Five years ago, what was considered the largest immigration raid in American history trained a harsh spotlight on abusive conditions for workers and animals at the nation’s biggest kosher slaughterhouse and meat packing plant.
The raid on Agriprocessors in Postville, Iowa, and the subsequent conviction of its owner on federal financial fraud brought more than shame to the Jewish community. It also brought renewed energy and commitment to nascent efforts linking the laws of kashrut with the burgeoning food movement, to frame ethical food production and consumption through a Jewish lens.
Just 16 months after the raid, in September 2009, the Conservative movement issued its response: Magen Tzedek, the “shield of justice,” an ambitious program that was considered the most comprehensive food certification in the country, kosher or not.
Its 175 pages of guidelines were divided into five standards that companies must meet to earn this new seal, ensuring justice for workers, animals and consumers, and considering corporate integrity and environmental impact. After a three-month review, the standards were supposed to be tested in the marketplace and then released for consumers by early 2010.
We’re still waiting.
Much has happened in the Jewish world in response to the Agriprocessors scandal — and we’ll get to that in a moment — but unfortunately, much hasn’t happened, as well. Magen Tzedek doesn’t lack for passionate, committed leadership, not with Rabbi Morris Allen, the Minnesotan congregational leader who has been at the helm since the beginning. But this noble effort appears to be hobbled by three factors: complexity, opposition and apathy.
From the start, even sympathetic observers wondered if the extensive guidelines were, frankly, too much, and that worry has turned out to be prescient. Small operators say that the myriad regulations can be overwhelming and confusing. In trying to cover so many areas — from workers rights to environmental protection — Magen Tzedek may have overreached, making the perfect the enemy of the possible.