Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Holiness and Justice: A Fair Trade Approach to Keeping Kosher

Fair Trade News
by Hilary Johnson, LFTN board member
Listen to Rabbi Allen's Interview

Rabbi Morris Allen, of Beth Jacob Congregation in Mendota Heights, MN, has been promoting kashrut, Jewish dietary laws, to his congregation for twenty years. He says that kashrut provides “a way in which we as Jews understand a daily opportunity to sanctify our lives, to create a sense of holiness and a sense of awareness of God in our lives.” This consciousness means that Allen takes his food and its production seriously.

More than a year ago, Allen learned of labor abuses at an Iowa kosher meat processing plant that supplied the Twin Cities Jewish community. He was faced with a contradiction: The worker may slaughter an animal according to the laws of kashrut, but he or she may be underpaid and mistreated. What if the ritual is observed, but the ethics are undermined?

Allen distinguishes between “ritual,” the letter of the law that describes specific procedures for kosher slaughter and food handling, and the ethics of how kosher food is actually produced. While he does not privilege one over the other, he thinks current certification practices do. According to Allen, “kashrut has become more and more concerned with whether or not the lung of a cow is smooth, but has forgotten that the hand of the worker is just as important. That’s what heksher tzedek is all about.”

Heksher tzedek, or justice certification, is Allen’s answer to the contradiction of the ritually correct but underpaid worker. Working with a myriad of groups, including local and national committees and nonprofits, as well as a Boston consulting firm, he began creating the heksher tzedek after his trip to Iowa. They are now in the process of defining standards and determining the method of certification. The standards cover six areas: Health & Safety, Wages & Benefits, Training, Environmental Impact, Corporate Transparency, and Product Development. Allen stresses that worker and manager participation has been essential to creating meaningful guidelines within these areas, and that transparency is key to a rigorous certification process. As an example, he describes a hypothetical company that claims to offer health benefits to workers, but upon auditing worker paystubs, certifiers might find no deductions for premiums, indicating that no one is actually signed up for the benefits. Allen gives as one possible reason for this the fact of large numbers of plant workers being migrant workers, many of whom speak or read little English.

Immigrant workers are at the center of the U.S. food system, from production to processing. The heksher tzedek standards, therefore, require that workers receive training in their native languages. As to the larger question of whether a company technically violating the law by employing undocumented workers should receive a heksher tzedek, Allen says that such workers are so prevalent that they virtually form the backbone of U.S. industry. He asserts that legislation like last spring’s Sensenbrenner immigration bill, which would have required deportation of millions of undocumented workers, would bring the kosher meat industry “to a screeching halt overnight.”

The heksher tzedek campaign is not uncontroversial in the Jewish community. Orthodox Jews have traditionally performed kosher certification, and Rabbi Allen's movement is made up in large part of Conservative Jews. Critics question the validity of certification by non-Orthodox Jews, but Allen insists that the heksher tzedek will not be replacing Orthodox kosher certification. He believes it could even bring Jews back to kashrut who have abandoned it because of the common focus on ritual over ethics. He says that the heksher tzedek “is a way to demonstrate our concern for the vertical relationship between ourselves and God and also the horizontal relationship between ourselves and other people.”

Allen believes the heksher tzedek will have appeal to non-Jews as well. He says non-Jews already look for the kosher label for reasons of their own, including concern for food safety. Allen, like many in the fair trade movement, firmly believes that people want to do the right thing, and that they will, when given the choice.

Like fair-trade certified products, items with the heksher tzedek are likely to cost more than those without. Because of the inspection and certification costs, kosher food in general, especially meat, usually costs more than non-kosher food. But Allen points out that being able to buy cheap food often comes with a hidden cost: Exploitation of workers. If the meat costs a little more because the workers who processed it got paid better and received benefits like health care and sick time, he says, “then I would say that’s what it takes in order to demonstrate that keeping kosher really has impact, not only on my own life, and my own relationship to God, but to the society in which I live.”