Ethical Guidelines for Kosher Food Released

By Marissa Brostoff

Published July 31, 2008, issue of August 08, 2008.
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A group of Conservative rabbis has released long-awaited guidelines for a program that aims to monitor and certify working conditions in kosher food production.

The guidelines for the Hekhsher Tzedek program, as it is known, are wide-ranging, with sections devoted to labor standards, the treatment of animals, corporate transparency and environmental impact. In order to evaluate a company’s performance in those categories, the Hekhsher Tzedek commission will consider whether it is in compliance with a number of pre-existing industry and government standards, as well as some standards specific to the commission.

“Companies will be favored for the Hekhsher if they pay their workers the industry average or above; offer comprehensive health insurance and retirement benefits; and provide workers with paid time off for vacation, sick, and maternity leave,” according to the guidelines.

Rabbi Morris Allen, project director of Hekhsher Tzedek, told the Forward that he hoped to see the first wave of products endorsed with the commission’s hekhsher, or stamp of approval, by Rosh Hashana of next year.

“We believe that in the next month, we will be involved in serious discussions with players in the kosher food industry around these issues,” Allen said. He added that some kosher food companies, “a couple major ones,” have already been speaking with the commission.

Typically, Orthodox rabbis have run kosher certification in the United States and have charged for their services. Allen suggested that there would be costs for companies that want a certification from Hekhsher Tzedek.

Allen’s commission formed in 2006 after a group of Conservative rabbis and others responded to complaints about the working conditions at the nation’s largest kosher slaughterhouse in Postville, Iowa. Since that plant was the target of a federal immigration raid this past May, Allen has been one of the most outspoken critics of the company, Agriprocessors, and its labor practices. In the background, Allen and his commission have been putting together concrete standards for the new certification since winning the endorsement of the Conservative movement’s governing bodies last year.

KLD Research & Analytics — a Boston-based consulting firm that advises companies on socially responsible investing — helped to compile Hekhsher Tzedek’s guidelines and will assist the commission in analyzing a company’s compliance.

Many in the Orthodox Jewish world have been skeptical of Hekhsher Tzedek, arguing that ethical issues should not be tacked on to the age-old system of kosher laws.

After viewing the initial guidelines, Rabbi Yosef Wikler, editor of Kashrus Magazine, said, “These guidelines do not give us enough freedom for us to complete a proper ritual slaughter without being impeded by these arbitrary rules.”

“At this time, I don’t believe that any kosher organization is prepared to work together with them in any which way,” Wikler added.

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