Setting the Standard for Kosher Industry

Second Opinion

By Asher Meir

Published April 07, 2010, issue of April 16, 2010.
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In January, a special task force of the Rabbinical Council of America released guidelines to encourage ethical conduct in the kosher food industry. In his recent Forward opinion article, Moses Pava, a known expert in the field of business ethics, enumerated some specific areas where he feels our initiative falls short, and provided thoughtful suggestions for improvement (“Kosher ‘Ethical Guidelines’ Sidestepped Ethics,” March 26).

Pava’s comments provide an excellent opportunity to elaborate on the considerations that guided the task force — which I chaired — through our months of intensive deliberations. Pava and the RCA are in agreement on two fundamental issues: First, kosher supervision agencies should demand proper conduct beyond the kosher status of the food. Second, agencies should ensure that producers themselves adopt adequate controls and standards.

Pava writes that requiring only law-abiding behavior falls short of imposing meaningful ethical standards. He acknowledges that imposing higher standards would involve rabbis in areas beyond their expertise and resources. But he suggests a practical solution to this obstacle: requiring firms to adopt their own codes of ethics. He also argues that our initiative lacks teeth.

Our task force extensively debated what level of conduct to demand of producers. Ultimately, we decided on lawful conduct for two main reasons.

The objective of our initiative throughout was to insist on adequate standards, not to promote law enforcement per se. Yet as we examined the specific standards we considered vital — truth in labeling, worker safety, animal welfare, etc. — we repeatedly determined that in advanced countries with extensive legislation and regulation in areas of concern to us, existing legal requirements set an adequate bar for ethical conduct. We often raised the question of how to proceed in less developed countries that impose much less demanding standards, but decided that release of the guidelines should not be held up pending resolution of this knotty question.

The second reason for the law-abiding conduct standard was transparency. The most important aspect of the RCA initiative is not the specific demands it contains but rather its creation of a practical mechanism for aligning expectations among kosher consumers, supervisors and producers — expectations that had been grossly transgressed in the scandals referred to by Pava. Aligning expectations requires, above all, requirements that are clear and well understood. By far the most transparent, consistent and well-publicized standard is the law. Our guidelines demand adequate internal mechanisms to enforce legal requirements and emphasize that kosher supervision considers compliance a prerequisite for certification.

Pava’s main proposal is to require all kosher food producers to develop codes of ethics that go beyond the requirements of the law. This proposal has many disadvantages. While ethics codes and programs can be a useful tool for improving ethical standards, they are also subject to many limitations. My position on ethics programs, based on current research and my own experience in the field, is as follows: In order to be successful, ethics programs demand careful design to suit an organization’s unique character, a detailed implementation mechanism and a sustained commitment from employees at all levels. Consequently, implementing a meaningful code of ethics is not practical for most small organizations.

Pava states: “Almost all major American and international corporations now have such statements.” But the RCA guidelines reflect our awareness that much of the kashrut industry consists of small firms and family businesses, not major corporations. By contrast, the requirements of the law are equally appropriate and applicable to both tiny local kosher pizza stores and huge multinational corporations.

An ineffective ethics program is worse than none, because it reinforces norms of cynicism and hypocrisy. It is interesting that the Enron Corporation, whose consistent unethical conduct led to its disintegration, had on paper notably impressive corporate ethics programs.

Pava writes that our document “does not require that kosher-certifying agencies do much to ensure adherence to even this modest standard.” We believe that the demand for an advance affirmation of commitment to law-abiding behavior and of appropriate implementation procedures forces on food companies a proactive rather than a reactive policy with respect to compliance. Agencies themselves are required to have an effective policy for oversight, including a designated officer and an adequate training program.

The RCA shares Pava’s goal of improving ethical standards in the kosher food industry. However, we do not agree that requiring conduct beyond law-abiding behavior is currently called for in an enlightened polity such as the United States. We also believe that requiring ethics codes of all kosher food producers would not be practical and constructive. We continue to believe that the eminently practical and transparent provisions of our guidelines offer the best route to genuine progress in improving ethical standards in the kosher food industry, and we urge all stakeholders to insist that all kosher products adhere to the requirements of our guidelines.

Rabbi Asher Meir is research director at the Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem and a senior lecturer at the Jerusalem College of Technology, where he teaches business ethics.


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