January 07, 2011

A New Frontier for Kosher Food

Only 20% of people who seek out kosher foods are Jewish; the rest look for the label because they believe it signals food that is healthy, safe, and generally high in quality. The reality is that many kosher meats and processed foods — like their conventional non-kosher counterparts — are made in large, industrial facilities. Today’s kosher standards are focused mainly on religious ritual and do not account for aspects of the production process that might impact the environment* or food system workers.

If Rabbi Morris Allen and the team behind a soon-to-be-introduced seal and certification process called Magen Tzedek (or “seal of justice”) have their way, however, this won’t always be the case. Through Magen Tzedek, Allen hopes to give food producers a chance to incorporate social justice, corporate transparency, and environmental stewardship into the world of kosher food. And, while Jewish people make up only 2% of the U.S. population, the movement to create a complementary label for sustainable kosher food has significant implications for the wider food world. Forty percent of all products sold in the US are certified kosher and the market is growing. When they were last measured in 2008, sales of kosher foods totaled $12.5 billion. We spoke with Rabbi Allen recently about his motivation and the challenges he’s facing in advancing this new frontier for kosher food.  

CUESA: How did you (and your congregation, Beth Jacob Congregation in Minnesota) arrive at the idea for Magen Tzedek?

Rabbi Morris Allen: In 2006 I was helping to source fresh kosher meat for a supermarket in St. Paul through an Agriprocessors plant in Postville, Iowa. We were very successful for a few months, until a national news story was released detailing horrible labor practices at the plant. Having sort of staked my reputation on being able to work with them, I was distressed. When a national commission of people went to Postville, we discovered many things that were troubling and we made suggestions for changes they could make. [Editor’s note: when the plant was raided by immigration officials in 2008, they found 57 under-age workers. Many worked 12-hour days with harsh chemicals and very sharp tools.] 

It was around that time that I decided we could wait to see if they figure out all these issues, or we could use the model of how food was certified as ritually kosher to create a way to certify food that had been produced in a manner that was consistent with Jewish ethical values.

Q: A number of people buy kosher because they perceive it to be safer; are there aspects of the current kosher certification process that do make it any safer?

Not necessarily at all, unfortunately. People believe that it is more healthy, safer, etc. and I think that is part of the appeal to food producers. The fact is, you can have kosher food that is really unhealthy for you but is kosher.

Q: Where is the process today?

Beginning this month, we hope to begin beta testing our standards with three companies. If they all participate fully, we will be certifying over a billion dollars’ worth of food production. Let’s just say they’re all significant players in food production in America. Once we know it’s working we can begin taking applications from companies interested in being certified.

Q: Do you think there are there many companies already able to meet your current standards?

Yes. There are a number that are already doing the right thing, and they need to know that people take note of that fact. It’s the first time that a religious community has essentially decided to demonstrate that good corporate citizenship is a religious issue.

The standards are in five areas: Labor Concerns, Animal Welfare, Environmental Impact, Consumer Trust and Corporate Integrity [Read a draft of the standards].

Q: There’s an increased cost when you treat workers well and respect the environment. Have you gotten pushback from the kosher industry about those costs?

The major complaint is that this is an unnecessary [certification] that will punish people who keep kosher because their costs will go up. In the first place, many people are already doing the right thing and won’t see their costs go up. On the other hand, the food industry is the only one in the world where we walk into a store and say “I always want to buy the least expensive product.” You wouldn’t walk into a car dealership and say that.

We can buy the head of broccoli that is $1.99, or the locally grown, organic one for $2.50 — and we might actually be spending $1.99 for the product and 50 cents for the community or to benefit us in other ways. Those kinds of equations aren’t necessarily thought through in the grocery store. But if eating, and in particular eating kosher food, is an act of the sacred, then you have to think about those things.

People don’t want to pay more for food, but we have to make the argument that it’s not about paying more, it’s about doing right.

Q: So, just for clarity, you see Magen Tzedek going alongside the standard kosher label?

Yes. We’re also speaking with some people in the Halal community about ways they might be able to adopt our standards down the road. Of course, you can have too many labels, and the key is to make sure our food products don’t start looking like Nascar vehicles.

Keep up with the Magen Tzedek process on Morris Allen’s blog.

Read a related article, Kosher Wars, about the contemporary take on kosher slaughter and other ritual-based dietary rules.

* A number of companies now adopt the kosher label alongside organic certification, but the national organic standards do not include labor practices.

About CUESA

CUESA (Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture) is dedicated to cultivating a sustainable food system through the operation of the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market and its educational programs. Learn More »