New ethical certification for kosher food

Religious life and ethical consumption are two of my interests. Non-Jews might miss growing story in the Jewish and secular press, so I want to mention Hekhsher Tzedek, a new kosher certification that includes the ethics of production in parallel with religious regulation. (For news about it, it’s easier to follow Rabbi Morris Allen’s blog.)

A scandal concerning Agriprocessors, the nation’s largest kosher meatpacking facility, concerning animal welfare and labor standards (including child labor) made The New York Times (“Inquiry Finds Under-Age Workers at Meat Plant“) and the wires and gave Hekhsher Tzedek a particular timeliness. (PETA and the UFCW have their own exposé sites.)

I welcome the new certification, but it is one of dozens (many local) and is dwarfed by the Circle U hechsher of the Orthodox Union, which apparently doesn’t share the expanded set of concerns. (Also Hekhsher Tzedek is Conservative; I can only imagine the intra-Jewish controversies and politics at play so I’ll comment no further.)

So what’s the import for non-Jews? There are relatively few standards — fair trade certifications, vegetarian certifications and union labels among them — by which one can measure whether something comes to market in a way the buyer thinks is ethical. Plus, some ethical standards may clash: say, local production against opportunity for persons in a developing country, or synthetic fabrics that have recycled content but which itself cannot be further recycled. Lacking standards, it easy to give up the hope of consuming ethically, or worse, be lured into thinking you’re doing your part by something that has the affect of an ethical decision, but is substantially no different than an “unethical” product. Certain brands of bottled water come to mind. I’ve come to the point where I’m more suspicious of a product if it claims to be green than if it doesn’t.

Until more certifications come into being, we can celebrate and support the ones we have. If Hekhsher Tzedek can tell me a lettuce is free of insects (a kosher issue) and came from a farm with fair labor practices, I’ll respect its authority and buy accordingly. And we can take a stronger interest in the activities of those who produce the goods we use, and share the news: the considered opinion of a thoughtful and just person may be the greatest certification of all.

By Scott Wells

Scott Wells, 46, is a Universalist Christian minister doing Universalist theology and church administration hacks in Washington, D.C.

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