Fran Hawthorne is the author of The Overloaded Liberal: Shopping, Investing, Parenting, and Other Daily Dilemmas in an Age of Political Activism (Beacon Press. 2010), which discusses the new kosher hekhsher and many other issues. Thanks, Fran, for sharing your thoughts!
Jews like me, who care about animal welfare, could always feel a little smug about our dining habits — even if (also like me) we aren’t vegetarian. Pigs are particularly intelligent animals? Well, we don’t eat them. Shrimp-farming destroys delicate swamps in Thailand? We don’t eat shrimp, either. And the meat we do eat is killed according to the laws of kashrut, which everyone knows is a more humane method than other types of slaughter. (Isn’t it?)
Still, many of us have been nagged by lingering guilt. Kosher slaughter is fine as far as it goes, but it does nothing to improve the treatment of animals while they’re alive – the tiny “battery cages” into which egg-laying hens are crammed, the gallons of dangerous antibiotics pumped into chickens and cattle, the reek of ammonia in their dark sheds. Nor do the laws of kashrut guarantee decent wages and working conditions for the humans who tend and slaughter these animals. There’s also nothing in kosher practices about protecting the environment from animal wastes and “factory farms.” The last straw came in May 2008 when federal agents raided Agriprocessors, a huge kosher slaughterhouse in Postville, Iowa, accusing it of abusing its largely immigrant work force, making them work 12-hour stretches without proper safety equipment or overtime pay, and hiring children to boot.
As Rabbi Morris Allen of Beth Jacob Congregation in Mendota Heights, Minnesota, said to me, “Is it appropriate for us to call something kosher if it meets the ritual demands of the Jewish people but is produced in a way that people are exploited?”
So, later in 2008, Conservative Judaism’s Rabbinical Assembly approved a new, voluntary kosher certification, called the hekhsher tzedek, which Rabbi Allen had championed. In addition to traditional requirements, this certification sets standards for workers’ pay and safety, environmental impact, corporate behavior, and animal welfare.
Now we guilt-ridden Jewish carnivores who want to protect workers’ rights, animal welfare, and the environment finally, legitimately could feel smug about our meat. To make it easy, the new hekhsher even does our research for us. It’s an all-in-one seal of approval. Who could argue with these noble goals?
Actually, people on both sides of the debate could.
On one side, animal rights activists like PETA say the hekhsher tzedek is too weak, because it doesn’t ban the battery cages and other horrible conditions. They have a point: The animal welfare section praises the standards of the respected Humane Farm Animal Care organization – but also those of industry groups such as the Animal Meat Institute and the National Chicken Council. Forgive my cynicism, but I doubt that Big Agriculture trade organizations worry very much about animal suffering or overuse of antibiotics.
Nevertheless, I think PETA and its colleagues ought to give the new rules more credit. They’re a huge improvement over traditional kosher laws.
To me, the more troubling criticism comes from the other side, from those who argue that the hekhsher is too strict. Is it really practical to demand that a single piece of meat fulfill all of our values? “You want organic, free-range, kosher blah blah, and it will cost you four times as much,” says Rabbi Paul Plotkin of Temple Beth Ann in Margate, Florida (who opposed the new certification as chair of the Rabbinical Assembly’s kosher-laws subcommittee).
That conflict –trying to juggle too many values—doesn’t occur only when keeping kosher. Do you get locally grown, nonorganic apples or imported organic varieties? Do you choose recycled paper from a big chain store or virgin-cut paper from a small neighborhood merchant? Moreover, almost any special effort — buying organic, recycled, free-range, pesticide-free, union-made, artisanal, unprocessed, whatever — costs more than doing things the standard way. And keeping prices affordable, especially for low- and middle-income consumers, is an important ethical value, too.
Thus, even the hekhsher tzedek doesn’t solve the guilt-ridden Jewish consumer’s problem with one easy label. We each have to make our own, case-by-case decisions about which foods must have the new certification and which are “good enough” without it.
But at least we have good choices to agonize over, rather than bad ones.