Transparency and the New Kosher

The requirements on a restaurant that wishes to maintain a kosher certification are imposed by a local certifying authority which is either an individual Rabbi or a Rabbincal Assembly or committee. In some communities, of course, there are arguments as to whose supervision is "more" kosher, or kosher "enough" (Editorial comment: Yuck!).

One aspect of Kosher certification relates to sabbath observance. If a restaurant is kosher in all respects but opens on Saturday (thus transgressing not food rules, but rules on sabbath observance), is it kosher? Generally the given answer is no, but there are exceptions, relating to restaurants owned by non-Jews, who are not bound by sabbath rules (as long as food prepared on the sabbath is not served at other times). However, Jewish tradition is always concerned about confusion that may ensue from rules that are applied with too much flexibility. The fear is that perhaps someone Jewish sees the restaurant is Kosher on a Saturday morning, and then goes in an buys a meal cooked on the Sabbath and pays with money (both forbidden by sabbath laws)? (Editorial comment: What?)

I have been very pleased to see that in some cities, a restaurant owned by non-Jews can receive a kosher certification that reads something like: "This establishment is kosher under the supervision of except during the Jewish Sabbath and Jewish Holidays". This tells Jewish customers who care about the certification that they can eat at the restaurant because it is kosher, but not to do so when rules that apply to them (but not the proprietors) prohibit cooking and commerce (Editorial comment: Clever, if a little annoying that is necessary at all).

However, once you realize that a certification can be dependent on things not directly related to food preparation, the notion suddenly becomes really exciting, and this applies to organic food labeling as well.

What if the food is prepared in farms or factories where the workers are exposed to unsafe working conditions? Should that be kosher, or organic? Should we require a higher standard of worker treatment, that is also supervised by a certifying authority, before purchasing food?

What if the packaging and processing is wasteful, non-recyclable, energy inefficient or who knows what. Can we hope to certify that the packaging and processing meets standards of safety, environmental responsibility, and energy efficiency? Is it kosher (or organic) if it is wastefully packaged or prepared?

What if the food is shipped across the country, and so consumes huge amounts of petroleum and creates huge amounts of pollution compared to public good of having that food in our supermarket? This is a key question asked in The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Polan, and points to the growth of the movement to support local farmers and buy local produce. Perhaps, like that flexible kosher certification I mentioned, the labels on organic food should read "Organic if purchased and consumed within 200 miles of ", or "Organic if purchased and consumed in due to fuel efficient delivery fleet".

How about an interim step... some extra transparency on these issues. Instead of "Produce of USA", label produce to the county level where it was produced and processed (possibly two locations), and how it was transported. Label processed foods with the energy used to process it, the location of the factory and how it was transported. If people could see just those facts, perhaps it would change the conversation.

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