By Rabbi Avi Shafran
The other day, a reporter contacted me at Agudath Israel of America-I serve as the Agudah’s public affairs director-about the Conservative movement’s planned offering of an “ethical seal” of approval for kosher foods, intended to assure consumers that labor, animal welfare, consumer rights, and environmental impact standards are being adhered to by the producer. Why, he asked, hasn’t the seal been endorsed by the Agudah?
I politely explained that, while anyone can pursue whatever “seal of approval” they wish, there are government regulations regarding the things the ethical certification would cover, and agencies charged with enforcing the rules.
In any event, though, I added, labor, consumer and environmental concerns exist regarding all products and services. And since the seal at issue is being offered only for food (and only for kosher food), it misleads Jews by giving the false impression that kashrus is dependent on such social concerns. It has in fact been described by some of its advocates as a “redefinition of kashrus.”
The reporter then asked how I could believe that governmental regulations are enough “even in light of the Agriprocessors scandal.”
Maybe when a slaughterhouse is at issue “seeing red” isn’t the best metaphor to use. But I had to make an effort to remain polite.
“The only ‘Agriprocessors scandal’,” I replied, “is the scandalous way the government prosecuted the company and its CEO”-how, after all sorts of wild accusations, including abuse of workers, cruelty to animals, and drug manufacturing, the only charges successfully brought against Sholom Mordechai Rubashkin in the end involved misstating his company’s assets” in the process of obtaining loans (which he always repaid fully, at least until the government onslaught bankrupted his company). Similarly scandalous, I added, is the wildly excessive 27-year prison sentence he received.
I pointed the reporter in the direction of civil and legal rights organizations-including the American Civil Liberties Union-that have filed “friend of the court,” briefs in support of Mr. Rubashkin and his demand for a new trial.
Whatever backers of the “ethical certification seal” may claim, I explained, the Rubashkin case provided it no warrant. Evidence failed to show that Mr. Rubashkin had knowledge that any of his workers were illegal immigrants, or that he knew that any of them who turned out to be underage were anything but what their documentation represented them to be (and what they physically seemed to be).
And so, invoking an “Agriprocessors scandal” to justify some need for an extra-governmental “ethical certification seal,” I asserted, is cynical opportunism, a scandal upon a scandal.
The reporter had been treating allegations as facts, having swallowed whole what colleagues of his have served up over the course of the Agriprocessors saga-in particular, the journalist who in 2006 first shone a harsh light on the slaughterhouse. In a series of articles for a Jewish newspaper, his front-page stories cited shocking allegations of worker abuse. The reports were followed in 2008 by a federal raid on the plant, the deportation of hundreds of illegal aliens who had presented false documents, and the filing of criminal charges against Mr. Rubashkin and others.
In a 2009 Wall Street Journal column, that reporter righteously reveled in his “scoop,” and, his cloak of ostensible objectivity falling to his ankles, revealed his antipathy for the “bearded Orthodox rabbis” who “buzzed around the Agriprocessors plant” making sure kashrus laws, but not ethical norms, were being observed.
He has since moved on, to a large West Coast newspaper. Reminded of all the misery his reportage brought in its wake, I wondered if, at this point, he has any regrets about the focus he brought on Mr. Rubashkin. And so I located his new e-mail address and posed the question.
The message didn’t bounce back, so the address must be correct. So far, though, I’ve received no reply.
But maybe he’s on vacation.
[Ami Magazine/Rabbi Shafran is an editor at large and columnist for Ami Magazine.]