Conservatives Issue Guidelines for Ethical Kosher Certification

The Conservative movement released a policy statement and guidelines for its much-anticipated ethical kashrut certification, outlining the social justice standards companies are expected to meet if their foodstuffs are to qualify for the designation.

According to the document released Thursday, products will be evaluated in five main areas — employees’ wages and benefits, employee health and safety, product development, corporate transparency and environmental impact — and assessed in part on the basis of information from third-party sources.

Essential to acquiring the Hekhsher Tzedek certification is a company’s willingness to engage with the movement’s leadership. Hekhsher Tzedek is a joint initiative of the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism and the Rabbinical Assembly.

“Transparency and a willingness to enter into dialogue with the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism, the Rabbinical Assembly and their partners will therefore be essential for a company’s products to qualify for the Hekhsher Tzedek,” the statement says.

The new guidelines are seen as an important step forward for the initiative, which represents the first effort to brand items as kosher on the basis of ethical criteria separate from the ritual aspects of food production.

It also marks the most significant attempt by Conservative rabbis to influence the national kosher food market, an area traditionally dominated by the Orthodox.

“We believe that we have now demonstrated that it is indeed possible to have verifiable standards in these areas that will allow us to demonstrate that as an enhancement to ritual certification of kosher food, you can ensure that kosher observance is mindful and sensitive to God’s creation,” said Rabbi Morris Allen, the founder and director of Hekhsher Tzedek.

Rabbi Michael Siegel, who co-chairs the nine-member commission overseeing the project, told JTA he expects to see the Hekhsher Tzedek label on food products by Jan. 1, 2009.

Though he wouldn’t name names, Siegel said the commission already is in talks with several companies who have been receptive to the idea, including a bakery, a ready-made salad producer and a kosher meat purveyor, all of whom would be required to pay a fee for the certification. Two of the companies are nationally known, Siegel said.

In the coming weeks, Heksher Tzedek plans to release a marketing plan and a rabbinic paper on ethical concerns within kashrut by Rabbi Avram Reisner, a commission member.

Some in the kosher world have met the initiative with skepticism, even hostility. These skeptics question what they see as the expansion of the concept of kosher, which traditionally has focused more narrowly on ritual and dietary concerns.

Rabbi Avrom Pollak, the president of Star-K, a kosher certifier that works with more than 1,500 manufacturers, told JTA he is all in favor of treating workers ethically, but expressed doubt that companies would find it in their financial interest to pay for Hekhsher Tzedek.

“What does somehow trouble me a little is the fact that they are devoting all their efforts to kosher food companies,” Pollak said. “I think it should be a much broader effort. All the services that we use and buy should also be subject to the same scrutiny.”

Allen conceived of the idea of Hekhsher Tzedek in 2006, the same year that an expose in the Forward detailed allegations of worker mistreatment at Agriprocessors, which runs the nation’s largest kosher meat plant in Postville, Iowa.

The initiative received a boost in May when federal agents raided the Postville plant, arresting nearly 400 illegal workers and prompting another round of allegations against the company. Agriprocessors has denied any wrongdoing.

The Postville raid thrust issues of worker treatment in the production of kosher food to the forefront of a national debate over the parameters of kosher certification. Allen said he envisions a day when consumers will look at the Hekhsher Tzedek label before purchasing food the same way some now look for a kosher label.

“I see the kinds of responses that we’re getting now from people across the country, letters that come in, e-mails that come in,” Allen said.

“I do believe that people are eager because I think that we have always believed that in the observance of kashrut, our actions are such that is at the core an act of sanctification. And we want to make sure as Jews that act of sanctification is not just a ritual act.”

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