The May 12, 2008, immigration raid at the Agriprocessors slaughterhouse in Postville, Iowa, exposed the sordid side of the kosher meat industry. Nearly 400 immigrant workers were arrested, and around 300 of them were subsequently convicted of document fraud, imprisoned and deported.
Rabbi Morris Allen, spiritual leader of Beth Jacob Congregation in Mendota Heights, was part of a commission of inquiry that traveled to Postville in August 2006, following the publication of an exposé about abuses at Agriprocessors in the Forward newspaper. Allen and Vic Rosenthal, executive director of Jewish Community Action, traveled again to Postville, in September 2006, and met with the Rubashkin family, the owners of the company, and their leadership team.
Allen and Rosenthal presented three recommendations to reform business operations at the nation’s largest kosher slaughterhouse. In November 2006, the Rubashkins responded and declined to implement the suggested changes.
In an interview with the American Jewish World last week, Allen recalled that, around the time he was traveling to Postville, he realized that the problems at Agriprocessors “were potentially a systemic issue and that addressing just one company… was not going to change a much larger situation.”
Rabbi Morris Allen: All too often, the dignity of labor in this country is anything but respected. (Photo: Courtesy of St. Paul JCC)
In his Kol Nidre sermon that year, the rabbi “wondered aloud” about the Jewish community’s ability to develop a program to “evaluate ethical norms of the Jewish tradition, and laws that emerge from them that are no less important and may be found in the same Torah as the laws of kashrut.”
Specifically, the Torah “contains laws about how one is to treat one’s employees. One section of the Torah is not written in large type, and another section of the Torah is not written in small type… they are actually written in the same size letters and, therefore, they carry with them the same significance.”
Allen admits that he had “no idea what it would take to bring a product to market,” but the initiative known as Magen Tzedek, which will provide an ethical certification for kosher food products, is now close to rolling out.
Rabbi Allen, who has been at Beth Jacob since 1986, and now serves as the project director of Magen Tzedek, will speak on “Kashrut, Justice and Judaism: Engaging the Conversation” 11 a.m. Sunday, April 3 at the St. Paul JCC.
Magen Tzedek has proceeded under the auspices of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the umbrella group of Conservative congregations in North America, and the Rabbinical Assembly, the organization of Conservative rabbis. Allen explained that a “supplementary seal” will be given to kosher-certified products – food items that already have a kosher hechscher (rabbinic stamp of approval) – that make an application and satisfy the requirements in five areas: wages and benefits; health, safety and training; corporate integrity; environmental impact; and “product development, which includes animal wefare.”
Allen said that two of three “vettings of major producers of kosher food” have been completed, and a third vetting site visit (to the largest producer of kosher food that Magen Tzedek is working with) should be done “shortly after Pesach.” The Magen Tzedek project has subcontracted with Social Accountability Accreditation Services (SAAS) to design and implement the certification process.
Applications will be processed and SAAS has suggested that the first Magen Tzedek certification should be awarded before Rosh Hashana, according to Allen.
“One of the things I have learned is that labels [on food products] take a long time to retool,” Allen allowed. “It’s not like you’re suddenly going to go out and change a label overnight.”
However, an announcement of certification is expected to be made during this Hebrew year; and the Magen Tzedek seal should appear on a food package in 2011.
In observance of confidentiality agreements, Allen could not divulge the names of companies working with Magen Tzedek.
In her recent book Kosher Nation, Sue Fishkoff wrote that kosher food products now account for an astounding $200 billion a year in sales. The Magen Tzedek project, which encompasses an array of ethical criteria for food production, potentially could have a significant global impact, if manufacturers seek the certification.
Allen said that about two weeks after his talk at the St. Paul JCC, families will sit down together for Passover seders and tell the story of the Exodus from Egypt.
“Far too many people will believe that when they close their Haggada that evening, the story is over,” he said. “Indeed, what we have discovered in the work that we’re doing for Magen Tzedek is that the work is not over, and that the work is dependent on the commitments of many Jews to ensure that the story of Pesach continues to resonate in ways in which the dignity of those who are called upon to do labor in this society is elevated and respected… and all too often, the dignity of labor in this country is anything but respected.”
Rabbi Morris Allen will speak about the Magen Tzedek project 11 a.m. Sunday, April 3 at the St. Paul JCC, 1375 St. Paul Ave. For information, call 651-698-0751.