Beyond Agriprocessors

Last year, Rubashkin — the name of the family that owned and ran Agriprocessors, the country’s largest kosher meatpacking plant — became synonymous with scandal. In May 2008, U.S. immigration officials raided the plant, arresting 389 illegal aliens employed there, and company owners were charged on numerous counts of violating child labor and immigration laws. The highly publicized case also put a spotlight on a disquieting history of accusations of mistreatment of animals at the slaughterhouse.

Like many, I wondered: How could this be? The inescapable news reports seemed to upend long-held assumptions shared by both Jewish and non-Jewish consumers that a kosher product was also a better one. Indeed, only 14 percent of those buying kosher-certified products did so because they observed Jewish dietary laws, a recent survey by the marketing company Mintel found. The majority — about 60 percent — choose kosher because they perceive it to mean higher quality, more healthful and safer: not just answering to a higher order, but delivering on a higher standard, too.

But if the Rubashkin scandal bruised that perception, it also challenged me — and countless others — to re-think assumptions, or perhaps think about for the first time, the journey all those items on our table actually took to arrive there. It gave a sense of urgency to the conversation topic that suddenly everyone wanted to discuss: the culture and meaning of kashrut within the larger food (and foodie) culture of America in general and within the Jewish community in particular.

What I didn’t realize at the time was that even before the Rubashkin story broke wide open in 2008, a nascent Jewish food movement already had started to discuss these very issues. By the fall of 2006, for instance, Rabbi Morris Allen of Beth Jacob Congregation in Mendota Heights, Minn., had become sufficiently concerned by early news reports of worrisome practices at Agriprocessors that he proposed the idea of a “Hechsher Tzedek” (roughly translated, a seal of righteousness): a way to certify that kosher food was also produced according to ethical standards, including fair pay for workers and planet-friendly agricultural principles. Around that time, too, the nonprofit organization Hazon (Hebrew for “vision”) launched the Jew and the Carrot (, a blog whose self-announced purpose was to bring together “3,000 years of Jewish thought and food tradition with contemporary issues like sustainability, organic eating, nutrition, food politics, and healthy, delicious cooking.” And a growing number of kashrut-observing individuals were becoming frustrated with the dearth of sustainable, organic, locally produced food that was also certified kosher.

Granted, any reader of the New York Times food section will find at least some of these concerns familiar. Leave out the word “kashrut” from the food issues that concerned these Jews, and you will find the core issues of anyone concerned with the safety, nutrition, ethical production and taste of food today. Moreover, in the same way that you don’t have to belong to a particular political party to care about food, being a Jewish foodie didn’t “belong” to any particular Jewish denomination, either, but ran the gamut of modern Judaism itself.

Many people who were already keeping kosher affirmed best-selling author Michael Pollan’s oft-repeated mantra, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants,” and added the phrase, “Say a blessing.” Among the growing number of Jews interested in a more conscious approach to the ways in which food  is grown, produced, delivered and prepared, some were mostly concerned with adding ethical or environmental issues to the table, especially as they dovetailed with Jewish teachings extolling the importance of being good stewards of the earth and prohibiting mistreatment of animals. Others, influenced by such food gurus as restaurateur Alice Waters (a longtime champion of the eat local movement and all things organic) wanted to find ways to avoid or opt out of the large-scale industrial agriculture model of super-sized food corporations (including such companies as Agriprocessors) and suppliers that stock most supermarket (and kosher) aisles. Almost all cited concerns ranging from health (organic foods generally contain fewer toxins), to taste (locally grown food that gets to your table more quickly is also fresher) to social consciousness (fair wages for agricultural workers, better treatment for animals, keep the earth sustainable), or a mixture of all three. One of the most fervently asserted themes was that within the restrictions of kashrut, there is also room — indeed, a responsibility — to meet these goals, as well.

With so many layers of consciousness — Jewish ethics, kashrut, the sustaining importance (if not holiness) of food itself — is it any surprise that for many, the Rubashkin scandal sounded a shofar-like wake-up call for action? By 2007 Rabbi Allen’s initial idea had evolved into a joint project of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism and the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly; and in December 2008 the organization unveiled plans for “Magen Tzedek,” an ethical certification seal (in the form of a star, or “Magen”) to be awarded to products already certified as kosher and that also meet additionally specified workplace, worker and environmental standards. In addition, the Orthodox social justice group Uri L’Tzedek is also introducing an ethical seal, a Tav HaYosher (“Yosher” is Hebrew for honesty) which they will award New York area kosher restaurants that treat and pay their employees fairly. And several fledgling socially minded entrepreneurs have begun offering meat and poultry that is not only kosher but also produced locally and under sustainable, ethical conditions, including Simon Feil’s “kosher ethical meat co-op,” Kosher Conscience; Mitzvah Meat, operated by Dr. Maya Shetreat-Klein, a pediatric neurologist; and Devora Kimelman-Block’s KOL (Kosher Organic-Raised Local) Foods.

What worries me, however, is the potential for confusion (still more seals to look for?) and even for self-righteous competition (food fights similar to those about levels of kashrut, but this time about whose product is more “ethical”?) And there are rabbis who argue that kosher is — well — kosher; don’t confuse food politics and food ethics with halacha. For the record, Rabbi Allen emphasizes that the Magen Tzedek seal will be given in addition to (and in no way as a replacement to) kosher certification. And Rabbi Ari Weiss, lead professional of Uri L’Tzedek, makes the point that “This is in cooperation with, not competition with, the certifying bodies for kashrut.”

As for keeping kosher and eating consciously being two separate issues, cookbook author and New York Times food columnist Mark Bittman summed up my feelings when he told me,  “One can eat kosher and still eat in a way that is un-ecological and not mindful of health. By the same token, you can keep kosher and do those things positively, too.” He adds, “The less meat and less processed food you eat, the smaller the carbon foodprint and the healthier and svelter you’ll be in general.”

Sounds fine to me, as long as we keep in mind the pure enjoyment that flavorful food yields. And good wine, too. Who better to make this point than Israeli food and wine guru Daniel Rogov? “Nowhere in the wisdom of our foremothers and forefathers did they write that you have to drink bad wine,” he opined, as we strolled, wine glasses in hand, through the impressive displays of some 200 kosher wines from all over the world at the recent 2009 Kosher Food and Wine Experience expo in downtown New York.

The final word on the bounteous wonder of — yes — kosher food comes from Ari Zivotofsky, a professor of neuroscience at Bar-Ilan University who is also a trained shochet. “Kosher by definition means there are restrictions, but within those restrictions there is plenty of diversity,” he says, and he should know. For decades, Zivotofsky and Ari Greenspan, a Jerusalem dentist, have taken it upon themselves to research Jewish food traditions. They have sought out elderly rabbis and shochets from once vital, now nearly gone Jewish communities from Eastern Europe, Yemen, the Middle East and North Africa who can recall which particular birds and animals native to those places were, in their local traditions, accepted as kosher. “We’ve been trying to find older people who could testify what they used to eat, and in this way preserve these culinary traditions and customs,” he explains. Over the years, they’ve uncovered traditions for such not- traditionally-thought-of kosher treats as water buffalo, pheasant  and the shibuta, a fish mentioned in the Talmud that can still be found in the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in Turkey. “There is such a wide variety, much wider than just kosher Chinese or brisket or cold cuts,” Zivotofsky concludes.

And there’s room at the table for all.

Diane Cole is a contributing editor of U.S. News & World Report and the author of the memoir, “After Great Pain: A New Life Emerges.”