Robert Kaiser, a science teacher from New Hampshire with an interest in finding ethically produced kosher food, was excited when he learned of Magen Tzedek, a seal that would combine Jewish values and social justice in food production, spanning from the treatment of workers to environmental impact.
But almost four years after the Magen Tzedek Commission drafted its first standards, not one product bears the initiative’s seal. Kaiser recently voiced his complaints on the organization’s Facebook page, which displayed only two posts by the group since last May.
“Your arguments for ethical meat make a lot of sense; I agree with you,” he wrote. “Yet the four years of silence on the topic… speak volumes.”
Kaiser recently told the Forward, “When I look up what they do, I don’t see very much there. At the moment it’s a bit of a disappointment.”
Five years after the federal government’s largest ever immigration raid exposed rampant worker abuse at the country’s biggest kosher slaughterhouse, Magen Tzedek, which was meant to respond to the scandal, appears hardly more active today than Agriprocessors, the plant in Postville, Iowa, that the feds’ raid shut down. There is little evidence that the project has capitalized on the calls the scandal sparked for ethically created kosher food.
That is a far cry from what Morris Allen, Magen Tzedek’s program director, predicted in 2010. By the end of the year, he said then, 15 companies would be on board with his group’s seal. In an interview May 14, Allen told the Forward that his group is currently in talks with “three or four” companies.
Allen said he has learned not to make such bold predictions anymore.
“I don’t want to say any date, I’ve been burned too often,” he said.
But personal misjudgments by Allen — a Conservative rabbi with no prior food certification experience — are not the only reasons that Magen Tzedek remains a dream: There is also wariness toward the seal on the part of kosher meat producers. Some are concerned that they will lose the hekhsher, or traditional kosher seal, that they require from Orthodox certification agencies if they sign on with Magen Tzedek.
“In theory, what [Magen Tzedek is] doing is great,” said Naftali Hanau, founder and CEO of Grow and Behold, a producer of kosher pasture meat. Hanau stressed that his own enterprise shared many of Magen Tzedek’s principles. But he explained that his primary market is Orthodox consumers “who want the highest standard of kashrut, which is glatt kosher meat.” He added, “Many in the Orthodox world have reservations about them.”
Referring to the Orthodox Union, the country’s largest hekhsher agency, he said, “We can’t do anything without the approval of the O.U.” Hanau declined to elaborate on the record.
In fact, under the O.U.’s standard contract with producers whose meat it certifies, the meat producers are required to get the O.U.’s approval before signing on with any additional hekhsher agencies.
“You can’t have another symbol without checking with the O.U,” explained Menachem Genack, CEO of the O.U.’s kosher division.
But in an interview with the Forward, Genack said his agency’s stance toward Magen Tzedek remains the same as it was two years ago.“If there is a company that wants to use Magen Tzedek, we will not object to it appearing on the label,” he told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “We also would not object to them putting ‘halal’ on their label. These are marketing decisions the company makes on its own.”
Since its inception, Magen Tzedek has faced criticism from the Orthodox world. Agudath Israel of America, an ultra-Orthodox umbrella organization, has deplored the group as an attempt “to redefine kashrut,” and called its seal “a falsification of the Jewish religious heritage.”
The group also faced complaints early on from the O.U. about its original name.
The Hekhsher Tzedek Commission, as it was initially called, was formed in 2006 by Conservative Jewish leaders in response to the mistreatment of workers at Agriprocessors. But in 2008, under pressure from the O.U., the group changed its name to Magen Tzedek. Genack told JTA at the time that if the “Hekhsher” portion of the name were retained — implying that the new group was handing out traditional kashrut approvals — “it would have been a problem.”
Allen said that he has not heard anything negative directly from the O.U. since then, nor has he been told by companies he’s met with that the O.U. has issued any directives to not negotiate with Magen Tzedek. “But not every kosher-food certifier company is as publicly supportive,” Allen said.
Allen said that another prospective client told him that his shokhet, or ritual slaughterer, would be pulled if he continued discussions with Magen Tzedek. Allen believed that K’Hal Adath Jeshurun, a New York-base hekhsher agency, provided the shokhet to this meat producer.
“If you’re a kosher meat producer, a shokhet is more important than Morris Allen,” he said.
Samson Bechhofer, president of KAJ, denied those claims. “I don’t think we’ve had any discussions about that with anybody,” he said. “Not to my knowledge.”
But Allen insisted that Magen Tzedek hears “all too often” from smaller companies it approaches that their hekhsher agencies tell them, “You don’t need this,” or, “Why pay for this?”
“The powers against us are pretty unbelievable, he said. “There are attacks on us just because we come from a different part of the Jewish people, and that should be of great concern.”
But that alone may not explain why Magen Tzedek has yet to gain any traction. The current standards include a plethora of specific requirements a company must fulfill to be certified as ethically kosher: categories and subcategories of labor practices, animal welfare conditions, consumer issues, and issues of corporate integrity, environmental impact, traceability of food supplies and record keeping.
Hanau said he has talked to representatives from Magen Tzedek “a number of times” but has serious reservations. His small business faces difficulties meeting all of Magen Tzedek’s requirements.
“We have about six full-time employees, and there’s only so much money I can spend on compliance,” he said.
As an example, Hanau noted that Grow and Behold doesn’t own its own slaughterhouses. “We work with plants to slaughter and package our special animals,” he said, “so how do Magen Tzedek’s rules apply to a business I can’t fully control?” His chicken orders may be 1% of another plant’s workload, Hanau said. “Realistically, how can I ask a plant I’m a small part of to make these kinds of changes?”
Allen admitted that concerns like these are issues that will have to be addressed and have caused problems he did not expect.
“Our standards are fixed,” he said. “How we work with companies to get to them is not fixed.”
Aaron Gross, founder and CEO of Farm Forward, an advocacy group that looks to transform American eating habits, said Magen Tzedek could gain traction if it focused on the ethical side and didn’t try to combine its policies with kashrut, a combination that has been known to anger Orthodox authorities.
Meanwhile, the company’s delays mean that donors have yet to see a return on their donations. The Nathan Cummings Foundation, a family foundation with a focus on social justice, has given grants totaling at least $245,000 to Magen Tzedek since 2008. In its most recent publicly available tax returns for 2011 the group reported contributions, gifts and grants of $109,261.
Kaiser thought the excuses from Magen Tzedek so far were not acceptable. “It’s not sufficient,” he said. “I got so frustrated and disappointed by the way the whole kosher market dropped the ball on it.”
Timothy Lytton, author of the new book “Kosher: Private Regulation in the Age of Industrial Food,” said consumers shouldn’t expect an overnight boom of Magen Tzedek certifications. Lytton said it took from the 1950s to the ’90s to build a reliable system of kosher certification of industrial food in the United States.
But Lytton said that for Magen Tzedek to get jumpstarted, there also needs to be an increase in consumer demand and also brand competition among similar-minded certifiers.
Hanau agreed. “The key is, we can only work with an organization like them if the entire Jewish world, from left to right, thinks that this effort is good for the entire Jewish people,” he said.
Allen did find encouragement in the fact that groups not carrying the Magen Tzedek seal had been influenced by the initiative’s standards in other ways. Empire Kosher’s website prominently features a section on its homepage that lists its “socially responsible” methods, which Allen said was influenced by Magen Tzedek’s standards.
Still, Allen was unsure if any company would have a Magen Tzedek seal by October, when he hoped to celebrate a partnership at the United Synagogue Convention, in Baltimore. He was adamant, though, that the standards in place were the right ones for Magen Tzedek.
“We are committed to the core to seeing this through… but people have to demonstrate this is something they care about,” Allen said. “It’s going to happen. It’s not going to happen on the timetable we wanted, but there’s no room for cynicism and despair.”
Contact Seth Berkman at firstname.lastname@example.org