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Our reporter Nathaniel Popper had turned up hard evidence of appalling abuse: substandard wages, inadequate safety measures, horrific accidents, routine short-changing of pay, bribe-taking by shift supervisors and more. Workers feared to complain because many were undocumented and subject to firing or deportation. Many couldn’t risk dismissal because they owed thousands of dollars to the smugglers who brought them over the border.
The story quoted investigators and researchers saying they hadn’t paid much attention to Agriprocessors because they assumed its religious management meant higher ethical standards, not lower ones. The Forward said in an editorial that the Torah’s rules on treatment of workers are at least as detailed as those on food preparation, and asked why violating Sabbath laws disqualifies kosher certification but violating the Torah’s labor laws does not.
“Why is this meat kosher?” we asked.
Why have efforts at reform faltered?
The coverage sparked a nationwide furor and stirred demands for action within the kosher-consumer community. Allen spearheaded a response within the Conservative rabbinate. Together with allies, he formed an organization called Magen Tzedek — “Shield of Justice” — to offer companies an ethical-practices certification supplementing the standard kosher certification. It’s been a tough slog.
Firms want to know that consumers will reward them for the commitment. That can’t be shown until someone tries, and nobody wants to go first. “We had one kosher meat company say they’d be thrilled to be the second to be certified,” Allen said.
And there’s been quiet but fierce opposition from existing kosher certification agencies. Partly that reflects the kosher food industry’s famously sharp-elbowed business culture. Partly, too, it stems from what Allen calls “a disease inside the Jewish community”: Some folks “can’t believe the Torah can ever come from outside their own community.”
To people all too accustomed to attacks on their religion, questioning their ethics feels like one more attack. Result: They circle the wagons.