Empire State’s Kosher Law Advances, But Draws Tepid Support

By Steven I. Weiss

Published July 02, 2004, issue of July 02, 2004.
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The New York State Legislature has passed legislation to protect kosher consumers from food products falsely advertised as kosher. The new law is intended to replace New York’s previous kosher law, which was struck down in the courts last year after being declared unconstitutional.

New York is home to the country’s largest Jewish population, as well as the headquarters of numerous national Jewish organizations, so its law is seen as setting a precedent for the likely course of action to be taken by the 17 other states with similar kosher laws. The new legislation, which still requires Gov. George Pataki’s signature to become law, was proposed by the state assembly’s Democratic majority leader, Sheldon Silver, an Orthodox Jew. An alternative bill, originally proposed by Pataki, failed to achieve legislative support.

Jewish communal leaders were lukewarm in their support of the Silver bill, which many charactered as a lesser version of the proposal by the governor, a Catholic.

Pataki’s bill was singled out for praise by the executive vice-president for government and public affairs at Agudath Israel of America, David Zweibel, who was a member of Silver’s task force on kosher laws.

“That bill included a number of details we find quite attractive,” wrote Zweibel in a letter to the governor, including “a requirement that certifying rabbis disclose their denominational affiliation, a provision for tailored disclosure forms calling for detailed information for a variety of different types of establishments; the imposition of criminal penalties for intentional violations; and a requirement that nursing homes, summer camps and catering facilities furnish consumers with a copy of the kosher disclosure document.”

Zweibel told the Forward that advocates “ought to look at those for future strengthening of the legislation.”

Drafters of both bills said that they were aiming to follow the model of a recent law passed in New Jersey, which had a similar court battle. The new law there is described by community leaders as adopting a “truth in advertising” approach, requiring detailed disclosures of kosher certification and practices as opposed to the kind of kosher-oversight law that was on the books previously.

The earlier law, which had been in place since 1915, was challenged by a Conservative butcher as violating the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause, since it effectively enforced Orthodox interpretations of kosher status. The new law seeks to skirt that by avoiding any terminology that defines kosher, and by not having an advisory board of Jewish clerics to oversee enforcement. The previous advisory board was dominated by Orthodox Jews.

Many Orthodox Jews rely primarily on a handful of kosher certifying organizations, and some say they would not be affected by a product being mislabeled as “kosher.” Nevertheless, trademark infringement of those organizations’ kosher symbols is seen as a problem, and the Pataki bill, unlike its counterpart, allowed for prosecution of such infringement.

Some Conservative leaders also praised Pataki’s bill, for its requirement of detailed ingredient disclosures, so that consumers could better determine the standards used to certify food as kosher. While Silver’s bill requires disclosure of a certifier’s affiliation, some Conservatives disagree on the kosher status of certain foods, such as cheese and swordfish. The Pataki bill’s requirement of greater disclosure would have identified the certifier’s position on these issues.

“I personally liked the governor’s ideas better than Speaker Silver’s,” said Rabbi David Lincoln of Park Avenue Synagogue, a Conservative congregation, while admitting that as a partisan Republican, he will “tend to support the governor anyway.”






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