Certifiably Just Hamburgers


The Rabbinical Assembly, which represents Conservative rabbis, has endorsed the idea of a hechsher tzedek ("certificate of justice"), a Jewish seal of approval that would go beyond the usual dietary rules to include the compensation and working conditions of people who produce kosher food. It's the brainchild of Minnesota rabbi Morris Allen, who was upset by reports that immigrant workers at a kosher slaughterhouse in Iowa are poorly paid, receive meager health benefits, and get inadequate safety training. Not surprisingly, Orthodox rabbis, who have long dominated the business of certifying food as kosher, are not pleased with Morris' idea.

Although some of Morris' critics may have a vested interest in resisting competition, they do have a point: The question of whether food was "justly produced," unlike the question of whether it's kosher, is not a uniquely Jewish issue, and it is open to a lot more interpretation and argument. I doubt that imponderables such as what constitutes a "just" wage, "just" fringe benefits, and "just" hours can be resolved even by the most conscientious application of Jewish law.

I assume the hechsher tzedek would not be arbitrarily limited to meat, that it would apply to all kosher food, including processed foods, in which case the certifying authority presumably would have to investigate not just one factory for any given product but all the factories that make the ingredients used in that product. For that matter, why limit the hechsher tzedek to food? Shouldn't Jews also be concerned about how their sneakers and T-shirts are produced, for instance? No doubt some Jews also would demand that the criteria for a just product include factors such as environmental sensitivity and local production. Then the hechsher tezedek would start to poach on "organic" territory.

To convince manufacturers that the hechsher tzedek is worth paying for, I think its advocates would have to demonstrate a market wider than the subset of observant Jews who make purchase decisions based on how well a manufacturer treats its workers. I'm sure there are a lot of non-Jews who are interested in the subject. But that raises the question of what makes this a specifically Jewish project to begin with.

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  1. Deuteronomy 24:14-15: “You shall not abuse a needy and destitute laborer, whether a fellow countryman or a stranger in one of the communities of your land. You must pay him his wages on the same day, before the sun sets, for he is needy and urgently depends on it; else he will cry to the Lord against you and you shall incur guilt.” This law was created by our ancestors thousands of years ago to protect a worker’s dignity and physical needs. The Talmud in Baba Metzia takes it a step further, “He who withholds an employee’s wages is as though he deprived him of his life.”

  2. From Talmud 2.0: The Revenge

    Rabbi MOHEL said: “OK, jackass, what’s your brilliant idea this time?”

    Rabbi MOISHE said: “This idea is so awesome you’ll all be lining up to kiss my ass. All right, how about this: An ethics certification for kosher meat?”

    Rabbi ABRAHAM said: “Pardon me if I’m missing something, but aren’t the rules of kosher themselves an ethical code? Are you saying that we need something more?”

    “Yeah,” said Rabbi MOISHE. “We need a certification that the workers who slaughter and prepare the meat are being well-treated.”

    “And if they’re *not* well-treated?” asked Rabbi HERSCHEL. “Are their legs broken? Can they not go and find better work elsewhere?”

    “Wait,” said Rabbi Bar-Simeon, “I think Moishe has a point. If they find better work elsewhere, how will we be able to feel good about ourselves for being compassionate and caring?”

    “So we don’t feel good about ourselves,” said Rabbi SCHLOMO. “The important thing is for *G-d* to feel good about us obeying His commandments.”

    “We should at least let the ritual slaughterers have an employee newsletter,” said Rabbi MOISHE.

  3. Regarding the market proposition, it seems like a potential winner. Jews (here in the US at least) skew heavily progressive, which suggests that the certificate would be attractive to them. As to the larger market, there are gentiles who look for the Kosher mark already – Hebrew National practically made a fetish of it in their market campaigns (“we answer to a higher power”).

    I don’t exactly understand the closing question. Sure, the Rabbinical guys are proposing this certification process, and tying to the existing Kosher food production and marketing complex. As a market proposition it sounds reasonable to me (not that I know anything about this market). If it’s of interest to the larger market, well, it’ll get there someday, then.

  4. But that raises the question of what makes this a specifically Jewish project to begin with.

    uhhh, maybe the fact that only jews keep kosher.

    it’s a very nice marketing scheme directed at a group which is by-and-large affluent and by-and-large liberal. its appeal would certainly extend to non-obsevant jews. “you don’t have to be shomer shabbat to enjoy levy’s rye.” “we answer to a higher authority.”

  5. agggh, crossposted with another mot. sorry larry.

  6. There’s plenty of precident for labor relations in Jewish law. I guess in past centuries, employee’s would take their employers to rabbinic court if an employer broked the Halacha on employment. You didn’t need a special inspection, because the employee, unlike the animal, could speak up if there’s a violation. Today, it makes sense to have an inspection because most of the factories that make kosher food don’t follow Jewish labor laws.

  7. Mad Max

    Great Purim skit.

  8. As long as this doesn’t raise the price of kosher dill pickles, I say go for it.

    BTW, Nathan’s New York Half Sour Pickles are the bomb.

  9. Also, those Nathan’s pickles are made under license here in NE Ohio, in Garrettsville by the Hermann family. Best pickles in the world, and they make a killer pickled tomato, also.

  10. The concept of “ethical kashrut” has been around for decades. I realize this may be out of your area of expertise, but it ain’t hard to Google.

    I’m waiting for the organic-ethical-kosher-cruelty-free chicken, myself. Then I’m going to eat it.

  11. My Heart Belongs to Dati.

  12. JF?

    Pickled killer tomatoes? From OHIO????

    EVERYONE knows that killer tomatoes come from SAN DIEGO (well, Kearny Mesa, but who’s counting?)!

  13. edna wrote:

    But that raises the question of what makes this a specifically Jewish project to begin with.

    uhhh, maybe the fact that only jews keep kosher.

    Close, but no kewpie.

    What makes this a “Jewish” project is that Jews are the largest group in America who observe a single protocol regarding food quality.

    Faithful Latter-day Saints, such as myself, obey a commandment to avoid tobacco, alcohol and other recreational drugs, but what we call the “Word of Wisdom” doesn’t specifically say anything about purity of food. Many of us do, in fact, “keep kosher” (without calling it such) as part of our obedience to the Word of Wisdom.

    I see nothing socialistic in the idea of judging the ethical standards of a packing plant, because such standards, and any weight that we might give them, because all are individual choices.

  14. If it makes it easier to avoid nasty Chinese poison, I’m all for it. I might even give up being vegetarian if I could have all my food certified this way. I became a vegetarian for food safety reasons in the first place.

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