in North America, and endorsements from other major kashrut agencies are expected.
The meat and poultry produced at the Agriprocessors plant, which was charged with violations of immigration law, child labor law and financial fraud, retained its kosher supervision after a federal raid at the Iowa plant in May 2008.
However, the Orthodox social justice organization Uri L’Tzedek, sponsored a month-long boycott of the company’s products, and that September the Orthodox Union threatened to revoke supervision at Agriprocessors if new management was not put in place within two weeks.
Agriprocessors filed for bankruptcy two months later. Last summer, the company came under new ownership and is now called Agri Star.
Developers of Magen Tzedek, a certification that will supplement, not replace, kosher certification wasted no time in claiming that the new RCA guidelines represented a “vote of confidence” in their project.
“We heartily salute the RCA for developing these guidelines which obviously come in response to recent serious abuses within the kosher food industry,” said Rabbi Morris Allen, founder and director of Magen Tzedek, in a statement issued shortly after the RCA guidelines were made public.
“We are gratified to have the core principles of Magen Tzedek affirmed in their guidelines and feel supported in our effort by our counterpart organization in the Orthodox world,” he continued.
However, the goals and demands of the RCA guidelines — that companies comply with United States laws — are considerably more modest than those of Magen Tzedek, which sets standards that go far beyond the law on everything from environmental practices to employee wages to treatment of animals.
In an interview with The Jewish Week, Rabbi Asher Meir, chair of the RCA task force that developed the guidelines, said his group’s guidelines make it clear to food producers that “if we know you’re engaged in despicable behavior we will refuse to have our name associated with you.”
The guidelines call for kosher certification agencies to develop “clear procedures” so that kashrut inspectors can report wrongdoing they encounter not related to kosher compliance and the development of “fair and equitable policies for following up on any problems detected.”
Asked what constitutes wrongdoing, Rabbi Meir, the research director for the Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem, said, “Our guiding principle is law-abiding behavior.”
The guidelines include a list of legal offenses that should be considered significant wrongdoing, including misleading consumers; neglecting the health and safety of customers, employees or the public; and mistreatment of animals.
In contrast to Magen Tzedek, “we’re not setting up our own standards for animal suffering, worker safety or truth in advertising,” Rabbi Meir said. “We don’t have expertise in that or the ability to enforce, and the United States has extensive regulations.”
“What we saw at Agriprocessors was that the producers were not aware what the demands of the supervisors were,” regarding compliance with U.S. laws, he said.
“Agriprocessors didn’t expect the response from the OU, and the OU didn’t expect the level of indignation from its constituents,” he said.
The new guidelines do not require kashrut inspectors to report manufacturer misdeeds to the police or outside authorities.