Leaders of Conservative Judaism are planning to create a new ethical certification system for kosher food in response to the findings of a special commission that investigated working conditions at the nation’s largest kosher slaughterhouse.
The five-person commission, formed by the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism and the Rabbinical Assembly, was created following an investigative report in the May 26 edition of the Forward, which detailed a series of allegations about the treatment of workers at the AgriProcessors plant in Postville, Iowa. Members of the Conservative panel, who visited the Iowa plant in August and September, recently issued a report stating that “there are significant issues of concern at the plant, including issues of health and safety.”
A spokesman for AgriProcessors did not respond to calls and e-mails seeking comment, but the company has previously defended its practices and insisted that it maintains a safe work environment. The AgriProcessors plant, which produces meat under the Rubashkin’s and Aaron’s Best labels, employs close to 800 workers, a significant proportion of whom are immigrants from Mexico and Guatemala.
Conservative movement leaders said that they plan to establish a “tsedek hekhsher,” or a justice certification, that would ensure kosher food producers “have met a set of standards that determine the social responsibility of kosher food producers, particularly in the area of workers rights.”
The new certification appears be the first effort by a Jewish religious movement to provide oversight on labor issues. It would also be the first time that the Conservative movement would be involved in certifying food producers on a national level. Currently the Conservative movement has a kosher committee — and some rabbis provide kosher supervision on a local level — but national certification has been left to Orthodox entities.
When allegations about the working conditions at the AgriProcessors factory first surfaced, some Orthodox kashrut authorities came to the plant’s defense. The largest Orthodox kosher supervision agency, the Orthodox Union, said that labor issues were a matter for federal regulators, not kosher authorities.
Reached this week, the head of the Orthodox Union’s kosher division, Rabbi Menachem Genack, applauded the Conservative movement for looking at labor issues, given the weight of Jewish law dedicated to the topic. Genack also said he had spoken with AgriProcessors and the United States Department of Agriculture about the working conditions at the plant. But Genack said that the Conservative movement should be careful not to blur the line between Jewish law regarding worker rights and Jewish law regarding the kosher standard of food.
“There are lots of social issues that are really important that could be subsumed under some sort of super certification,” Genack said. “But if we just move away from strict concerns about kashrut — if we talk about what they pay workers — these kinds of standards can be less than 100% clear.”
Genack also said that a major priority for the Orthodox Union was to make kosher food more widely available. “For us to set up a new amorphous standard in certain plants,” Genack said, “parts of the kosher industry are very fragile and could be adversely affected by this.”
The head of the Conservative movement commission, Rabbi Morris Allen, said that any certification system would be a supplement — not a replacement — for current kosher supervision. Allen said the additional level of scrutiny is necessary for the religious bona fides of the industry.
“We have reached a point where it is not sufficient to teach and promote the whys of keeping kosher,” Allen said. “It is necessary to ensure we talk about how our kosher food is produced.”
AgriProcessors is the only kosher meat company in America producing both beef and chicken, and it is among the two largest producers in both categories. The company also has a slaughterhouse in Nebraska.
The company found itself in the national spotlight two years ago when an animal rights group, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, released video footage from the cattle kill floor. The footage showed animals standing up and walking after having their throats slit. AgriProcessors has since taken steps to assure consumers that its slaughter process is as humane as possible.
The Forward wrote its report about labor issues in May after speaking with many workers who alleged that they received virtually no safety training, something that they said contributed to accidental amputations and other health problems. Industry experts also told the Forward that wages paid to workers at AgriProcessors are among the lowest in the slaughterhouse industry, despite the premium price at which AgriProcessors sells its kosher meat.
The company responded with a full-page advertisement in the Forward denying that the working conditions at the plant were remiss.
The Conservative movement put together a commission to investigate the Forward’s allegations and made three trips to the plant. The report that came out of these visits said that the commission came across a number of concerns in speaking with workers and management.
The list of problems included: “Inadequate or non-existent worker safety training,” “concern about unsafe chemical use” and “unclean and unsafe lunchroom conditions.”
Several members of the Conservative movement’s commission also visited the Empire Kosher Poultry plant in Pennsylvania, where they found “working conditions, safety conditions and general worker welfare and community relations not to be issues of concern.”
After these visits, the Conservative commission entered into negotiations with AgriProcessors to improve working conditions. According to the commission, AgriProcessors agreed to make certain changes, including the hiring of a Spanish-language safety coordinator and the retention of a consultant to “review the health and safety procedures in the plant.”
But Allen said the negotiations have been somewhat slow moving and eventually the commission wanted to take action.
“We should not be in a situation where people are keeping kosher with a sense that the product is kosher but the means with which it was produced are less than honorable,” Allen said.