Thursday, March 26, 2009

The Beef About (kosher) Kosher

Last May federal immigration agents raided America's largest kosher meatpacker, Agriprocessors, Inc. based in Postville, Iowa. In November they filed for bankruptcy, by December shortages of kosher meat were being reported. Owned and run by Orthodox Jews from Brooklyn, they technically followed the rules of Kashrut, but stories of less than "kosher" treatment of their employees and animals raised a larger ethical issue for Jews desiring to follow Kaf-Shin-Reish.

Now comes the creation of the food designation "Magen Tzedek" by the Hekhsher Tzedek Commission, which will designate kosher foods prepared by companies that have completed an additional ethical certification. "By introducing Magen Tzedek, we are inviting the public to be a part of the conversation about kashrut, justice and Judaism", said Jerold Jacobs of the commission. Or as Hekhsher Tzedek founder, Rabbi Morris Allen put it, "Jewish people shouldn't have to choose between the free-range chicken and the kosher chicken. There shouldn't be that split."

Much of the support for this designation comes from the Conservative and Reform movements, however Orthodox groups are fighting it as a defense of tradition. Rules defining kosher were written in the Torah, and as such cannot be changed. "There is nothing in Jewish law that conflates the status of kosher food with the way the food is produced," said Rabbi Avi Shafran, member of a panel discussion at Yeshiva University in December 2008. "Lapses of business ethics, animal rights issues, worker rights matters - all of these have no effect whatsoever on the kosher value."

I happen to live within an Orthodox (and Conservative and Reform) Jewish neighborhood, and our corner Tom Thumb has a large selection of kosher foods, including an impressive meat counter, supplied by A. D. Rosenblatt Premium Kosher Meats. It turns out the owner, Yaakov Rosenblatt is my neighbor, a friendly gentleman willing to spend a few minutes discussing this issue. While he has heard whispers of the movement in his food circles, the actual implementation of a new designation does not seem likely locally.

"We already follow a humane protocol for both our animals and employees, with an annual humane audit conducted by regulators already. To add another layer of audits, distribution and packaging would require a strong enough demand to justify the costs." said Mr. Rosenblatt over the phone. Fair enough, many kosher food businesses are not run like Agriprocessors, and are just trying to deliver the best quality at the lowest cost. And it appears that the marketplace is already beginning to satisfy the kosher consumer looking for organic and natural products through niche businesses like

We are facing a time of distrust in our food production, whether kosher or not. It's just unfortunate that the bad ones make us mistrust all.

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