"There's a perspective that those companies will be seen as having caved in to Conservative demands and being more left-leaning," Menachem Lubinsky said, adding that smaller kosher producers won't be able to afford or compete with Magen Tzedek's requirements. "(Consumers) see this as being superfluous and they have full faith in the government to protect them," he added.
New standard planned for kosher food
By NICOLE NEROULIAS • Religion News Service
NEW YORK – What does it really mean for your Hebrew National hot dog to "answer to a higher authority?"
For years, it's meant a kosher certification that ensured Jewish (and non-Jewish) consumers were buying a product that met strict religious standards for slaughter and preparation that went beyond government requirements.
Now a controversial Jewish movement believes kosher food must meet an even higher ethical ideal — and they're rolling out a stamp of approval to make it official.
The new Magen Tzedek 'seal of justice," developed by Conservative Judaism's Hekhsher Tzedek Commission, will be tested on at least two kosher food companies in early 2011.
Standards and fees will be adjusted after 10 weeks of reviewing a host of conditions — including labor, animal welfare, consumer rights, corporate integrity and environmental impact — and analyzed by a New York-based auditing firm, said Rabbi Morris Allen, the project's director.
The new seal is a response to poor labor and animal welfare practices at the now-defunct Agriprocessors meat plant in Postville, Iowa, which had earned a kosher stamp of approval from Orthodox rabbis.
The dueling kosher certifications have opened a rift between Hekhsher Tzedek's Conservative backers and Orthodox Jews, who control most existing kosher standards and are the largest consumers of kosher products.
Kosher certification, now available from hundreds of agencies and stamped on more than one-third of American food products, costs anywhere from a few hundred to tens of thousands of dollars, depending on a company's size.
Critics say the new ethical kosher movement is an unnecessary layer of bureaucracy in an industry that's already under government regulation. The (Orthodox) Rabbinical Council of America released its own kosher ethical guidelines last January, but emphasized that food supervisors don't have the expertise to recognize or handle illegal or unethical business practices.
"Companies already have enough on their hands," said Rabbi Menachem Genack, the rabbinic administrator of the Orthodox Union's kosher division, which had certified Agriprocessors. "We think that the government agencies have the experience and resources to do that better than us."
Menachem Lubinsky, editor of Kosher Today and president of LUBICOM Marketing Consulting, which specializes in the kosher food industry, said most companies don't want yet another symbol on their packaging, and that the Magen Tzedek stamp may even prompt a backlash from Orthodox consumers.
"There's a perspective that those companies will be seen as having caved in to Conservative demands and being more left-leaning," he said, adding that smaller kosher producers won't be able to afford or compete with Magen Tzedek's requirements.
"(Consumers) see this as being superfluous and they have full faith in the government to protect them," he added.
Allen maintains that it's not enough to merely expect kosher food companies to meet or exceed government workplace standards, just as Jews don't leave it to state laws to ensure that food advertised as kosher is actually kosher.
"The government is oftentimes stretched, and is not able to do the kinds of inspections that should take place," Allen said. "It's our responsibility to see that in the production of kosher food, the ethical demands of the Jewish people are also being met."
Allen also dismisses critics who say Conservative Jews are trying to compete with, or supplant, the Orthodox in policing the kosher food industry.
"As far as I know," he said, "there's no unique responsibility for only the Orthodox to be involved in determining standards."
Despite resistance from the Orthodox, ethical-kosher supporter say their efforts will appeal to the wider spectrum of Jewish and even non-Jewish consumers who care that their food comes from a place that paid, not just prayed, properly.
"At the end of the day, it's a win-win for the kosher food industry," Allen said, "because for some people, our symbol will be the only symbol that they will care about."