Is new justice certification for food ethical?
Rabbi Brackman probes question of keeping kosher in 21st century, says new regulations imply this is somehow different today than in past times

The new ethical certification for food products being promoted by Conservative Rabbi Morris Allen, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism and the Rabbinical Assembly seems like a great idea. Hekhsher Tzedek or Justice Certification will certify that food has been produced in an ethically correct manner and that no person was unfairly treated during the production process. It is an ethical seal of approval. Why should anyone object to such a noble cause?


The problem with this new initiative is not the concept it is the context. The slogan for Hekhsher Tzedek is “Keeping Kosher in the 21st century.” This implies that keeping Kosher today is somehow different than it was one hundred or one thousand years ago and therefore a new type of ethical kosher certification is needed.


The Justice Certification initiative was born mainly out of the very unfortunate saga involving the kosher meat manufacturer Agriprocessors Inc. where illegal immigrants were employed and workers were allegedly mistreated. At present these allegations remain unproven. Nonetheless we cannot excuse companies which mistreat their employees or act in an unethical manner; and yes companies that are owned and operated by religious Jews should be held to the ethical and moral standards that the Torah demands. If these allegations are proven to be true the Chassidic owners of Agriprocessors Inc. will have much to answer for and none of us should patronize them until they change their practices. However, all of this has nothing to do with whether the food is Kosher to eat according to Jewish law.


Intellectual honesty demands that we delineate things properly. The requirements for food to be Kosher involves the laws of milk and meat, the types of animals, birds and fish that the Torah permits Jews to eat, the need for the animal to be healthy at the time of slaughter, the removal of the blood before eating and the humane slaughtering of animals. But kosher with regard food has nothing to do with the ethical treatment of workers or the morality of the company that produces the edible products. There are other Torah laws that deal with ethics and morality –laws which must also be followed with regards everything, not just food.


The kosher standards

One wonders whether these do-gooders have looked into the way the plants in China and elsewhere that manufacture their everyday consumer items treat their employees. Can they tell us if health insurance is given to those foreign workers? Is Morris Allen and his cohorts sure that all the clothes they wear were made in factories where safety for the employees was taken into consideration? Are the maintenance workers at the Jewish Theological Seminary and Conservative Synagogues unionized? What level of health coverage they get would also be of interest.


If Morris Allen and the Conservative Movement were consistent they would demand these high ethical standards within their own organizations and for all the things they personally buy. If they are in fact redefining the concept of kosher to include ethical manufacturing standards why aren’t they applying this standard to all consumer items? The fact that kosher food manufacturers have been singled out for these “21st century” kosher standards seems rather arbitrary and suspicious and may indicate other less principled motives.


Hiding behind this moral and ethical indignation may be the desire to get a piece of the multibillion dollar kosher food industry. As long as kosher food is defined by a set of Torah laws, Morris Allen and his friends at the Rabbinical Assembly – many of whom do not themselves keep to those strict traditional kosher laws – have little credibility.


Once, however, they say that kosher food necessitates an ethical manufacturing standard they suddenly seem credible especially when a meat company run by Orthodox Jews has allegedly mistreated their workers. In order for this new Justice Certification to appear ethical and honest it must encompass all consumer products – until then it remains suspect.


Rabbi Levi Brackman is executive director of Judaism in the Foothills . His upcoming book , "Jewish Wisdom for Business Success", is set to be published in late 2008.


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