Kosher Gets Ethical

A new standard is about to remake American Jews’ dietary code.

Louis Nayman

Kosher is about to get an American makeover. Sometime between Passover and Chanukah 2011, a new social responsibility certification – the Magen Tzedek (Star of Justice) – is expected to begin appearing on the labels of selected kosher food products throughout the United States. 

Kosher products are those that meet the standards of kashrus, Jewish dietary law prescribing what foods or combination of foods are permissible or prohibited to eat. Pork and shellfish are forbidden. Meat and dairy products cannot be mixed. Ingredients and processes must be inspected to make certain that nothing prohibited is introduced. Even otherwise permissible meat is kosher only if slaughtered, processed and inspected according to specific procedures under the supervision of a specially trained rabbi. Some orthodox Jews insist on an additional set of inspections involving examination of the lungs and internal organs to make certain that they are smooth–glatt–and free of punctures or disease. 

Kosher food is a $250 billion business, accounting for approximately 40 percent of all packaged foods sold in the United States. That makes kosher certification – by agencies specializing in rabbinic supervision of kashrus compliance – a big enterprise as well. By far the largest certifier of domestic kosher products is the nonprofit Orthodox Union, whose U inside an O symbol appears on more than 400,000 products, including Land O’ Lakes butter, Golden West beef, Jolt energy drinks, Oreo cookies, Glenmorangie Single Malt Scotch and Blue Bunny ice cream. 

Those who remember the 1970s television ad for Hebrew National hot dogs (“We answer to a higher authority!”) can be forgiven for assuming that current kosher certification explicitly mandates labor standards, hygienic conditions and environmental ethics surpassing federal or state requirements. It does not.

Magen Tzedek certification, say its developers, is intended to assure purchasers that a kashrus-compliant product also conforms to Biblical and Talmudic ethical values and standards regarding the treatment of workers, animal welfare, environmental impact and fair business dealings. Criteria for product certification include: living-wage compensation and decent benefits, neutrality in labor organizing drives, documented compliance with EPA and OSHA regulations, adherence to humane animal treatment and farm standards, responsible energy and water consumption, use of sustainable materials and alternative fuels, and fair treatment of immigrant workers.

The new certification is now in beta testing, with an expected market rollout sometime during the coming year, says Rabbi Morris Allen, who is working with Cornell University meat science professor Joe Regenstein and Social Accountability International to ready the standard for market. The spiritual leader of the Beth Jacob Congregation in Mendota Heights, Minn., Allen has a history of involvement as a pulpit rabbi in issues such as prison reform and immigrants rights, and has been leading the push for Magen Tzedek during the last five years.

It has been a polarizing effort. Some Jewish leaders believe the new standard is redundant and unnecessary. Rabbi Avi Shafran, spokesperson for Agudath Israel of America – a leading fundamentalist Orthodox religious, educational and advocacy organization – isn’t convinced that kashrus needs yet another certification. I think that many consumers have no reason to distrust the government agencies and law enforcement agencies as adequate safeguards for all those areas,” he says. I know of no halachic [pertaining to Jewish law] opinion requiring a kosher consumer to try to ensure that companies go beyond what governmental rules require of them.”

Rabbi Menachem Genack, one of the foremost experts of kashrus certification in the world and the Rabbinic Administrator and CEO of the Orthodox Union’s kashrus program, is keeping an open mind.” Under his leadership, the Orthodox Union will allow the Magen Tzedek to be placed on labels next to the familiar OU logo.

Allen is determined to bring the new kosher standard to grocery store shelves around the country. We have one chance to do this right,” he insists. We as a people should not be more concerned about the smoothness of a cow’s lung than the safety of a worker’s hand.”

Louis Nayman is a longtime union organizer.
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