Rabbis Move Ahead With New Certification Plan

By Nathaniel Popper

Published May 18, 2007, issue of May 18, 2007.
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The Conservative synagogue movement is moving ahead with its plans to create a new ethically based certification system for kosher food in response to concerns about working conditions at the nation’s largest kosher slaughterhouse.

At the annual meeting of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, early this month, the gathering voted to endorse the five-person committee that has for the past year been developing the certification — known as the Heckscher Tzedek, or Justice Certification.

The rabbinical union also voted to provide a budget line — and potentially a staff member — to the push, which, until now, has been a volunteer effort within the Conservative movement. The planned new certification is intended to monitor the working conditions at plants where kosher food is produced.

“If you haven’t been supervising for these issues, it’s not automatically going to happen,” said Rabbi Morris Allen, who has chaired the five-person committee. “Just like if you don’t supervise how a chicken is killed, it won’t necessarily be killed properly. What we are doing now is beginning to provide a means by which we can say, ‘We’re watching; this matters.’”

Allen’s committee is now in the process of planning a pilot program that may be used with select kosher factories. The committee is contracting with a consulting company that specializes in evaluating manager-employee relations. Allen said he hopes that the groundwork for the program will be complete by Rosh Hashanah, which falls in September.

The Heckscher Tzedek initiative has come under sharp criticism from Orthodox rabbis who direct current kosher certification. These rabbis have said that the working conditions at a plant are unrelated to the laws regarding kosher slaughter and should be left to government monitors.

The Conservative committee is developing a curriculum to educate the larger Jewish community about its initiative.

“There shouldn’t be any Jew that isn’t concerned about this,” Allen said. “There has, until now, been a greater stringency in kashruth on the smoothness of a cow’s lung, and people have forgotten that the Torah also speaks about the safety of the worker.”

The committee that developed the Heckscher Tzedek grew out of an investigation of the AgriProcessors slaughterhouse in Postville, Iowa (see main article). The Conservative rabbis identified what they described as problems in the working conditions at that plant, and negotiations between the rabbis and the slaughterhouse stumbled. Allen said the committee is now setting its sights more broadly on the entire kosher industry.

“We have turned our focus from trying to fix one piece to trying to fix the entire industry,” Allen said. “We did one preliminary screen in which none of the major players in the kosher meat market did well on [Occupational Safety and Health Administration] reports.”


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