Conservatives finalizing criteria for kosher certification

The Conservative movement ann-ounced this week that it’s nearing implementation of a new ethical approval seal that will be placed on kosher products meeting its approval.

The Hekhsher Tzedek Commission revealed details about its new seal, the Magen Tzedek (star of justice), at the Rabbinical Assembly, a gathering of Conservative rabbis in New York.

Magen Tzedek — billed as “Kashrut for the 21st century” on the commission’s website — has been in development for three years following multiple scandals at Agriprocessors, the nation’s largest kosher meatpacking plant, in Postville, Iowa. Final testing should be completed by the end of this year.

“Over the course of the next year we will be in the marketplace,” said Rabbi Morris Allen, the Hekhsher Tzedek project director.

The Magen Tzedek (star of justice) is the new certification seal for the Conservative movement’s Hekhsher Tzedek Commission.

Joe Regenstein, an adviser to the commission and professor of food science at Cornell University, said the new certification will cover five areas: wages and benefits; health and safety of workers; animal welfare; environment and sustainability; and a broad category of corporate responsibilities (such as nutritional labeling and good practices).

The commission wants each synagogue to appoint one socially aware and active member to work directly with the commission for a year.

In addition, the dozens of rabbis in attendance were urged to make sure that their synagogues and Jewish organizations are in compliance with the ethical standards espoused by the seal. That means using fair labor practices for workers and ensuring that outside contractors, such as catering companies, adhere to the standards.

“We have to set the right example in our own synagogues. It’s a serious issue,” said Rabbi Michael Siegel, co-chairman of the commission. “This will be our Achilles heel if we don’t address it.”

The commission also announced that it had hired Social Accountability Accreditation Services for help in coming up with the standards that a food company must meet in order to be approved for the seal.

The commission posted draft standards at www.magentzedek.org for three months, inviting public comment, and now the standards are being finalized.

At first, the label will be targeted toward U.S. kosher food product companies, Regenstein said, estimating the number at about 10,000. The seal will apply only to products that already have been certified as kosher, including non-food items such as detergents and aluminum foil, as well as products that do not require kosher certification, such as fruit and vegetables.

Even though some companies might adhere to the social justice practices enumerated, if they are not kosher, they cannot get the seal.

“We are a Conservative Jewish organization. We will not put a hechsher on pork sausages,” Regenstein said. The Magen Tzedek, he said, is “tied to Jewish ethics and to Jewish law. The companies have to meet a minimum of Jewish law.”

Regenstein prefers to call the accreditation the Magen Tzedek rather than use the term hechsher.

“The word hechsher means kosher certification, and this program is not kosher certification,” he said. “This is a social justice program attached to previously recognized kosher certification.”

Regenstein added that the term hechsher made the Orthodox community nervous.

“They thought, and perhaps rightfully so, that we were going into the kosher certification business,” he said. “We are going into the ethical certification business.”

Although the seal will not apply to restaurants (other certification agencies handle that), eventually the Hekhsher Tzedek Commission wants to certify catering companies.

Regenstein said that it might prove economically desirable for kosher companies to acquire the seal because it will widen the market for their foods to those who care about ethics even if they don’t keep kosher.

“All of a sudden it’s not just people who keep kosher” who will be eating kosher products, Regenstein said, “but people who are interested in social justice.”