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Tough New Ethics Seal Set To Be Tested in Kosher Marketplace

After more than a year of fine-tuning, the criteria for earning a Magen Tzedek, the “seal of justice” to be awarded to kosher food producers that meet a detailed set of ethical standards, are about to be tested by American food companies. The seal would be added to products that already merit a hekhsher, or symbol certifying that a food item is kosher, to show that the product not only meets Jewish dietary laws, but comports with Jewish moral values, as well.

Beginning in January, several producers of kosher food will attempt to follow guidelines for everyday business conduct in five principal categories: labor, animal welfare, consumer issues, corporate integrity and environmental impact. The draft standards for these guidelines fill 150 PowerPoint pages. The companies’ efforts will be audited by Social Accountability Accreditation Services — an experienced social responsibility auditor based in New York City — with results to be announced in March.

Testing the standards represents the closest step yet to demonstrating “that Jewish ethical concerns that are based on who we are as a people are just as certifiable as Jewish ritual concerns,” Rabbi Morris Allen, a Minnesota pulpit rabbi, told the Forward. Allen is the project director of the Conservative-backed Hekhsher Tzedek Commission, which was formed in early 2007 after revelations of poor labor conditions — on top of previous exposés of brutal animal treatment — at the Agriprocessors kosher meat plant in Postville, Iowa, shocked some Jews into activism around the practice of kashrut.

“This is a serious religious undertaking to help restore a culture of kashrut in America. Kashrut itself suffered a black eye as a result of some of this,” said Allen, who hastened to note that many kosher food producers have always behaved ethically. Covering everything from employee access to binding arbitration, the nutritional value of the food produced and recycling resources within a factory, the standards represent “the most exhaustive and comprehensive undertaking in the kosher food marketplace ever attempted,” he added.

Allen said that the Hekhsher Tzedek Commission has signed agreements for testing with two companies and is closing in on a third. He would not name them, because the parties have signed confidentiality agreements that Allen said are aimed at promoting honest and robust testing of the standards. One of the companies is a kosher-specific producer, while the other two produce kosher food along with nonkosher products, he said. Allen called them “significant players in the food industry — and in the kosher food industry.”

Some major players in kashrut, however, aren’t as excited. Asked whether people in kosher circles are buzzing over either Magen Tzedek or the “Jewish Principles and Ethical Guidelines (“JPEG”) for the Kosher Food Industry,” released early this year by the Rabbinical Council of America, which represents Orthodox rabbis, some authorities said it’s quiet on the ethical-advancement front.

Rabbi Menachem Genack, rabbinic administrator of the Orthodox Union’s Kashrut Division, said, “I don’t hear them talking about either one.” Rabbi Sholem Fishbane, executive director of the Association of Kashrus Organizations, also said, “It’s been pretty quiet. I haven’t heard any movement at all on these things.”

Genack, who visited Agriprocessors during the crisis, and whose O.U. now certifies the successor company, Agri Star, said, “I frankly would be surprised if this really took off.” It’s hard to pay for the additional infrastructure, and companies are mostly interested in the marketing aspect of certifications, Genack said — meeting federal safety regulations keeps them busy enough.

“I’m interested just to see how it works out,” he said. “I don’t know. I don’t have a clue.”

Magen Tzedek is one of several initiatives that sprang from the collapse of Agriprocessors, which was the nation’s largest producer of kosher meat until its harsh treatment of animals and laborers came to light (largely through reporting in the Forward). Immigration raids on its workers followed, along with the indictment and imprisonment of CEO Sholom Rubashkin, and the plant’s bankruptcy and closure in the fall of 2008.

Although many Jewish consumers and kashrut authorities have backed the Brooklyn-based Rubashkin family, other critical responses have surfaced. In addition to the RCA’s “JPEG,” the Orthodox social justice group Uri L’Tzedek now grants a Tav Ha-Yosher, or ethical seal, to kosher restaurants around the country that meet basic standards for fair treatment of workers.

Because that initiative focuses on the comsumption end, while Magen Tzedek examines production, Uri L’Tzedek’s director, Rabbi Ari Weiss, calls the efforts “complementary.” (Kosher restaurants comprise a relatively small market share, while more than 40% of all food manufactured in the United States bears a kosher certification.) “The more rabbinic organizations and rabbis and leaders in the community who are talking about the significance and importance of ethics in both the workplace and kosher production — I think that’s an amazing thing,” Weiss said.

The Hekhsher Tzedek Commission released its “Standards for the Magen Tzedek Service Mark” in September 2009 and invited the public to comment. Joe Regenstein, professor of food science at Cornell University and an official adviser to the effort, said he received input from about 10 people, activists on various sides of the issue, which helped him fine-tune the standards that the beta-testing companies will use this winter. Their experience likely will lead to further retooling in 2011, Regenstein said.

Magen Tzedek’s project manager, Rabbi Iris Richman, wrote in an e-mail that audits “will take place both on factory floors as well as within the offices of these companies, where records, logs, and documentation will be reviewed. These auditors need not be Jewish nor do they require knowledge of kashrut, because the applicant facilities will already be kosher-certified.… The facilities themselves that apply for certification pay for audits, and auditors travel to the sites themselves, where they review documents, inspect the facilities, and interview workers confidentially. The exact details of these visits are being finalized as we speak.”

Although the Agriprocessors plant, bought by Orthodox Jewish Canadian plastics manufacturer Hershey Friedman in July 2009, can expect its practices to be scrutinized in the months and years to come, spokesman Jeff Pigott says the company isn’t eager to participate in the Magen Tzedek effort. “Right now, Agri Star has kosher certification they’re comfortable with, and they’re not looking for additional certification,” Pigott said.

For now, at least, the Magen Tzedek effort will be focused elsewhere. “This is not about Postville,” Allen said. “This is not just about one company in one state. This is about who we are.”

Contact Karen Loew at [email protected]

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