The Rabbinical Council of America has been following recent developments taking place at the Agriprocessors kosher meat plant in Postville, Iowa. Like many others, both within and beyond the Jewish community, we have been concerned to determine the facts and the realities surrounding the many reports that have appeared in the print and online media, so as to respond appropriately, and responsibly.
Given the gravity of the allegations, and the potential impact on the Jewish community and kosher consumers, it would be inappropriate to rush to judgment before all relevant facts are clarified. It is important to keep in mind that to date conflicting reports have been issued, denials of improper behavior have been heard, and the recent events have occurred against a background of long-standing conflicts involving competing interest groups. Nonetheless it is important even at this time to clarify what in our view should be guiding principles in addressing this issue, once the facts will be known.
Relevant Principles of Jewish Law
The Torah, Halacha, and our sacred tradition require that we show ethical sensitivity on many levels:
1. We are required to respect our fellow human beings, who must be treated with fairness and dignity at all times. This applies whether they be Jew or non-Jew, rich or poor, and for that legal or illegal immigrants.
2. Inseparable from the requirement of ethical treatment of our fellows is the requirement to not judge them prematurely, without knowledge of the facts, and without providing an opportunity to rebut allegations in appropriate fashion.
3. We are required to obey all of the laws and regulations of the land if promulgated lawfully, and enforced without discrimination, to adhere to them in letter as well as in spirit, whether or not we approve or make sense of them.
4. We must show sensitivity to needless animal suffering, preventing it where possible, and minimizing it when unavoidable. This is particularly true when it comes to practicing humane methods of animal slaughter, a matter of great concern to rabbis in every generation.
5. We must above all take every reasonable step to prevent the disgrace, even in appearance, of the Jewish people and the Torah. Thus even if an act is technically permitted, if it nonetheless brings discredit to us and our faith, be it in Jewish or non-Jews eyes, it must be avoided.
Public Interest Principles
The availability of reliably supervised kosher meat (as with other kosher food) at a reasonable cost to the consumer is essential to Jewish life (and indeed to many who are not Jewish.) This requires an appropriate understanding of current business models as well as the requirements of Jewish law in providing and supervising such products.
Without necessarily impugning the current motives of various parties involved in any given dispute, we must keep in mind lessons learned during the course of the long history of unwarranted attacks on kosher slaughter practices in Europe and elsewhere, carried out by groups with agendas of their own.
In this connection one can raise for consideration whether or not the laws of the land, in themselves entirely legal and proper, have been consistently enforced, or whether a particular group or company has been singled out for such enforcement or legal action.
The Proper Parameters of Kosher Food Supervision
There are some who have called on kosher supervising agencies to take responsibility for comprehensive supervision of all “ethical” aspects of the kosher food industry. They would have rabbis provide informed and reliable judgments regarding financial auditing, human resource department practices involving hiring, firing, promotion, workplace safety issues, treatment of animals, tax and financial compliance, compliance with immigration law, et al. In our view such expectations of kosher supervising agencies are unreasonable, impractical, and without merit. Kashrus agencies do not have the expertise, resources, or enforcement powers to adjudicate such matters.
Extending kosher supervision to the full gamut of business practices raises many difficult questions. For instance, do we want ethical certification of practices involved in the production and distribution anywhere in the world of clothing, appliances, and furniture? This type of certification requires very different skills, and a very different arena of activity, from that involved in kosher certification. It requires looking at the company’s books, human resources practices, suppliers and distributors, all by experts in the field – at significant cost to the consumers who, even if such broad-ranging review is possible, will end up paying for such investigations.
On the other hand it is certainly appropriate for supervising agencies to incorporate into contractual agreements from the outset, an expectation of adherence to the principles outlined above. It is also appropriate that if improper practices are found to have occurred as a result of regulatory or other substantiated revelations, the kashrus agencies should review their relationship to the businesses involved. Such review should consider, and balance, all of the relevant factors, including
a. The nature, severity, and frequency of the infractions involved. Who was responsible for them – ownership, management, a failure in oversight by government or other supervisory agencies?
b. The likely impact on kosher consumers of continuation or discontinuation of supervision, including the availability and cost of the products in question.
c. The likelihood of continued improper activity by the company, versus its willingness to improve its record going forward in verifiable fashion.
The Rights and Responsibilities of Individual Consumers
Kosher consumers certainly should be free, at any time, to choose to purchase kosher products based on whatever halachic or ethical criteria they value. Some may choose to withhold their business even on the basis of rumor or media reports until such time as the facts emerge. That is their right.
At the same, in the absence of hard facts, they too should exercise appropriate restraint, and not rush to premature judgments that might unnecessarily imperil the availability or affordability of kosher products and services, or impute guilt where none, or little, exists.
They should also be wary of any group that would seek to exploit the kosher food industry, or any particular company, based on ulterior motives of an economic, philosophical, or even religious, nature. Here the principle of caveat emptor, in its broadest meaning, applies.
In the matter of recent allegations against Agriprocessors and its company policies, the RCA is certainly concerned at news reports published to date. But both Jewish Law (Halacha) and civil law require a presumption of innocence by all parties, including the concerned public, as well as an understanding of the broad implications involved on all sides, until the facts will have been clarified, especially in a case that is as complex as the one at hand.