Thursday, March 27, 2008

Expanding the definition of kashrut

By Josh Lipowsky

Union dispute fuels kashrut debate

When consumers see the OU, OK, or another label certifying that their food is kosher, they know that it was prepared according to halakha. They don’t, however, know if factory workers are treated fairly or if a production plant is run safely and with care for the environment. But efforts are under way to change that. The nation’s largest union representing food industry laborers has been campaigning to get the world’s largest producer of kosher meat to unionize, sparking the question as to whether there is room in the definition of kashrut for such factors as labor rights.

"My sense is that within the Orthodox communities people are increasingly aware of and concerned about how their products are being made," said Arieh Leibowitz, communications director of the Jewish Labor Committee.

A worker at the Empire Poultry plant in Mifflintown, Pa. The factory’s workers are represented by the United Food and Commercial Workers union. Thomas b. king

The JLC has been involved with the United Food and Commercial Workers union in monitoring Agriprocessors Inc., and, he said, a standard kashrut certification may no longer be enough for consumers.

"People are asking questions," Leibowitz said. He cited last year’s scandal in Monsey, N.Y. — where a kosher market sold nonkosher chickens with fraudulent kosher labels — for raising greater consumer interest in the preparation of kosher food.

"People want to know what’s behind the label," he said. "They want to know more about the process, the circumstances in which things are made. It isn’t just the kashering per se but it may be the basic rights of workers according to halakha. And we encourage that."

The Iowa Division of Labor Services issued 39 citations against Agriprocessors earlier this month for violations of state workplace safety and health standards in its Postville, Iowa, plant. Meanwhile, United Food and Commercial Workers has continued a more than two-year fight against the company in a bid to unionize the plant’s workers. Agriprocessors employees first approached the union in 2005, said UFCW spokesman Scott Frotman, but the company has refused calls to unionize its plant.

To that end, the union has created a public relations campaign focusing on health and safety violations at the plant in order to pressure the Rubashkin family, which owns Agriprocessors, to allow its workers to unionize.

"There is no other meatpacking company of comparable size — kosher or non-kosher — with such a sustained record of malfeasance as Agriprocessors," said Frotman earlier this week. "Agriprocessors is operating as a renegade in this industry and it is important that they are held accountable for their actions."

When the K’hal Adath Jeshuran, a small but respected organization based in the Washington Heights neighborhood of New York City, announced in October that it would pull its certification from Agriprocessors’ products in April, the union saw the move as a small victory.

Earlier this year, UFCW bought ads in newspapers around the country highlighting KAJ’s exit. In addition to reprinting KAJ’s termination letter, the ad cited some of Agriprocessors’ USDA violations, as if to link the two. Responding to queries from The Jewish Standard, however, KAJ officials said the problem was related to the access of its rabbis in the plant and not because of any specific kashrut or employee rights issues. Eric Erlbach, president of KAJ, said that his organization had nothing to do with the ad and did not allege any violations of health or kashrut law.

This newspaper decided not to run the UFCW ad after it learned that KAJ had not authorized it.

KAJ’s termination was a result of "dissatisfaction in our inability to properly supervise and make sure what we want to have done is done and not because we feel that there’s something being done that is going to jeopardize the kashrus of the meat," Erlbach said.

Nevertheless, the advertising and public relations campaign called attention to kashrut concerns.

A letter to consumers on the company’s Website by vice president Sholom Rubashkin dismissed the charges by UFCW and accused the union of carrying out a vendetta against the company because it refused to unionize.

The letter reads: "Agriprocessors, Inc. is a viable company that is committed to maintaining the quality of its product both in full compliance with existing rules and regulations of the USDA and in full compliance with the rules of kashruth. Over the past couple of years the employees of Agriprocessors, Inc. in Iowa have resisted attempts by the United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW) to become their collective bargaining agent."

In a telephone interview Wednesday night, Rubashkin said, "The workers are quite happy and have not signed any papers to unionize. That’s the whole point."

He also maintained that OSHA was in the process of revising its list of violations against his company. But his call was received too late to get confirmation from that government agency.

Meanwhile, the union’s Frotman maintained that Agriprocessors has more health and safety violations than any other food production plant, kosher or not, in the United States. Unionizing, he said, would lead to a reduction in those violations and create a safer work environment. UFCW has no intention of halting its campaign, he added.

"Consumers have a right to know about these issues so they can make informed decisions about how they use their shopping dollars," said Frotman. Those dollars, he said, can hold a lot of influence in forcing change. However, Agriprocessors has claimed, on its Website, that the campaign has not hurt business.

But the union’s efforts are having an effect in the Jewish world — although not yet at the intended target.

Partly in response to the troubles at Agriprocessors, the Conservative movement created its hekhsher tzedek to certify that food is ethically fit for consumption. (See related story.)

UFCW has welcomed the heksher tzedek, but the organization remains focused on Agriprocessors and the existing kosher certification companies already at work in the plant.

"We don’t have an official position on the hekhsher tzedek," Frotman said. "However, we are disappointed that kosher certifiers, like the Orthodox Union, have not taken more concrete steps to address serious, ongoing problems at Agriprocessors, ranging from worker safety to food safety issues."

The OU, the largest certifier of kosher products around the world, does not weigh in on issues like worker safety, the environment, and animal welfare in the plants it supervises. State and federal governments have set up various agencies to deal with all of these issues, said Rabbi Menachem Genack, rabbinic administrator and CEO of the OU’s kashrut division. He added that the OU defers to the expertise of those agencies in those areas. While there is a halakhic basis for fair treatment of workers, he said, the OU relies on the government to provide unbiased and educated enforcement of its guidelines, as rabbinical judgments would be too subjective.

"Our expertise is in kashrus," Genack said. "Fundamentally, all these different areas" — workers’ rights, animal treatment, and environmental concerns — "require attention. But it requires expertise, authority — all that is in place in terms of American law right now. There is not a more halakhic requirement beyond that area of law."

Asked if the OU might be interested in creating a certification similar to the hekhsher tzedek, Genack said that is unlikely because of its confidence in U.S. laws and enforcement agencies.

"There is a [halakhic] requirement to observe the laws of the country," Genack said. "To make sure those laws are properly preserved, we turn to the government."

That’s fine, said Frotman. Rather than asking the OU to take on additional responsibilities, he said, UFCW would rather that it pressure Agriprocessors to make changes in its plant.

"While we have great respect for the role that workers’ rights play in the Jewish tradition, we do not presume to say what individual rabbinical inspectors should or should not do," Frotman said. "We do, however, believe that the OU has an opportunity to use its considerable influence to protect the kosher industry from the dark cloud being cast upon it by Agriprocessors’ repeated violations and bad behavior."

Not everybody agrees with Genack’s assessment.

"The issue of general community standards, the role of local custom, whatever the custom is — labor rights environment, or other standards — that’s like a floor," Leibowitz said. "If there are any standards in Jewish religious law that are above that, those would also be taken into consideration."

While there may or may not be differences between halakha and existing labor laws, a rabbinical seal could provide added reassurance to consumers who may not be as familiar with international labor laws, he added.

Leibowitz likened the hekhsher tzedek to fair-trade labels increasingly found on myriad products. For example, Rug Mart has a label that none of its products were made using child labor, even though international laws exist against the practice. The additional label provides reassurance to consumers that workers are treated fairly beyond the minimum of international law, Leibowitz said.

"It may be that once the hekhsher tzedek catches on, Conservative Jews or other Jews or non-Jews would say, ‘Gee, this is another seal that’s telling me something about the quality of the product and the circumstances in which it’s been made,’" he said.