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Metro Views: Keeping kosher - and being ethical, too
MARILYN HENRY
05/31/2008
How much would consumers be willing to pay?
Thousands of kosher butchers in New York were forced to close when women launched a consumer boycott to protest the cost of meat and chicken. They thought prices were artificially inflated because meat plants were deliberately limiting supplies. "Boycott of high-priced meat spread by militant housewives… 3,000 of the city's 4,500 kosher shops are closed or doing little business," The New York Times headline said on May 28, 1935. By the time the boycott ended, Bronx poultry dealers, for instance, had reduced costs by 9 cents a pound. Quite a lot in those days. Whether it is official or informal, consumers stage product boycotts for all sorts of reasons, not all of them associated with the cost of items. About 10 years ago, major American retailers were charged with exploiting sweatshop workers in clothing plants. The retailers pledged to amend their ways, not only to avoid federal sanctions, but to avert boycotts by assuring consumers of their respect for labor. Americans of a certain age recall that many did not eat table grapes for years in the 1960s to support California farm workers' demands. It's easy to avoid grapes and sweatshop-made shirts. It feels socially responsible - some would say morally superior - and it doesn't make much of a difference in any consumer's daily life. Meat, though, is another matter. For many people, meat is the quintessential Shabbat meal. (Not for me; I don't eat it, but I recognize its significance to others.) This brings us to the largest kosher meat plant in the US, Agriprocessors. It is not akin to the 1935 boycott - except, perhaps, in reverse. The post-Agriprocessors question is how much kosher consumers are willing to sacrifice or pay, if anything, for - to use a shorthand - ethics. Agriprocessors, owned by the Lubavitch-affiliated Rubashkin family, is the major employer in little Postville, Iowa, where its plant produces kosher and non-kosher meat. The company and its owners also are famous - or infamous - for a series of legal violations, including the exploitation of its workers, and painfully graphic reports of cruelty to animals. Although damaging to the company's reputation, none of these, so far, appear to have impaired its kashrut certification. Business was good; the Rubashkins supply more than half the glatt kosher meat in the country. THEN CAME the stunning federal raid at the meatpacking plant May 12. The Agriprocessors raid last month was the largest criminal work site enforcement operation in American history, according to federal prosecutors. Of the 389 people detained by immigration officers, 297 were convicted, primarily on immigration charges and fraudulent identity papers. In addition to immigration issues, for which the company has not been charged, Agriprocessors got multiple citations from the state earlier this year for violations of workplace safety and health standards. Still no problem with its kashrut certification. Here in Teaneck, New Jersey, where the main street is dominated by businesses and restaurants that cater to the large and growing traditional community, many restaurants do not rely heavily on supplies from Agriprocessors, and they are unlikely to face meat shortages because of the raid. But that doesn't mean they are immune from the problems in Postville. There is now a very serious discussion of business practices and kashrut certification - sort of an ethical kashrut alongside a ritual kashrut. The American Conservative movement - the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism and the Rabbinical Assembly - has strongly suggested that consumers of kosher meat reconsider buying or using Rubashkin meats because of reports of worker mistreatment, in addition to disregard for animal welfare. The movement advocates the use of a hechsher tzedek, an ethical certification that would in effect expand the definition of kashrut to consider whether the manufacturer is honest in business practices, pays fair wages and provides a safe workplace, in addition to the humane treatment of animals. Agriprocessors need not apply. "As kashrut seeks to diminish animal suffering and offer a humane method of slaughter, it is bitterly ironic that a plant producing kosher meat be guilty of inflicting any kind of human suffering," the Conservative organizations said in a recent statement. THIS IS where the Teaneck restaurateurs become nervous. One invited consumers to express their meat preferences to local businesses. "But you should also know that Rubashkin has some of the lowest prices in the market. Your choice might require the individual business owner to use products that increase his and your costs," said one restaurateur who declined to be identified. The ethical aspects, he said, also require consumers to be prepared to pay more for their choices. "To do anything less would be to force the 'middleman' to pay for your own ethical choices," he said. "It seems unreasonable that synagogues that constantly seek lower prices for Shabbat dinners and other events should then force their own ethical concerns onto food producers without offering reasonable compensation for the increased food costs that their choice will require." The restaurateur said it was unclear if the proponents of the Hechsher Tzedek fully considered the effects on the various kosher businesses including butchers, restaurants and schools, as well as the question of who will pay for these ethical choices. "A merchant should not do something that he finds unethical, but will he do something that you find unethical? Very possibly." AS MAJOR kosher-meat providers, the Rubashkins sullied the reputation of their industry. At the local level, they put consumers to an important ethical test: Are Jews, who are commanded to care for others as we are commanded to follow kashrut, willing to elevate ethical concerns, and send a message to the slaughterhouses that just as we care for the pain of the cow, so we care for the pain of the plant employees, and are willing to pay for them to have a decent wage and a safe place to work? The answer will appear in the oddest place: on our restaurant bill.
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