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If you live in America, you eat kosher a lot. This is hardly a revelation for Orthodox Jews (and a minority of the Conservative movement) but even for everyone else, kosher foods likely comprise a major part of your diet: between 40 and 60 percent of packaged foods sold in the U.S. bear some kosher mark. The most common one is an encircled U, usually referred to as O-U—the Orthodox Union. The OU is the world's largest kosher certification agency, certifying over half a million products in more than 80 countries. And kosher is a big business—soon to be a $17-billion market, according to Packaged Facts. Many consumers believe a kosher sign guarantees food safety and quality, and are willing to pay extra for it. The OU and other national certification agencies—the OK, Star-K, KSA—are the gatekeepers of this industry.
So when the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA), the preeminent group of American Orthodox rabbis, issues new ethical guidelines for food production, as it did this January—including protocol on animal mistreatment and misconduct towards employees and customers—and it's endorsed by the OU, it's bigger news than you might imagine. Outside of government agencies, the OU is arguably the most influential food-related body in the country. Companies pay handsomely to have their products certified as kosher; it's considered a sound investment. And while the new guidelines are far from sweeping, and there's no guarantee they'll be honored or enforced, they represent the potential for meaningful extra-governmental oversight.
This isn't the first time a group has attempted to graft an extra ethical dimension onto the kosher standard, but, given the OU's clout, it's the most significant. Kosher rules, especially in regard to animal slaughter, are decidedly technical and fiendishly complicated—concerned with the killing mechanism, the cleaning process, the subsequent salting, etc. The animal's welfare, much less the employee's, isn't central, unless a religious principle happens to address it. (Judaism's prohibition against causing undue harm, as well as its admonition to treat employees fairly, is very real but distinct from the kosher rules. One who violates a commandment can still produce kosher meat.) That the traditional Orthodox movement would endorse more thorough, and some might say enlightened, kosher regulations is thus an extraordinary development, if not altogether surprising.
The impetus for this recent kosher soul-searching can be traced to Postville, Iowa. Modern kosher practice first came under scrutiny in 2004, when AgriProcessors, an Iowa-based kosher slaughterhouse that is the largest in the country, was secretly videotaped by PETA violating serious animal laws. (Among other things, the video showed workers ripping out animals' tracheas and esophagi. It is widely available online, but be forewarned—it's graphic.) The Jewish reaction mostly fell in line with public opinion—horror, shock, and condemnation. But for the kosher standard-bearers, it raised a more interesting and pressing question: was the meat still kosher?
Some rabbis pointed out that the videos showed an animal still conscious post-slaughter, which would render it non-kosher. Other rabbis countered that involuntary movement occurring after death is normal (see: a headless chicken running). The debate is complex on a number of fronts and riddled with Jewish legalese, but what's instructive is that the argument centered on whether the kosher laws were violated. Inhumane treatment, while deplorable, wasn't reason enough to declare an animal non-kosher.
The most vocal critics were Reform and Conservative Jews, who rushed out new programs promoting ethical eating. The Reform initiative sputtered and lost momentum, but the Conservative one, called Magen Tzedek, was heralded as a progressive take on kosher ideals. It proposed a new kosher seal that would supplement, not replace, the standard, and that would be awarded only to companies that comply with their ethical guidelines. But the movement faltered, mainly because Conservative Jews don't have legitimacy in the kosher arena: they lack a widely recognized certification agency, and the ones who keep kosher simply follow the Orthodox seals. So without Orthodox backing (which was about as likely as a peaceful consensus on health care), and without unprecedented support on the part of consumers, this was going nowhere. Nearly two years later, Magen Tzedek's official guidelines have not been released.
AgriProcessors shaped up enough to have both a group of rabbis and noted animal-welfare expert Dr. Temple Grandin declare it fit and sanitary, but the company couldn't keep its image clean, and it continued to propel the kosher ethics discussion. PETA videos revealed new mistreatments, and in 2008 the factory was the target of one of the largest federal raids in recent history. Officials arrested nearly 400 illegal immigrants, and, over the course of a few months, set about charging Aaron Rubashkin, the firm's founder, with a litany of crimes: child labor violations, money laundering, and bank fraud.
Aside from raising concerns about a kosher meat shortage, the raid again set off a moral debate within the Jewish community (some right-wing Orthodox Jews are actively raising money for Rubashkin's legal defense fund). But no one could (or would) plausibly claim that a violation of child labor laws makes the meat non-kosher. Still, it spurned at least one ambitious grassroots movement. Uri L'Tzedek, a social justice organization, founded the Tav HaYosher, a seal given to local eating establishments that do nothing more than abide by federal labor laws: fair pay, fair time, and a safe working environment. While noble, it's faced an uphill battle convincing restaurateurs and consumers to care—the group has signed on only a handful of New York restaurants, and it hasn't penetrated the average kosher consumer's consciousness.
Even if these various movements weren't all that successful, they nonetheless displayed an unprecedented ethical concern well beyond what is demanded by Jewish law. The Orthodox movement was beginning to look crass and unrepentant in comparison, especially in light of the seemingly never-ending AgriProcessors fracas. In hindsight, the RCA's recent proposal was inevitable.
The RCA's guidelines are a departure from its ad hoc ethical kosher predecessors—it represents a potential structural change to kosher certification. The proposal aims not to issue an additional (and therefore meaningless) "Jewish-values gold star," which is what both Magen Tzedek and Tav HaYosher amount to, but to deny non-compliant companies a kosher status, which is a powerful incentive indeed.
The RCA isn't trying to redefine kosher; that's normative Jewish law, and they can't touch that. But the moral deficiencies in the food industry have become too loud to ignore, and the RCA and the OU might finally utilize their industry leverage to exact real change. It remains to be seen if the initiative will be effective or broad enough, but the fact that the problem has been officially recognized, and a plausible solution posited, is inspiring enough for now.