Agriprocessors and the Ethics of Kashrut

By: Rabbi Jay Kelman |

The kashrut industry is about more than just food. In an industry where sales reach in the billions of dollars many of the largest food companies have sought and received kosher certification, seeing it as a way to increase profits. With the federal investigations into the Agriprocessors Meat Processing Plant in Postville , we need to examine whether or not kashrut certification is also about more than keeping kosher. Agriprocessors, the  largest kosher meatpacking plant in North America (though the majority of its meat sold is actually not kosher) has been accused of myriad violations of the law, ranging from unfair labor practices, safety issues, immigration fraud and was recently raided by the United States government.

These accusations, if proven to be true, would represent the antithesis of anything "kosher" and raises the crucial question of whether a kosher supervising agency should be supervising  anything other than the actual kashrut of the food produced.

Jewish law demands absolute fidelity to all applicable local laws, not to mention the moral obligation of sanctifying the name of G-d. However whether enforcing such moral imperatives should come under the purview of rabbis who man have very little training in these matters is much less clear.

Such a question is really one of public policy and not one of pure Jewish law. Whether or not the food is kosher is a question of fact, unrelated to any other issues, serious as they may be, which may arise. Kashrut supervision is only needed for those whose kashrut can not be trusted; one may rely on the kashrut of those who personally keep kosher. However the complexity of the food industry coupled with man's insatiable appetite for money and sound social policy have produced a situation in which supervision of commercial enterprises is needed for all. Ironically the difficulty of fully monitoring the goings on in food production has led to a situation where certain kashrut organizations will only grant supervision to those who are ritually observant Jews - a tacit admission that supervising agencies are incapable of supervising all that goes on in the production of food. We thus revert on some level back to the system of trust, limiting such trust to those who take kahsrut seriously.

Tragically there is little correlation between kashrut observance and business ethics and it is not uncommon to see those whose ethics are extremely wanting to be meticulous observers of kashrut. While one can make a legitimate argument that no kashrut certification should be given unless all business practices are also certified kosher such an approach may be simplistic and counter productive. While ethical business practices are, in the hierarchy of Jewish values, more important than kashrut , is taking away kashrut supervision the best way to ensure honesty amongst producers of kosher produce? This would require careful analysis cognizant that such action may cause may, especially those not meticulously observant, to just buy non-kosher meat.  

Where would we draw the line? What about if the owner smokes or gossips frequently. Might we add in a layer of social enforcement - say not granting supervision to a company whose environmental record is questionable. Should food high in fat content not be certified kosher? If the goal is to increase the availability of kosher products at affordable costs then perhaps it is best to leave these issues to other agencies. Yet at the same time we must be concerned with public perception,  of being an accessory to wrongdoing and of prompting the terrible misconception that kashrut is more important then ethics. While there are no easy answers it is important that that we continue to ask the questions thereby sensitizing our ethical antennas.