When US immigration officers raided Agriprocessors, America’s largest kosher slaughterhouse and meatpacking plant, last year, the Jewish community was shocked and ashamed. Dozens of illegal immigrants were arrested, many alleging sexual harassment, unpaid wages and forced overtime.
But the scandal may have had one unintended positive result — a new Jewish ethical certification for kosher food, championed by the Conservative Jewish community. The Magen Tzedek, or “Shield of Justice”, could come into force as soon as January, after detailed guidelines for the certification were released this month.
Minnesota rabbi Morris Allen, the driving force behind Magen Tzedek, said that until now, the Jewish community has concentrated on the ritual, and not the social, aspect of food production.
“The Torah doesn’t print the laws of kashrut in large type and passages in Deuteronomy on treatment of workers in small type,” he said. “For too long we have allowed a singular perspective to define what constitutes Jewish observance.”
US immigration officers raided Iowa-based Agriprocessors in May 2008. Four executives will stand trial in the coming months for violating federal immigration laws, bank fraud, wire fraud and mail fraud.
Rabbi Allen formed the Hekhsher Tzedek (‘Just Hechsher’) Commission, a joint project of United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism and the Conservative Rabbinical Assembly, in response to allegations of worker mistreatment at Agriprocessors that predated the raid.
In recent years, animal rights groups have also accused the company of inhumane slaughter practices.
Its newly released recommendations for the Magen Tzedek run to 175 pages and include guidance on grading kosher firms according to wages, health and safety, animal welfare, environmental factors, corporate transparency and consumer trust.
The certification will be awarded on a points basis, with marks given for practices such as paying hourly wages of at least 115 per cent of the federal minimum wage, giving workers adequate sick, pregnancy and bereavement leave, and ensuring that on-site slaughter complies with the American Meat Institute’s slaughter standards.
The Magen Tzedek — shaped like an undulating star — will only be awarded to products that are already certified kosher.
Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly, said the Magen Tzedek must go through a consultation and pilot phase.
There have been some doubts about the cost and difficulty of complying with the guidelines. There are also lingering questions about whether consumers will actually seek out ethically certified kosher products.
The commission has not named companies that have shown an interest in the certification, though Rabbi Allen says he has had talks with a kosher meatpacking plant in southern Minnesota and a national dairy food producer.
Elie Rosenfeld, CEO of Joseph Jacobs, a New York advertising firm that specialises in Jewish targeted businesses, said although many consumers want socially conscious products they do not necessarily need to see a certificate. Mr Rosenfeld’s clients include wine company Manischewitz and Empire Kosher Poultry.
He said there was an interest in socially conscious certification within the industry.
But he added that if businesses are to be persuaded to apply for the Magen Tzedek, the commission must prove there will be a financial, as well as an ethical, payoff.
“There are important questions that Hekhsher Tzedek are going to need to address,” said Mr Rosenfeld. “Are enough consumers requesting this additional certification? Is there perceived value? And will it be able to make back the money I am investing?”