NEW YORK (RNS) What does it really mean for your Hebrew National hot dog to "answer to a higher authority?"
For years, it's meant a kosher certification that ensured Jewish (and non-Jewish) consumers were buying a product that met strict religious standards for slaughter and preparation that went beyond government requirements.
Now a controversial Jewish movement believes kosher food must meet an even higher ethical ideal -- and they're rolling out a stamp of approval to make it official.
The new Magen Tzedek "seal of justice," developed by Conservative Judaism's Hekhsher Tzedek Commission will be tested on at least two kosher food companies in early 2011.
Standards and fees will be adjusted after 10 weeks of reviewing a host of conditions -- including labor, animal welfare, consumer rights, corporate integrity and environmental impact -- and analyzed by a New York-based auditing firm, said Rabbi Morris Allen, the project's director.
The new seal is a response to poor labor and animal welfare practices at the now-defunct Agriprocessors meat plant in Postville, Iowa, which had earned a kosher stamp of approval from Orthodox rabbis.
The dueling kosher certifications have opened a rift between Hekhsher Tzedek's Conservative backers and Orthodox Jews, who control most existing kosher standards and are the largest consumers of kosher products.
Kosher certification, now available from hundreds of agencies and stamped on more than one-third of American food products, costs anywhere from a few hundred to tens of thousands of dollars, depending on a company's size.
The new, supplemental Magen Tzedek approval will probably cost in the "low-to-mid-four figures," Allen estimates, which shouldn't result in higher prices for kosher foods.
What may raise the price, however, is if a company needs to improve conditions to meet ethical standards.
"If the company wants our seal and they're paying (workers) poorly, they may have to raise their compensation to their employees, and those sort of things," Allen said. "But most companies that are already being good food production companies, it will be a negligible cost."
Critics say the new ethical kosher movement is an unnecessary layer of bureaucracy in an industry that's already under government regulation. The (Orthodox) Rabbinical Council of America released its own kosher ethical guidelines last January, but emphasized that food supervisors don't have the expertise to recognize or handle illegal or unethical business practices.
Kosher certifications usually pay for themselves through increased market share, and skeptics are doubtful the industry will see the same benefits in a second ethical seal, on top of meeting federal USDA and work-safety requirements.
"Companies already have enough on their hands," said Rabbi Menachem Genack, the rabbinic administrator of the Orthodox Union's kosher division, which had certified Agriprocessors. "We think that the government agencies have the experience and resources to do that better than us."
Menachem Lubinsky, editor of Kosher Today and president of LUBICOM Marketing Consulting, which specializes in the kosher food industry, said most companies don't want yet another symbol on their packaging, and that the Magen Tzedek stamp may even prompt a backlash from Orthodox consumers.
"There's a perspective that those companies will be seen as having caved in to Conservative demands and being more left-leaning," he said, adding that smaller kosher producers won't be able to afford or compete with Magen Tzedek's requirements.
"(Consumers) see this as being superfluous and they have full faith in the government to protect them," he added. "There are always problems slipping through the cracks ... but (ethical kosher) would unfairly burden the small producers."
Allen maintains that it's not enough to merely expect kosher food companies to meet or exceed government workplace standards, just as Jews don't leave it to state laws to ensure that food advertised as kosher is actually kosher.
"The government is oftentimes stretched, and is not able to do the kinds of inspections that should take place," Allen said. "For us, these are religious issues, no less than certifying the ritual nature of the product. It's our responsibility to see that in the production of kosher food, the ethical demands of the Jewish people are also being met."
Allen also dismisses critics who say Conservative Jews are trying to compete with, or supplant, the Orthodox in policing the kosher food industry.
"As far as I know," he said, "there's no unique responsibility for only the Orthodox to be involved in determining standards."
The movement does have some support among the Orthodox, including Uri L'Tzedek, an Orthodox initiative that aims to ensure that kosher restaurants pay minimum wage and overtime.
Since its debut in May 2009, about 60 kosher eateries in America have earned the group's Tav HaYosher seal. Director Rabbi Ari Weiss said several restaurant owners have told him that the ethical seal has improved business among customers who care about fair workplace standards.
The same may hold true for ethical kosher food products, he said.
"We see it as bringing ethics and ethical consumption into the Jewish marketplace," Weiss said. "In any community, there are bad actors and good actors ... We're asking them to abide by the law. Nothing more, nothing less."
Despite resistance from the Orthodox, ethical-kosher supporter say their efforts will appeal to the wider spectrum of Jewish and even non-Jewish consumers who care that their food comes from a place that paid, not just prayed, properly.
"At the end of the day, it's a win-win for the kosher food industry," Allen said, "because for some people, our symbol will be the only symbol that they will care about.