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RCA Op-Ed by Rabbi Asher Meir, Chairman of the JPEG Committee, in support of the Kosher Food Industry Ethical Guidelines Recently Issued by the RCA  
News Headlines
Jan 27, 2010 -- The word "kosher" entered the English language generations ago, but it has acquired a split personality. Dictionary.com offers two definitions: One, under "Judaism", defines it as "fit or allowed to be eaten or used, according to the dietary or ceremonial laws." Another, under "Informal", defines it as "proper; legitimate."

To be sure, the dichotomy is not acute; every agency that supervises food to ensure it is "fit or allowed to be eaten or used, according to the dietary or ceremonial laws" has its own standards for decent conduct in its production. Nonetheless, the gap is greater than it should be; the standards are not always consistent, and applying them has not been a priority. As a result, the kosher symbol does not always adequately assure that the producer's conduct is "proper and legitimate".

Having carefully surveyed the situation, the Rabbinical Council of America, the US's largest organization of Orthodox rabbis, is calling for all kosher supervision agencies to adopt consistent, transparent and effective standards for ethical conduct for themselves and for the producers they supervise.

The essence of the RCA initiative is that kosher approval should be denied to a producer known to be engaged in serious misconduct, particularly legal violations in the area of health and safety, honesty to the consumer, and animal suffering. An expert Task Force has issued guidelines for a model ethics policy, and additional materials to help supervising groups adopt such guidelines.

We feel that this updated approach is necessary because of the vast transformation of kosher supervision in recent years. Generations ago, kosher supervision was a tiny cottage industry, catering almost exclusively to observant Jews. In 2010, the most prominent supervision agencies are large and highly professional, and supervise close to a hundred thousand products for a broad constituency. This expanded role implies an expanded responsibility.

Years ago even most large corporations did not institute formal ethical standards. Currently, best practice for large corporations, especially those with a significant public face, is to adopt explicit policies for ethical conduct within the entity and in its relationship with other stakeholders. Today's kosher agencies should be at least as "kosher" as comparably developed corporations.

An additional development is the deepening of the tie between the kosher supervisor and the corporation. This is no longer a formal, arm's-length relationship; major supervision agencies describe their connection with corporations as a "partnership." Jewish tradition dictates, and common sense confirms, that your partner's behavior reflects upon you. To cite an ancient Jewish parable: "One who enters a tannery, even without touching anything, still bears the smell."

An additional significant development is the non-observant kosher consumer. A recent New York Times article cited a study estimating that "Only about 15 percent of people who buy kosher do it for religious reasons." Many supervision agencies have come to target the non-observant market, advertising the fact that many kosher consumers are interested in aspects of kosher food besides the Jewish dietary laws. Based on the general as well as synagogue response to occasional reports of misconduct at kosher food facilities, we have concluded that these kosher consumers expect that supervising rabbis won't knowingly certify producers whose conduct is disgraceful.

The RCA is emphatically not calling on kosher supervisors to specifically oversee lawful conduct. Flagging violations is the responsibility of appropriate regulatory and law enforcement bodies. Rabbis have neither the expertise nor the mandate to investigate the ethical or legal conduct of corporations. But neither should they turn a blind eye to misconduct. Our guidelines do call for supervising agencies to demand a formal commitment to lawful behavior on the part of producers, and to withdraw supervision when convincing evidence of wrongdoing exists and the problem is not addressed satisfactorily. We require that on-site supervisors have clear procedures for reporting misconduct they observe, and that the supervising agencies establish effective procedures for responding to reports.

Industry response to our proposed guidelines has been positive. The Orthodox Union (OU), which is the leading international supervising agency, and for which the Rabbinical Council of America is the rabbinical authority, has strongly endorsed our standards; other national supervision agencies have indicated their agreement in principle to the issuance of ethical guidelines, and are in various stages of adoption of, and compliance with, many provisions of our initiative. The response demonstrates a growing recognition that raising the bar on ethical issues must be part of the continuing professional development that characterizes the kosher supervision industry

These guidelines will help to define, and ultimately to raise, the expectations among the various stakeholders in the kosher food industry. We are convinced that they will make an important contribution towards sustaining a kosher marketplace that accords with the highest standards of Jewish ethics.

The entire document is available online at JPEG Guidelines.

For further information about this initiative, please email Rabbi Dr. Asher Meir at asher.meir@gmail.com.

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