Kosher ‘Ethical Guidelines’ Sidestepped Ethics

Opinion

By Moses L. Pava

Published March 17, 2010, issue of March 26, 2010.
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Over the past four years, the reputation of the kosher food industry — and indeed of Orthodoxy itself — has been badly tarnished by revelations about mistreatment of workers and animals and violations of law at the Agriprocessors kosher meat plant in Postville, Iowa. The Agriprocessors scandal demanded a decisive communal effort to reassert the ethical core of the Jewish tradition and redeem Orthodoxy’s good name.

Earlier this year, mainstream American Orthodoxy’s leading rabbinic association finally took action. Unfortunately, the remedy it came up with fell far short of what the occasion demanded — and even calls into question whether our communal commitment to ethics goes beyond lip service.

This past January, the Rabbinical Council of America’s issued a document titled “Jewish Principles and Ethical Guidelines (JPEG) for the Kosher Food Industry.” A close reading reveals it to be a strange document.

In its introductory section, it notes “the responsibility of Torah leaders to teach and promote ethical conduct in the workplace.” Toward the end, the document cites several specific areas of concern including: integrity toward the consumer, honoring commitments to workers and concern for public safety and animal welfare. In the penultimate paragraph, the document reminds the reader that “Jewish law and ethics require that all Jews strive to facilitate correct business behavior far beyond the limited realm of kashruth itself.”

Reading the introduction, it seems like the document is going to be about ethics. Reading the conclusion, it seems as if it was about ethics. But in the intervening sections — the meat of the document — ethical considerations are nowhere in evidence. Indeed, the document’s action-oriented passages focus exclusively on the kosher food industry’s responsibility to follow the strict letter of the law and removes any and all responsibility for encouraging ethical behavior from kosher-certifying agencies. Kosher-certification agencies are asked to require that food companies “affirm in advance that they are committed to law-abiding conduct, and have implemented procedures to comply with legal norms as they understand them.” (Emphasis added.)

Compliance with the law is certainly important, but it is a standard that, taken in isolation, falls far short of achieving “ethical” behavior. Tellingly, the document does not even stipulate that a kosher food company itself has any responsibility for ethical self-regulation beyond compliance with the law.

Moreover, the document does not require that kosher-certifying agencies do much to ensure adherence to even this modest standard. “Practically, an agency cannot assume responsibility for monitoring a company for unethical or illegal behavior,” the document states. It asserts: “Responsibility for regulating the business practices of the kosher food industry lies instead with a variety of specialized government agencies.”

Taken in whole, the document reads more like an after-the-fact justification of kosher-certifying authorities’ inaction during Agriprocessors crisis than a document intended to spell out and expand our understanding of ethics and corporate social responsibility. As such, it represents a tremendous missed opportunity.

The Conservative movement’s Hekhsher Tzedek’s Commission took a radically different approach. In its draft guidelines, it articulated specific and detailed ethical rules for companies that want to receive its seal of approval. Its guidelines include, among other elements, rules stipulating minimum levels of compensation and benefits for workers and directives regarding workplace safety issues and animal welfare.

There have been legitimate criticisms made about the Conservative movement’s approach. For instance, it is noted, rabbis and lay leaders are not necessarily experts at developing detailed standards for corporate behavior. And, it is suggested, any such standards that emerge will likely be somewhat arbitrary.

But there is a middle approach between the Conservative movement’s effort to promulgate a comprehensive set of ethical standards and the RCA’s decision to let kosher food producers off the hook when it comes to ethics.

The RCA could have required all companies receiving kosher certification to develop their own code of ethical conduct. Almost all major American and international corporations now have such statements as a matter of good business practice.

It could have required companies to affirm in advance that they are committed not only to law-abiding conduct, but to ethical conduct as specified by a company’s own ethics statement. Such an affirmation should include detailed explanations on the procedures in place to ensure compliance with ethical norms as stipulated in the company’s code of ethical conduct. Procedures could include internal control systems and ethics audits by outside consultants or accounting firms on a periodic basis.

The overriding concern of such guidelines should be corporate accountability to the public as part of an ongoing dialogue. This means clear articulation of the company’s own goals, a description of mechanisms used to measure its own performance and a commitment to full disclosure to all stakeholders. A company might be asked to issue a so-called triple-bottom line report concerning its economic, social and environmental performance. While these institutional changes may be new to the kosher industry, they are already best practices in most major industries.

An important litmus test concerning the success or failure of the RCA’s current statement is how one might answer the following simple question: Had these guidelines been in effect before the Agriprocessors scandal reached its critical climax, would they have made any difference in either Agriprocessors’ or kosher certifying agencies’ behavior? Rabbi Asher Meir, chairman of the committee that developed the RCA’s standards, told The Jewish Week: “What we saw at Agriprocessors was that the producers were not aware of what the demands of the supervisors were regarding compliance with U.S. laws.” To the extent that one agrees with this diagnosis, then, perhaps, the answer may be yes. To the rest of us, who see the Agriprocessors scandal not only as an instance of unlawful behavior, but also as a profound ethical failure, the RCA’s new guidelines are too little, too late.

Moses L. Pava is the Alvin Einbender Professor of Business Ethics at Yeshiva University. He is the author of “Business Ethics: A Jewish Perspective” (Ktav, 1997), “Leading with Meaning: Using Covenantal Leadership to Build a Better Organization” (Palgrave Macmillan, 2003) and “Jewish Ethics as Dialogue” (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009).


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