Wednesday Night: Is Ethical Eating Impossible?

Photo by Sabrina Malach

The night before the conference, and all through Asilomar, beleaguered travelers and hardworking Hazon-niks headed droopily towards bed. It had been a long day, with turkey shechting for some, T’uv Ha’Aretz teaching sessions for others, and long flights and car rides for everyone.

After a couple of rousing rounds of Ma’Otzur and Mi Yimaleil around the Channukah candles, and dinner in the now cavernous, soon to be bustling dining room, a couple dozen folks sat down with Rabbi Steve Greenberg to discuss transparency and our right to know in Jewish law and the law of the land.

According to halakha, Both buyer and seller have a moral imperative to be honest regarding the worth of products. Jewish law doesn’t recognize the concept of “let the  buyer beware.” But it’s not just about the market “price.” As Americans understand from our current mortgage debacle, you can’t know the actual worth of a product unless you know how it was made, what its by-products are and how it connects to the rest of the economy and ecosystem. The seller has a moral obligation to provide full information on his product, and the buyer has the right (though, notably, not an obligation) to full transparency.

So what do Jewish prohibitions on insider trading have to do with the Hazon Food Conference? Well, as Rabbi Greenberg pointed out, American patent laws protect companies from having to fully disclose either ingredients of processes, and plenty of people would rather jettison their right to know along with their right to, say, have a root canal with no anesthetic. “It’s actually extremely challenging to buy and eat ethically, because the system is against it,” said Rabbi Greenberg, “the enormity of the task becomes so great that we prefer ignorance.”

There are a couple of reasons for this, beyond mere irresponsibility. One conference-goer mentioned buying chickens at the butcher’s as a kid and watching them schected before his eyes. That kind of knowledge is extremely useful, but it isn’t complete. It forgoes the meat processing plant, but not the chicken’s life before it got there. What did the chicken eat? How much fossil fuel did it use getting to the city? Is the effluent of its chicken-life disposed of in a harmful manner? Are the soybeans that feed it sprayed with pesticides? Who sprays them and how much are they paid? There’s so much to know, and the more you know, the more you need to know. How do we prioritize information in order to make ethical choices, and how do we ever, really, make an ethical choice about what we eat?

Rabbi Greenberg suggested that we empower agencies like the OU to gain access to information we don’t have and make judgments for us regarding that information. Not everyone who buys OU food is a kosher Jew, a lot of people look to the symbol because they know that somebody has examined every ingredient in a twinkie, or a bottle of coke, and decided that it meets a certain standard. The OU gets access where the individual doesn’t, and we trust them to represent our interests.

Of course, after Agriprocessors, that trust may be broken. The US regulatory system, with its insistence that GE foods are safe enough to go unlabeled and that the chemicals in a cream-filled cupcake are proprietary, certainly doesn’t have our interests at heart. Perhaps, several audience members suggested, the OU and other kosher regulatory seals don’t either. Kosher regulatory seals go on processed foods and foods that no one knows the origins of, suggested one person, who called the OU a response to the Industrial Revolution and our sudden alienation from the sources of our food in the last couple of generations.

Whether we’re talking about the food itself or the systems that regulate it, Rabbi Greenberg told the conference, “the ideal of transparency is this generation’s challenge,” and figuring out what to do with all that knowledge once we get access to it, means having “a healthy respect for complexity.”

And a healthy desire for knowledge. As Rabbi Greenberg pointed out, when actions are motivated by perceived threats to our bodies (like ecoli or high cholesterol), or even our values (like worker abuses and animal cruelty) we just want someone to tell us that the threat doesn’t exist anymore, we need a regulatory agency to give us the go ahead. When, on the other hand, our actions are motivated by a desire to know, and the pleasure that knowledge gives us in its own right, we examine our questions more fully, and chase down more of those twisted paths of cause and effect.

Join the conversation

How far down the rabbit hole of responsibility are you willing to go to know where your food comes from and how ethical your choices as a consumer are? What laws, secular and religious support your search? Which ones hinder it?

As an example of the pervasiveness and difficulty of this issue, despite our devotion to ethics in the realms of food and justice, most folks listening in to that conversation at Asilomar, and most of you reading now, own, or are even wearing a piece of clothing produced by child labor. Do you think it’s possible to make ethical choices as a consumer? How do you do it?

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One Response to “Wednesday Night: Is Ethical Eating Impossible?”

  1. Richard Schwartz Says:

    It may be impossible to eat 100% ethically, but as president of Jewish Vegetarians, I believe that we can reduce our negative impact by shifting to a vegetarian diet, and preferably a vegan diet, since such diets are most consistent with Jewish mandates to preserve our health, treat animals with compassion, protect the environment, conserve natural resources, help hungry people and pursue peace.

    Further information is in my over 130 articles at JewishVeg.com/schwartz

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