Years ago the hometown Jewish newpaper I used to get carried an article from another paper in the States about a Reform woman's ideas about kashrus. Decades before the Rubashkin debacle, she raised an interesting point. While the veal at her local supermarket might have been kosher, didn't the fact that calves raised for the delicasy are kept in cruel conditions count for anything? As Jews, should we say something is kosher just because it was slaughtered the right way when other ethical lapses were involved in its preparation? She concluded her article by suggesting that the Reformers pioneer a new form of kashrut, one in which the ethical background of the food was what was checked to ensure that consumers were eating in a morally responsible fashion.
At the time, I had only one criticism of the article. The ethics of veal has nothing to do with its kashrus. If a calf is slaughtered al pi halacha and the meat is washed and salted in the proper fashion, then the meat is kosher. It could be Jeffrey Dahmer selling it to you or Ted Bundy owning the slaughterhouse. It doesn't affect the kashrus of the product. Indeed, this is the mistake most well meaning critics of Rubashkin's have often been frustrated by. While they seemed to be quite correct in labelling all the failings of the meat packing company as ethical disasters, none of these failings actually affected the kashrus of the product. Thus for someone who doesn't care about the environment food is prepared in as long as it meets the desired ritual specifications, this was an easy argument to have. Rubashkins' meat seems to have been kosher. It was the plant that was treif but that has no bearing on the stuff sitting on the supermarket shelf.
Yet as Jews we should care about how our food is prepared. Sometimes there's no way to know, such as with the vegetables and fruits that fill the produce department. Other times it can be quite easy, such as with veal. We do have an obligation to go beyond being "strictly kosher" in our behaviours, as long as we recognize we are doing this not for the purpose of kashrus but because of a greater ethical responsibility.
In response to the outrages in kashrus over the last couple of years, Rabbi Morris Allen came up with what, at first blush, sounds like a great idea, the Magen Tzedek. Initially called the hechsher tzedek, products carrying its certification would have to fulfill a variety of requirements, to wit:
Founded on the principle that we are what we eat, Magen Tzedek is an ethical seal signifying that kosher food has been prepared with the highest degree of integrity. Products carrying the Magen Tzedek seal reflect the highest standard on a variety of important issues: employee wages and benefits, health and safety, animal welfare, corporate transparency and environmental impact.
It all sounds quite decent. Despite criticisms from the thugs who are still shouting "But Rubashkin's is kosher!" even as the indictments pile up, it seems to have gained some momentum.
Unfortunately, despite the flashy nature of its website, it's probably not going to go very far. There are two reasons for my opinion.
1) Look at the list of requirements for the Magen Tzedek. Exactly who decides what wages and benefits are suitable? Animal welfare is also a tricky one. Let's say the plant keeps the chickens in clean cages under decent climate conditions and feeds them healthy foods. Is that good enough or is the standard free range? Environmental impact? Don't even go there. Will the Magen Tzedek folks be measuring the "carbon footprint" each plant produces? And who decides which footprint is big enough? One of the justified criticisms of Magen Tzedek is that it can easily be hijacked by anti-capitalist ecofascists who would then impose their politically charged standards on companies wishing to participate.
2) On a more practical basis, the market for the Magen Tzedek is quite small. Something like 95% of Conservatives don't keep kosher, ranging from no observance at all to avoidance of pork at social functions. This is not a population that checks for hechshers in the first place. Are they now suddenly going to start checking for not one but two? If anything, the real target market is left wing Modern Orthodoxy and I don't doubt that at some point someone from the YCT crowd will write a good piece on why Magen Tzedek should be supported. But both the 5% of Conservatives who care and the LWMO community are small potatoes when it comes to the kashrus market.
The Magen Tzedek raises an interesting challenge but over time it will probably fade into irrelevance. Perhaps that's a shame because the issues it raises are worth taking cognizance over.