Thursday, April 8, 2010

Kosher Food Producers: Legal Standards or Ethical Standards?

I am a member of the RCA committee that generated ethical guidelines for Kosher Food Certification last year. A major component of our document required that kosher certification agencies verify that food producers have a clear plan for ensuring adherence to the law.

Professor Moses Pava criticized the guidelines in The Forward before Pesach, arguing that we should have demanded that all kosher food producers implement sophisticated ethical codes rather than simply comply with the law.

Pava has a point, one we debated as long as we could before we had to come to a conclusion, but his recommendation is an abstract, ivory tower position, ignoring the realities of both the demands of the law and the nature of the average kosher food producer.

Rabbi Dr. Asher Meir, committee chair, has now published an Op-Ed in this week's Forward explaining the problem. You can read the whole article at The Forward site, but here is a key excerpt addressing Pava's criticism [boldface mine]:

Our task force extensively debated what level of conduct to demand of producers. Ultimately, we decided on lawful conduct for two main reasons.

The objective of our initiative throughout was to insist on adequate standards, not to promote law enforcement per se. Yet as we examined the specific standards we considered vital — truth in labeling, worker safety, animal welfare, etc. — we repeatedly determined that in advanced countries with extensive legislation and regulation in areas of concern to us, existing legal requirements set an adequate bar for ethical conduct. We often raised the question of how to proceed in less developed countries that impose much less demanding standards, but decided that release of the guidelines should not be held up pending resolution of this knotty question.

The second reason for the law-abiding conduct standard was transparency. The most important aspect of the RCA initiative is not the specific demands it contains but rather its creation of a practical mechanism for aligning expectations among kosher consumers, supervisors and producers — expectations that had been grossly transgressed in the scandals referred to by Pava. Aligning expectations requires, above all, requirements that are clear and well understood. By far the most transparent, consistent and well-publicized standard is the law. Our guidelines demand adequate internal mechanisms to enforce legal requirements and emphasize that kosher supervision considers compliance a prerequisite for certification.

Pava’s main proposal is to require all kosher food producers to develop codes of ethics that go beyond the requirements of the law. This proposal has many disadvantages. While ethics codes and programs can be a useful tool for improving ethical standards, they are also subject to many limitations. My position on ethics programs, based on current research and my own experience in the field, is as follows: In order to be successful, ethics programs demand careful design to suit an organization’s unique character, a detailed implementation mechanism and a sustained commitment from employees at all levels. Consequently, implementing a meaningful code of ethics is not practical for most small organizations.

Pava states: “Almost all major American and international corporations now have such statements.” But the RCA guidelines reflect our awareness that much of the kashrut industry consists of small firms and family businesses, not major corporations. By contrast, the requirements of the law are equally appropriate and applicable to both tiny local kosher pizza stores and huge multinational corporations.

An ineffective ethics program is worse than none, because it reinforces norms of cynicism and hypocrisy.


  1. "at least follow the law!" seems to be the consensus so far in America... that's how Uri L'tzedek's Tav Hayosher standards have been working. יהי רצון that these etho-kashrut initiatives have the effect they're supposed to and we all get at least that far soon.

  2. What a dilema!
    I dont know how the sistem works in America. In my case, I live in Argentina and since I've decided to eat kosher food, I moved to one of the kosher apartments in Buenos Aires. I feel much more comfortable here. I dont have to be worried about a lot of things about the kashut.
    Very interesting your article!!

  3. In cities with smaller Jewish populations, kosher dining is often limited to just a single establishment. Some cities do not have any kosher dine-in facilities, but the small communities have other arrangements for Jewish residents to obtain ready-made kosher meals and other types of food that may be hard to obtain kosher otherwise.

    kosher restaurants florida