Abuses at Postville’s Agriprocessors Bring Ethical Component to Kosher Certification


By Allan Kensky
Rabbi, Beth Hillel Congregation Bnai Emunah, Wilmette, Ill.

Rabbi Allan Kensky

Rabbi Allan Kensky

This article is adapted from a sermon given by Rabbi Kensky for Shabbat Shemini 5770 (April 10, 2010)

Over the past two years, important developments have taken place in the area of kashrut, and this Shabbat Shemini, which establishes the basis in the Torah for the dietary laws, is an appropriate time to talk about these developments.

It might seem difficult to believe that a major religious movement in American Jewry would have its origin in a walkout that occurred at a dinner, but that is precisely the moment at which historians pinpoint the beginning of the Conservative movement.

The year was 1885, and the event was the first ordination of rabbis at the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati. Hebrew Union College was the first rabbinical seminary in the United States, established by the Reform movement, which was the predominant movement in American Judaism at the time, before the large scale immigration from Eastern Europe that brought millions of traditional East European Jews to these shores.

To celebrate the occasion of the ordination of this first class of American trained rabbis, Jewish community leaders from throughout the United States, including the leaders of the traditionalist wing in American Jewry, were invited to the ceremonies. After the ordination ceremonies, a grand banquet was held.   

Prominently featured on the menu was shrimp bisque. At that point a substantial group of rabbis and community leaders, mostly from Jewish communities on the East coast, left the room, outraged at the blatant violation of the Jewish dietary laws.

One year later this group of traditionalists formed the Jewish Theological Seminary Association, and opened a small rabbinical school, called the Jewish Theological Seminary, on the premises of the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue in New York. The banquet, hence dubbed the Trefa Banquet by American Jewish historians, had helped galvanize the traditionalist elements in American Jewry to organize and to form their own seminary. This is the origin of the Conservative movement.

Kashruth: The Jewish Dietary Laws

Not surprisingly, when seen in this context, one of the important principles of Conservative Judaism, from the outset, has been allegiance to the dietary laws, to the laws of kashruth.    

When Solomon Schechter founded the United Synagogue, the organization of Conservative congregations, allegiance to the dietary laws and fostering their observance were enshrined among the founding principles of the organization. It goes back to the  Torah’s description of those animals which the Torah permits us to eat and those animals which are forbidden to us.

The developments in the past two years relate to the ethical dimensions of kashruth, to concerns about the ethics of the production of our food, and how that impacts on our understanding and observance of the dietary laws.    

In May 2008 the Jewish community awoke to the realization that there were serious allegations of improper ethical behavior covering a range of issues at the Agriprocessors plant in Postville, Iowa, the largest provider of kosher meat in the country.      

The allegations ranged from issues of inhumane treatment of animals prior to slaughter, to questions about the slaughter itself, to issues of worker safety, child labor and the employment of undocumented immigrant workers. It culminated with the mass arrest of some 400 undocumented immigrant workers (on May 12, 2008), which was followed by the indictment and conviction of the head of the company. Agriprocessors went bankrupt and though the plant operated under administration of the bankruptcy court, the greatly reduced output affected the supply of kosher meat in many communities.   

(Agriprocessors was bought by new owners who began operating under the name Agri Star in August 2009.)

Following the raids and arrests in 2008, the outrage in the Jewish community was widespread, and has, most significantly, led to a number of initiatives, within both the Conservative and Orthodox Jewish communities, to prevent abuses such as had occurred at Agriprocessors from sullying the reputation of the kosher food industry again.     

The kosher food industry is a big industry.

As much as 60 percent of all packaged foods in the United States bear some kosher symbol. The market in such products is approximately $17 billion annually. Next to the Department of Agriculture, the Orthodox Union (OU) is probably the largest supervisor of food products in the country, which means, according to Menachem Kaiser, in an article in the Atlantic entitled “Ethical Eating, the Newest Kosher Pickle,” that the rabbinical authorities can in theory play a major role in establishing ethical guidelines for the production of our food products.

Conservative Judaism’s Response to Postville: Heksher Tzedek

Magen Tzedek Logo

Magen Tzedek Logo

With the revelations of abuses at the Agriprocessors plant, the Conservative movement began a major initiative called Hekhsher Tzedek, a certification of righteousness, which is designed to focus on the ethical issues involved in the manufacture of food, such as worker safety, fair wages, health benefits and conditions in the workplace and environmental impact. The Hekhsher Tzedek Commission has worked to develop a seal, called the magen tzedek, the seal of righteousness, which would be placed on products whose companies adhered to these ethical principles.

This seal would be separate from any kosher certification or seal that the company might have. It is designed to work with, and not against, any kosher certifying agency.

In the words of Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, the executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly, “Magen Tzedek is an authentic expression of the Conservative rabbinate, and our unflagging commitment to the integration of ethics and ritual.”

Despite all its good intentions, Magen Tzedek has to date not taken off, for a variety of reasons, some economic and some political, but the impact of Magen Tzedek has been considerable and it has been felt in other areas, namely as a stimulus for similar activities in the Orthodox community, which was similarly seriously shaken by the revelations at Agriprocessors.  

Orthodox Judaism’s Response

Following the revelation of the abuses at Agriprocessors, there was considerable debate within the Orthodox community as to whether ethical issues could or should be combined with the question of whether a product should be considered kosher.

Many authorities argued that the kosher laws are very specific, and do not include requirements as to the ethical production of the product.  But others in the Orthodox community have argued that kosher is also aligned with “Yoshor,” with fairness, and that a product cannot be ritually fit if it is not fit ethically as well.

Tav HaYosher Logo

Tav HaYosher Logo

In the Orthodox community a new seal has been developed that has been offered to kosher establishments, restaurants and caterers. It is called the Tav HaYosher, a certification of fairness, that attests to an establishment’s following all laws regarding working conditions faithfully. This seal of approval, which is separate from any kosher certification, was modeled after the Tav Hevrati in Israel that attests to the fair treatment of workers in Israeli food establishments. The Tav HaYosher has come to Chicago, where some seven kosher establishments bear this symbol.     

In recent months, the Rabbinical Council of America, the largest organization of Orthodox rabbis, and the rabbinic arm of the Orthodox Union, has similarly taken steps in this area.

The RCA has ruled that kosher approval should be denied to a producer known to be engaged in serious misconduct, particularly legal violations in the area of health and safety, honesty to the consumer and animal suffering. The RCA argued that the rabbinic supervisors could not be expected to investigate worker conditions at a plant—their role being to supervise production from the standpoint of its kashruth– but they should to be attuned to such issues if brought to their attention.

The RCA statement, I believe, represents a breakthrough. Ultimately, as was pointed out by Kaiser in his article, the threat of removal of a kosher certification can be a powerful influence on a company to adhere to the ethical behaviors that are mandated by law. We must hope that the OU would be prepared to remove a kosher certification in the face of a violation of laws regarding workers and the production of food products.

The kosher consumer will feel that he or she is truly eating kosher when we can be assured that our food is prepared in a just and safe environment.    

The ethical production of food is in many ways the new frontier of kashruth. It all goes back to the Torah’s charge to us: “You shall sanctify yourselves and be holy”—Vehitkadishtem vihyitem kedoshim.    We who keep kosher do it as a way of sanctifying ourselves and of sanctifying life.  As was explained by one of our great early sages, the laws of kashruth were given to make us better human beings. May we on this Shabbat Shemini rededicate ourselves to following these laws and to being a holy people.

Prior to joining BHCBE as its spiritual leader, Rabbi Kensky served as dean of the rabbinical school at the Jewish Theological Seminary.

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