July 29th, 2010
09:55 AM ET
CNN's Talya Minsberg filed this report:
Most religious dietary guidelines allow individuals to maintain a sense of holiness in their daily lives.
For many Jews, that sense was shattered in spring of 2008, when an Agriprocessors kosher meatpacking plant in Postville, Iowa was raided and found to have hundreds of illegal immigrants and dozens of violations, from unsafe conditions to unethical treatment of workers. It was the nation's largest kosher meatpacking plant.
In June, Agriprocessors executive Sholom Rubashkin was sentenced to 27 years of imprisonment on fraud charges, though he appealed his conviction earlier this month.
The scandal has done more than send Rubashkin to jail. When American Jews learned that workers at the Agriprocessors plant faced dire conditions, including receiving safety instructions in English even though many spoke only Spanish, the community entered a kosher crisis.
For an animal to be “kosher,” it must be slaughtered using perfectly sharp knife to cut the throat. The method is apparently painless and is recognized as the most humane method of slaughter. For that reason, some Jews feel that keeping kosher is as ethical as it is holy when it comes to meat consumption.
During a 2006 tour of the Postville plant, Rabbi Morris Allen of Saint Paul, Minnesota said he was disturbed by worker conditions and that he shared those concerns with the facilities’ owners. He also began arguing to his congregation that keeping kosher is as much about workers as about animals.
“We needed to find a way to develop kashrut that is kosher and raised to the highest Jewish ethical standard,” Allen said in an interview. “If we were serious about kashrut (keeping kosher), it was time to understand the laws of kashrut that were not written in the Torah.”
Allen’s idea? A new kind of kosher.
Just like labels such as “fair trade,” a kosher label–called a hekhsher–certifies that the product is kosher. Allen proposed a new kosher stamp certifying that the treatment of workers is as kosher as the treatment of the food.
But creating a new kosher stamp has proved more difficult than it may sound.
“This was a systemic issue, not something that could be handled individually on one plant or another,” Allen said.
Since 2006, Allen has been promoting a new seal, called Magen Tzedek, through an organization of the same name. “The world’s first Jewish ethical certification seal," the group says, "synthesizes the aspirations of a burgeoning international movement for sustainable, responsible consumption and promotes increased sensitivity to the vast and complex web of global relationships that bring food to our tables."
Last September, Magen Tzedek issued a 154-page document outlining standards for the new seal, addressing everything from hazardous waste reduction to off site education for employees. The document covers employee wages, benefits, health and safety, animal welfare, and corporate transparency.
The well-publicized 2008 Postville raid prompted more manufacturers and consumers to support Magen Tzedek.
“Companies are always interested in whether the seal will sell more products, and we believe it will… it can restore the sense of kashrut in the American community,” Allen said.
Magen Tzedek and its Hekhsher Tzedek Commission have the garnered support from the Rabbinical Assembly, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the Nathan Cummings Foundation and Social Accountability International. Many kosher certifiers have also backed the new certification.
Rabbi Menachem Genack, CEO of the largest certifier of kosher food, OU Kosher, has publically said he would not object to having the Magen Tzedek affixed to products supervised by the OU.
“Clearly we have captured the imagination of American Jewish community. It’s not accidental that two of the major Hekhsher Tzedek players were recognized by Newsweek as influence rabbis,” Allen said, referring to Newsweek’s 50 most influential Rabbis in America of 2010.
Magen Tzedek hopes to have its insignia next to kosher seals early next year.
While he declined to disclose companies that he says are on board for the new seal, Allen say that "major names that people will recognize will be among the first to go forward with this.”
Companies can apply for the Hekhsher Tzedek seal online. Magezn Tzedek plans to hold webinars to educate consumers and advocates.
An earlier version of this article misstated the date of a major raid of the Agriprocessors kosher meatpacking plant in Postville, Iowa. The federal raid happened in 2008.
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.