Child Labour is Not Kosher

Regular readers will know that food certification (and especially competing, overlapping, and conflicting certification regimes) are a special interest of mine. So I was interested to see this story about one of the most ancient food certification standards — kosher slaughter — being interpreted as requiring an additional normative component, one I hadn’t expected.

Here’s the story from the NY Times caught my eye: Meatpacker May Lose Kosher Certification.

Here’s a snippet from the article:

The leading Jewish authority in charge of certifying kosher food has threatened to withdraw its certification from the products of Agriprocessors Inc., the nation’s largest kosher meatpacker, after criminal charges for more than 9,000 child labor violations were brought against the company and its owners in Iowa this week.

Rabbi Menachem Genack, who is in charge of kosher supervision for the Orthodox Union, the major kosher certifying organization in the United States, said he had set a deadline of “several weeks” for Agriprocessors to name a new chief executive, or the group would suspend supervision of kosher production at its plants.

So, according to Rabbi Genack, at least, the term “kosher meat” implies more than just meat-slaughtered-in-the-ritual-manner. I don’t know nearly enough about Jewish law in general, or kashrut in particular, to know just how much sense that makes (though I’m told that Orthodox Judaism has enough of a focus on social justice to make this bundling unsurprising). But it’s certainly interesting any time one normative standard gets bundled with another, which in practice (as in this case) can come apart. Most people think of “organic” food as food produced without chemical pesticides or herbicides; but plenty of people assume/insist that organic food also be non-genetically-modified. Some people also want food that is “free range,” but that standard can easily run afowl of others: wild salmon, for example, are “free range” (and for now also GM-free) but cannot be “organic” because the food they eat is (by definition) not monitored and hence can’t be guaranteed to be chemical-free.

One further possible source of conflict is the fact that certification for each additional normative dimension — free range, kosher, organic, fair-trade, etc etc etc — will, other things being equal, require someone (i.e., consumers) to pay some cost for monitoring compliance (i.e., unless you’ve raised it yourself, you can only know that your chicken is free range, organic, kosher if you’ve paid someone to verify all those things for you). And different customers are likely (look around you!) to care about different combinations of standards — some will be willing to pay a premium to know that their food is organic but will not care much (and hence be unwilling to pay much) to verify that their food was produced by workers who were treated fairly. And vice versa. In some cases, this will result in micro-niche markets. (Kosher vegetarian Indian restaurants always struck me that way, when I first noticed them in New York). In other cases, there will be significant-but-incomplete overlap between two value systems (e.g., organic & GM-free) and the adherents of those systems will have to figure out amongst themselves whether one implies, or instead trumps, the other.

p.s. before someone from PETA emails to remind me, I’ll point out that kosher (and halal) slaughter practices have themselves been subject to moral criticism based on the belief (correct or incorrect) that animals slaughtered that way suffer more than animals slaughtered by standard methods. (Roughly kosher & halal slaughter involves a single swipe with a sharp knife across a conscious animal’s throat; whereas the standard method involves stunning the animal first by means of a reusable ‘bolt’ fired from a gun into the animal’s head. Many jurisdictions require stunning animals prior to slaughter, and make exceptions for kosher and halal slaughter.) That criticism, of course, also depends upon the belief (plausible or implausible) that animal suffering counts, either morally or aesthetically.

4 comments so far

  1. Tom Desrosier on

    As a youngster, I worked at a large grocer that maintained a kosher cutting area and butcher. The butcher was also a Rabbi.The meat is blessed of course. I can see a Rabbi not wanting to bless anything that was produced by exploited children. No doubt this is the key point.Good blogTom Desrosier

  2. Kupferman on

    To “bundle” ethical standards confuses the issues that constitute ethical violations. For example, is suicide via the use of drugs a violation of one or two ethical considerations? Is that so different from the rabbi’s consideration that kosher means both, the use of a kosher kill as well as the non-use of child labor in the process? Let’s consider the example.As I understand ethical consideration, it is the adherence to a set of rules. If there are two separate and different sets of rules to which one must adhere, we have two different ethical considerations. In my opinion, suicide, regardless of the means, is one set of ethical consideration; drug use is another set. Regardless of the means by which one commits suicide, suicide itself remains one set of ethical consideration. As well, regardless of the purpose of the drug user, drug use is subject to a separate and different set of rules and consideration. Bundling the two only confuses the ethical issues and considerations.Kosher kill is no different. It is a way of killing an animal according to an ethical standard; that standard being the set of rules in the Old Testament and any other Jewish law regarding the way in which an animal must be slaughtered for human consumption. To my knowledge, nothing in the Old Testament or any other Jewish law regarding the way in which an animal must be slaughtered for human consumption gives reference to child labor. Whether there is a restriction involving child labor in Judaism is a separate ethical consideration.Therefore, has there been one violation of Jewish ethics or two? Certainly, if indeed there are restrictions, or even suggestions, in Judaism regarding the age at which an individual is allowed to work, this violation is separate from those with respect to how an animal is to be slaughtered. In such a case, the rabbi has erred with respect as to whether individuals who are younger than a certain age working in a slaughterhouse cause that slaughter to be considered in violation of the set of rules themselves governing a “kosher kill”.Howard A. KupfermanAdjunct Professor of EthicsPolytechnic Institute of New York University

  3. Anonymous on

    This issue has been covered and commentated upon in the Canadian Jewish News at some length. There is an interesting, if puzzling comment in the Sept. 11 issue arguing kashrut agencies should leave ethical issues out of it.Rabbi Reuven Tradburks argues that if these agencies concern themselves with the likes of labour issues, they might also muck into other issues like gambling and Shabbat observance, where they don’t belong. Huh?

  4. WK on

    thank you for the story it is a problem.

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