Analysis: Our kosher meat is improving already

By Sue Fishkoff, November 23, 2009
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Sholom Rubashkin’s convictions on 86 of 91 federal fraud charges ends one chapter in an ugly story of monetary scandal and worker exploitation that has rocked the North American Jewish community. But the case’s implications for kashrut are ongoing.

Rubashkin’s arrest following a massive May 2008 immigration raid that eventually ruined the Agriprocessors plant in Postville, Iowa, bitterly divided American Jewry, brought shame to the kosher meat industry and depleted the country’s supply of kosher meat.

It revealed the weakness in a kosher meat system dominated by one company, and spawned new, smaller operations all over North America. Whether this devolution of production will continue, or Agriprocessors’ new owners will seize control of the industry, remains to be seen.

The case also generated intense interest in kashrut among liberal American Jews who had rarely, if ever, seriously considered Jewish sacred eating. And as they began to scrutinise the ethical and environmental impact of kosher food production, some of that concern spilled over into the Orthodox world.

Never have so many American Jews spent so much time talking about kashrut.

“This isn’t the first time the Jewish community has been talking about ethics and kashrut, but until recently the conversations were small and fairly limited to the Renewal community,” said Rabbi Jacob Fine, Hillel rabbi at the University of Washington in Seattle. “We have now reached the tipping point. There is no part of the Jewish community, from Reform to Orthodox, where the conversation is not taking place.”

The Conservative movement’s Magen Tzedek (Just Shield) initiative, which seeks to rank kosher food manufacturers according to set standards of worker safety, fair wages, environmental impact and humane treatment of animals, is proceeding apace.

The Reform movement launched its Green Tables/Just Tables initiative earlier this month, asking congregations to come up with food policies based on Jewish values of ethics, ecology and holiness.

And two initiatives by independent Orthodox rabbis and rabbinical students in New York and Los Angeles seek to vet restaurants and other Jewish-owned businesses on their working conditions.

“The end result will be, I hope, that more kosher food will be bought by more Jews,” said Rabbi Morris Allen, the Minnesota-based Conservative rabbi who spearheads the Magen Tzedek campaign. “You’re not going to get the majority of Jews to go out and buy two sets of dishes. But because of this conversation, people who had no connection to Jewish dietary practice suddenly have it affect their lives.”

Sue Fishkoff is author of a forthcoming book on the kosher food industry

    Last updated: 5:41pm, November 23 2009