The ethical side of the kashrut industry has been under a microscope in the wake of the 2008 immigration raid at the Agriprocessors plant, which led to a fraud conviction for the company’s former CEO.
Now, a task force within the Rabbinical Council of America has issued its Jewish Principles and Ethical Guidelines to “promote and safeguard ethical corporate policies and behavior, and encourage socially responsible activities in kosher food production,” according to the organization. The task force, headed by Rabbi Asher Meir, research director of the Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem, included rabbinical experts in business ethics, law, and kosher supervision.
“Recent events, and the deliberations of our task force, made it clear to us that expectations were not in alignment among the three major stakeholders in the kosher food industry: producers, supervisors, and consumers,” Meir e-mailed The Jewish Standard on Wednesday. “The supervising agencies had certain standards but they were not consistently defined or applied, and the producers were not always of aware of them; the consumers had expectations the agencies had not really understood. Most of all, we wanted to create a set of standards that would be acceptable to all the participants.”
|Rabbi Menachem Genack|
The guidelines will help repair the damage caused to the image of the kosher industry since the Agri incident, according to Meir. The guidelines maintain that “agencies should explicitly inform clients that they require lawful conduct, and agencies should distance themselves from any producer whose conduct constitutes a gross affront to the ethical demands of Jewish law and tradition.”
Among the areas supervisors should monitor are employee and animal safety.
Jewish organizations welcomed the guidelines, while the Orthodox Union, the country’s largest kashrut supervisory organization, has endorsed them and has begun to direct its inspectors to monitor for violations. Rabbi Menachem Genack, the OU’s kashrut division CEO and an Englewood resident, served on the RCA’s task force.
“We’re not expecting kashrus inspectors to ferret out issues beyond their expertise, but in the process of the plant, if they become aware of something, they should report it,” he said.
Following the Agri raid, a group of rabbinical students from Yeshivat Chovevei Torah created Uri L’Tzedek, dedicated to promoting social justice in the Orthodox world. In a phone interview with the Standard earlier this week, Uri L’Tzedek founder Shmuly Yanklowitz said there has to be a “grassroots” shift in consumer habits.
“It’s clear that the Orthodox constituency, as well as the establishments, are rapidly changing in their perspectives of consumerism, kashrut, and social justice,” Yanklowitz said.
Until now, the Orthodox community has been more reactive about ethical standards in kashrut, Yanklowitz said.
“There’s an understanding now that the whole country is watching to see how will we clean up this mess,” he said. “But also on the positive side there’s an expanded notion of kashrut as a spiritual and emotional force in the country. That’s creating a great pressure in the Orthodox establishment to put forward solutions.”
Rabbi Morris Allen, founder of the Conservative movement’s Magen Tzedek – formerly Hekhsher Tzedek – ethical kashrut seal, said the new focus on ethical issues in the kashrut industry is a “victory for the Jewish people.” He credited his organization for spurring the change in attitude toward kashrut.
“Three years ago there was no consensus in the Jewish community about ethical issues in kosher food,” he said. “Now there is clear consensus.”
The role of the rabbi in monitoring ethical concerns remains a matter of debate. Yanklowitz said that, “Rabbis ought to be an inspiring force in helping to guide these values and laws.”
Genack argued that rabbis cannot be expected to take the place of trained government inspectors.
“They shouldn’t substitute themselves for governmental agencies that are by law and experience able to handle these issues more effectively,” he said. “But if they become aware of these issues, they shouldn’t ignore it.”
The RCA guidelines recognize rabbis’ limited knowledge of federal regulations. Rather than begin their own investigations, they are directed to bring their suspicions to the attention of the company in question or federal inspectors.
Once a supervising agency becomes convinced of wrongdoing, according to the guidelines, it “should act promptly and not remain, or even appear to remain, indifferent to such misconduct.” Actions may include removing its supervision; also the RCA may publicly condemn the violations.
“The bottom line,” Allen said, “is that what we’re seeing is a coalescing in the Jewish community around the shared notion that in the production of kosher food, ethical issues that impact a Jewish community are important.”