New York (Dec. 16)
The first effort under Jewish organizational auspices to investigate and publicize price gouging in the sale of kosher products is now underway, Harold Jacobs, president of the National Council of Young Israel, sponsor of the Kashruth Consumer Protective Commission, reported today.
Formation of the new commission was authorized by delegates at the 64th annual convention last June of Young Israel, a national association of Orthodox synagogues.
Jacobs announced the appointment of Samuel Feinberg, a semi-retired New York attorney, to head the board. Jacobs said the commission had set up its first subcommittee, which was given the assignment of investigating charges of huge price jumps for kosher foods specifically before and during holiday seasons. In recent years this has been one of the most widely voiced complaints of observant home-makers.
He said the commission was seeking a professional investigator and administrator, with expertise in the economics of the household products industry, to direct the commission’s work. Feinberg, in a telephone interview with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, said that initially the commission’s work would be limited to the Greater New York area.
“Once we have established our credibility, we will go where the facts lead us,” Feinberg said. He pledged to the kosher products industry that its manufacturers, wholesalers and vendors would receive a fair hearing on complaints — which he said the commission already was receiving.
CONSEQUENCES OF PRICE GAUGING
Both Jacobs and Feinberg stressed, in their statements to the JTA, that the commission would have nothing to do with kosher certification, a rabbinic procedure. Steinberg said the board includes lawyers, biochemists, businessmen and Jews generally concerned with the escalating prices of kosher products which have forced many kashrut observers to give up keeping kosher because of the constantly mounting prices at the retail level.
“We have issued a special appeal to all Young Israel members to call to our attention specific instances of kosher pricing policies which may require the attention of the commission,” Feinberg told the JTA, but he added that “We will not necessarily wait for a consumer complaint before we move into the situation.”
He was reminded that last October, New York State Assemblyman Sheldon Silver, (D. Manhattan) an Orthodox Jew who is chairman of the Assembly Agriculture Subcommittee on Food Products, said that he was considering such an investigation. However, Silver has not taken action on that announcement. Feinberg commented that the Young Israel commission “would welcome all cooperation” from Silver.
Feinberg agreed that the commission faced at least two major problems as it moved “slowly but steadily” into carrying out its mandate.
Since this is the first probe of its kind, the commission has no guidelines in developing its program and in effect will be pioneering each step in implementing its mandate.
The other is that while the Young Israel commission has no subpoena powers to compel testimony by any elements of the industry, it has a tool of considerable clout — publicity on abuses — but one that carries a very considerable peril: lawsuits for damages stemming from its planned policy to report to the observant public any findings of price abuse.
PROMISES FAIRNESS AND JUSTICE
Feinberg agreed that publicizing abuses, though a potent tool, carried the threat of such lawsuits. He said that, apart from that danger, the commission was determined to develop a reputation for fairness and justice. He said “we must be sure of our facts before we publicize a situation of price unfairness,” adding, “We will give to the merchant or producer the same publicity as we hope to give to the violator of the code of morality and decency in this vital field to observant Jews.”
In emphasizing that the commission’s scope excluded questions of certification, Feinberg said the commission will not accept cases involving questionable kosher certification. He said “our interest is entirely in the economics of the industry. Jews with questions about the kashrut of a given product will be referred to their rabbi.”
Jacobs said the commission is working out of the Manhattan offices of the Young Israel and, for the time being, had no budget. Its expenses are being met from Young Israel organizational operating funds.