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April 2005
The Unorthodox Orthodox
By Kelley Wind


In commercial cattle slaughterhouses, under the guidelines set forth by the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act, the conventional method of killing is to fire an air gun or metal bolt into the animal’s brain to render them unconscious before slaughter. However, these statutory sections on ‘humane’ methods of slaughter are deemed non-applicable to religious or ritual slaughter. In fact, ritual slaughter (orthodox Jewish as well as Islamic Halal dietary rules) forbids consumption of meat from animals that are not “healthy and moving” when killed. Jewish orthodoxy today interprets this to mean that kosher meat must come from animals who have not been stunned before being killed.

The Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 mandates, for sanitary reasons, that no slaughtered animal may fall in the blood of a previously slaughtered animal. Therefore, animals must have their throats cut while suspended from a conveyor belt, rather than while standing on the floor. Kosher rules stipulate that animals must be conscious when killed and have their throats cut in a particular way. The preferred method is to shackle a rear leg, hoist the cow into the air, and then hang him fully conscious, upside down on a conveyor belt for up to 10 minutes (sometimes longer) before the slaughterer makes his final cut. Jewish law also forbids consuming the blood of an animal, so the veins and arteries must be dissected out of kosher meat.

On November 30, 2004, an article entitled “Videotapes Show Grisly Scenes at Kosher Slaughterhouse” appeared on the cover page of The New York Times. The article vividly described the videotaped scenes of slaughter taking place at AgriProcessors Inc. in Postville, Iowa: “each cow is placed in a rotating drum so it can be killed while upside down. After the cow’s throat is slit, another worker tears open each cow’s neck with a hook and pulls out the trachea and esophagus. The drum rotates, and the steer is dumped on the floor. One after another, the videotapes show the cows staggering and bellowing in agony as they struggle to their feet and walk into a corner with their trachea and esophagus dangling out.”

Reading the article, I was nauseated by the graphic description and yet also gratified that millions of New York Times readers throughout the world would be confronted with the horrific process of meat production taking place on a daily basis. The article provided an opportunity for human beings to face the fact that cows, like us, are living creatures who suffer tremendously behind the closed doors of slaughterhouses. After reading it, maybe someone will pause before ordering that hamburger at lunch or even start a conversation about animal welfare as they dine with co-workers, family or friends.

That newspaper article had an effect, perhaps even more than I had anticipated, but for a reason I hadn’t even thought about. The undercover PETA video footage was taken inside the largest glatt kosher meat producer in the U.S.—the only American plant allowed to export its product to Israel. “Glatt” in Yiddish is best translated into English as “smooth,” the highest standard for cleanliness under kosher law. Torah law (halacha) commands that pain not be needlessly inflicted on animals and emphasizes the humane treatment of all living creatures. As stated on a Judaic website (Chabad.org), an animal that is killed inhumanely is not considered kosher and therefore unfit for consumption. So how do kosher slaughter practices fit under this definition?

The owners of the AgriProcessors facility are Lubavitch Jews from Brooklyn—ultra-orthodox Hasidim who define themselves by their strict observance of the ancient laws of the Torah. There is nothing more important, more fundamental to their being than an uncompromising devotion to Judaism.

In Stephen Bloom’s riveting book Postville: A Clash Of Heartland in America, the author recalls his first-hand experience observing the tenuous relationship between the overwhelmingly Protestant Iowans and the Hasidic community. On Saturdays, the Jewish Sabbath, among the prohibitions observed: electricity is not turned on, stoves must not be lighted, telephones not used, cars will not be driven, and even certain medicines not ingested. During a wife’s menstruation and for seven days afterward, the couple are forbidden from touching, even passing a dinner plate, until the wife purifies herself in a mikveh or ritual bath. The author and his son were not permitted to set foot inside a Lubavitch household without covering their heads with yarmulkes. A higher authority dictates every decision and every action.

Where’s the Humanity?
So my question is this: In a community in which the observance of Torah law is followed with such fierce devotion, why isn’t the humane treatment of animals a tradition that is revered to the same degree? In the environment of a “kosher” slaughterhouse, where spiritual practices are intermingled with commerce, is there any room for humanity?

I can at least take some comfort in the fact that what happened at AgriProcessors is considered an egregious violation of the laws of shechita (“kosher slaughter”). Israeli newspapers have followed the controversy closely, with Saul Singer, the editorial page editor of the Jerusalem Post, writing that he has decided to avoid beef until he is assured that kosher slaughter is being performed according to the full letter and spirit of Jewish law. The Rabbinical Assembly, an association of conservative rabbis, said the PETA video “should be regarded as a welcome, though unfortunate, service to the Jewish community.” When a company “purporting to be kosher violates the prohibition...causing pain to one of God’s living creatures, that company must answer to the Jewish community, and ultimately, to God,” the assembly said.

PETA has filed a complaint with the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and has urged Iowa authorities to prosecute the plant’s managers for animal cruelty, requesting that criminal charges be brought against AgriProcessors. The complaint alleges that the plant is violating Jewish law by not instantly killing the animals, and consequently violating the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act and the most fundamental halachic (religious legal) requirements pertaining to shechita.

AgriProcessors has vigorously defended its methods, arguing that the plant is continuously monitored by USDA inspectors and kosher certifying organizations, none of which had found anything wrong. “As we always have, we will also continue to follow the strict guidelines set out by both federal and Jewish law for the humane treatment of animals during the slaughter process” said Mike Thomas, a company spokesperson. Rabbi Chaim Kohn, the chief Dayan of AgriProcessors’ kosher certifying agency, says the cows feel nothing, even as they struggle on the floor and slam their heads into walls (NY Times article 11/30/04). Predictably, AgriProcessors has also attacked PETA’s motives calling the complaint a veiled attack on religious freedom even though on their website PETA acknowledges that if done correctly, schechita may be a kinder form of slaughter and can be relatively painless.

The USDA inquiry remains open and has neither exonerated the plant nor concluded that it broke federal laws on humane handling of livestock. AgriProcessors has agreed to refrain from removing the animals’ esophagus and trachea after slaughter even if just to “avoid pain to the onlooker.” Australia, Canada, and the European Union have taken the lead in developing guidelines for ritual slaughter that require that animals not be touched or moved until they are unconscious, which should take no more than 30 seconds after throat-slitting.

More recently, in another New York Times article, I found the true spirit of kindness in a 13 year-old Muslim boy from New Jersey (“A Halal Slaughterhouse Provides Nourishment for a Far-Flung Culture” by Andrea Elliot, 3/9/05). Hisham Hamed’s father is part owner of American Halal Meat, a huge Halal slaughterhouse where thousands of animals are killed each week. Upon returning home from a trip to see the family business, Hisham declared himself a vegetarian for life.

Kelley Wind is a public interest lawyer and long-time animal rights activist currently working at Animal Welfare Advocacy.

 

 



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