New Kosher Food Certification May Be Most Detailed In the Industry

Magen Tzedek’s Ethical Standards Apply Even to Workers’ Wages

By Nathaniel Popper

Published September 09, 2009, issue of September 18, 2009.
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The Conservative movement has released detailed guidelines for what experts say could be one of the most comprehensive food certifications in existence.

The guidelines for the new Magen Tzedek food certification are intended to ensure that ethical standards are adhered to in kosher food production, and they delve into nearly every phase of the production process. A group of Conservative rabbis began developing the certification more than two years ago after a Forward article drew attention to the poor working conditions at what was then the world’s largest kosher slaughterhouse, Agriprocessors, in Postville, Iowa.

The Hekhsher Tzedek commission, which created the guidelines with the backing of the national bodies of Conservative Judaism, has previously released rough sketches of what the certification would encompass. But the rules released this week go on for 175 pages and delve into great detail on the standards companies will need to meet if they want to earn a Magen Tzedek certification. (Hekhsher Tzedek means certification of justice in Hebrew, while Magen Tzedek means seal of justice.) Those standards broadly break down into five areas: treatment of employees, animal welfare, consumer issues, corporate integrity and environmental impact.

Among the specific rules laid out in the draft is one stipulating that a company would have to pay its lowest paid employee at least 115% of the federal minimum wage (currently $7.25 an hour) and provide the same employee with health and other benefits that amount to at least 35% of his or her wages. These standards, and many others, would apply to workers who produce any ingredient that is at least 5% of the weight of the final product.

There are a number of certification programs that look at one or another of the specific categories that the Magen Tzedek is interested in — but industry experts say that there are almost no other food-certification systems that are as comprehensive and thorough as what the Conservative rabbis are proposing.

“The breadth is impressive,” said Scott Exo, director of the Food Alliance, which bills itself as the “most comprehensive third-party certification for the production, processing, and distribution of sustainable food.”

The guidelines are being offered for public comment, and the commission is hoping to have an application and a beta test of the program done by the end of this year — with the program starting next year. The Hekhsher Tzedek commission is in talks with an independent auditing company that would conduct the actual certifying audits.

“This shows that it is possible to take Jewish norms and to produce a set of standards that are measurable and operational,” said Rabbi Morris Allen, the Minnesota congregational leader who founded the Hekhsher Tzedek commission.

From its inception, the certification has faced skepticism from many in the Orthodox rabbinate, which has traditionally overseen kosher food certification. Many rabbis have worried that the Magen Tzedek could be seen as an effort to replace kosher certification with modern ethical standards.

The guidelines state that the new certification is targeted at kosher products “because those are specifically of interest to Jews and already claim a special status in the Jewish community.” But the guidelines are careful to note that Magen Tzedek “is in addition to, not instead of, the kosher hekhsher mark.”

Past disclaimers, however, have not satisfied critics of the Hekhsher Tzedek initiative.

“My sense is that the Orthodox world, which remains the engine behind the kosher market, will continue to insist that all social justice issues be guided by government,” Menachem Lubinsky, a consultant to kosher companies and the organizer of the largest kosher industry trade show, told the Forward in an e-mail.

Regarding the Magen Tzedek effort, Lubinsky wrote: “Industry people have told me time and again that it will have little effect on the average consumer (including Conservative Jews) who will continue to base their purchase of kosher products on kosher certification, quality, and price.”

The breadth of the new standards also make them vulnerable to the criticism that they will be hard to enforce — and the guidelines go in many directions that would be difficult to ground in Jewish law, such as the directive for the certification to look at “how many microwave ovens are in the lunchroom for workers to heat food.”

In order to blunt possible criticism, the commission consulted with a board of kosher companies that have given feedback on how to make the guidelines more workable. But Kimberly Rubinfeld, who is the commission’s program manager, said that converting rough Jewish ideals into practical rules was not easy.

“Nothing comes directly from Torah — it is all interpretation,” Rubinfeld said, “so there has been a lot of discussion and debate about how do we convert Jewish values to all of these different areas. This is talking about every step of the production process from the farm or the field all the way to your fork.”

The guidelines were drawn up for the Hekhsher Tzedek commission by Joe Regenstein, a professor of food sciences at Cornell University and an a consultant on food certification projects.

“We are trying to have standards that most companies can meet, because we want most companies to commit to improving their business ethics,” he said.

The certification allows companies to build up points that eventually add up to either a Magen Tzedek or a Magen Tzedek with distinction. In a number of the five areas of evaluation, such as animal welfare, the Magen Tzedek would rely on already existing auditing agencies.

But in many of the areas of evaluation, the new guidelines propose a broad and fresh look at a company’s operations. The most intensive area of inquiry appears to be in labor standards, in part because there are so few accepted standards in this realm.

“That is probably going to be the hardest one — for both the companies to meet and for us to assure ourselves that things are happening properly,” Regenstein said.

As they are now, the guidelines would require a company to submit information on wages, benefits, child care and annual cost-of-living increases, as well as its sick leave, vacation, bereavement and parental-leave policy.

Regenstein said that these guidelines will be particularly difficult to transplant overseas, and so, at least initially, the Magen Tzedek will be confined to companies producing in the United States. But as with the larger vision, Regenstein dreams big.

“I want it on all the products that are in the supermarket, from the pastas to the ice creams,” he said.

Contact Nathaniel Popper at popper@forward.com


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