Thursday, August 7, 2008

USCJ releases guidelines for ethical kosher certification

by Lorne Bell
The Jewish Advocate
August 7, 2008

Heksher tzedek addresses social and environmental issues

Three months after federal agents arrested nearly 400 undocumented workers at Agriprocessors, the nation’s largest kosher food producer, concerns about the kosher food industry remain. Last week, the Conservative movement responded by issuing guidelines for a new kosher certification, heksher tzedek.

“Current kosher standards have to do with a certain ritual technique for slaughter,” said Richard Lederman, project manager for the Heksher Tzedek Commission, a joint initiative of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism and the Rabbinical Assembly. “What we’re trying to do is take Jewish thought and laws on ethics and apply that to the production of kosher food.”

Heksher tzedek, Hebrew for “certified ethical,” was first conceived in 2006 by Rabbi Morris Allen of Beth Jacob Congregation in Minnesota. He argued that the corporatization of kosher food production has led to a range of ethical issues – labor exploitation, animal abuse and environmental contamination from the salting process – that the Jewish community must address.

“We cannot be more concerned about a cow’s lung than we are about people’s hands; we have to at least be equally concerned about both,” Allen said. “Heksher tzedek demonstrates that Judaism is not about ritual and ethics, but about the relationship between the two.”

Allen now serves as project director for the Heksher Tzedek Commission, which was formally endorsed by the USCJ and its rabbinical counterpart, the RA, in 2007. The commission’s guidelines focus on five categories of food production: employee wages and benefits; health, safety and training; environmental impact; product development, including animal welfare and product safety; and corporate transparency.

Allen said the new heksher will complement, not replace, existing certifications. Plans for a pilot program are currently underway in the Midwest.

For local kosher retailers and customers, the heksher tzedek would be a welcome sight on kosher products, according to Walter Gellerman, president of The Butcherie, a kosher grocer in Brookline.

“To me it sounds like giving the customer some additional information, which is always a good thing,” said Gellerman. “But if you went through our shelves you’d find dozens of certifications. Some will satisfy almost everyone and some will only satisfy a fraction of the community. We let our customers decide.”

But for those customers who have sworn off Agriprocessors’ products, the prospect of a heksher tzedek is a promising development. The Jewish Labor Committee and its supporters have been boycotting the Iowa plant since it was raided in May. Marya Axner, regional director of JLC New England, said the new guidelines could go a long way toward ensuring workers’ rights throughout the industry.

“It’s such a hopeful sign that the Conservative movement is taking leadership on this issue and giving new meaning to what it takes and what it means to keep kosher,” she said. “The JLC and many parts of the Jewish community will be happy and relieved to have this kind of leadership and to get behind it.”

Still, not everyone is eager to sign on to a proposal for ethical oversights of kosher food production. Menachem Lubinsky, marketing consultant for Agriprocessors, said the company will not seek the heksher tzedek and will continue to abide by the Orthodox Union’s established standards of kashrut.

“Agriprocessors is going to have to take its cue from its rabbinical authority, and as far as I know, the OU and its rabbis have opposed heksher tzedek,” he said.
Lubinsky noted that the Iowa plant has gone to great lengths to resolve food safety violations and allegations of animal and worker mistreatment by working directly with the USDA and OSHA.

The OU, one of the Jewish community’s most recognized authorities on kosher food certification, has adopted a similar stance.

“We believe, together with the Heksher Tzedek Commission, that issues of social justice, workers’ rights and the environment are important and many have a Biblical basis,” said Rabbi Menachem Genack, rabbinic administrator of the OU’s kashrut division. “But in terms of actually implementing [guidelines], those are things that should be handled, and are, by federal agencies that have the authority and means to do so.”

Genack said the heksher tzedek’s guidelines are “amorphous” and would be difficult to apply across the industry, although he did not rule out the possibility of including the new mark alongside the OU’s own heksher.

“The OU has a policy that we don’t generally permit two different supervisions on the same label, but in this context we might,” he said.

Allen is hopeful that the OU, as well as other kosher authorities and facilities will soon embrace the heksher tzedek as a reflection of the Jewish community’s values.

“We’ve come a long way in two years and I’m amazed at how we have been able to elevate the discourse on kashrut,” said Allen. “My belief is that by Rosh Hashanah next year we will be sitting down at the table celebrating the New Year with food that represents the best of Judaism, having been produced in both ritually and ethically appropriate ways.”