The head of the Chief Rabbinate's international ritual slaughter division said he would permit the import of meat from AgriProcessors Inc. of Postville, Iowa, despite a US Agriculture Department report that found the slaughterhouse in violation of animal cruelty laws.
Rabbi Ezra Raful said, "In the case of AgriProcessors, there is no halachic problem."
"For some people, what happens in a slaughterhouse looks pretty gruesome. But that does not make it non-kosher," he said.
Raful said AgriProcessors, the only US slaughterhouse authorized to export to Israel, halted exports to Israel several years ago for commercial reasons. He said renewing export to Israel might not even require a routine investigation to verify that slaughter methods met Israeli standards.
"Rabbi Shimon Zeidof is head of the slaughter team at AgriProcessors Inc., said Raful. "He is known and respected by us. We have worked with him in the past."
Conditions at AgriProcessors triggered a controversy in late 2004, when People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) placed on its Internet site video footage taken clandestinely inside the plant.
The gruesome footage showed workers using metal hooks to pull out the slaughtered, but still conscious, animals' tracheas and esophagus, in an attempt to sever their carotid arteries.
Normally the severing of these arteries, which cuts off blood to the brain and causes the animal to lose consciousness almost immediately, takes place during the shehita [ritual slaughtering]. Cutting the arteries also facilitates the removal of blood, prohibited for consumption according to Jewish law, and prevents discoloring of the meat.
The US Humane Slaughter Act of 1978 requires stunning in all American slaughterhouses, but makes an exception for religious slaughter, as long as the animal's neck is cut swiftly and no "carcass dressing" is performed before the animal is insensible, according to The New York Times, which reported on the Agriculture Department's findings Friday. The use of hooks violated this US law.
After a six-month investigation, the Agriculture Department suspended one of its own inspectors for 14 days and issued warning letters to two others, a department spokesman told the Times. The investigation ended last April, but the report was only released to PETA after months of requests under the US Freedom of Information Act.
The department's Inspector-General's Office forwarded its report to federal prosecutors, but "based on the information presented to us, we decided there was not a prosecutable case," said Robert Teig, a deputy US attorney for the Northern District of Iowa.
Raful said Jewish law permitted a non-Jew to use a hook to sever an animal's carotid arteries, as long as most of the trachea and esophagus were severed by the shochet [ritual slaughterer].
He said that if a Jew used the hook, the slaughter was not kosher because of the halachic principle of marit ayin - the mistaken impression that the ripping of the arteries with a hook was part of the Jewish slaughtering process.
This issue would not arise if a non-Jew ripped out the artery, since a non-Jew is disqualified from performing shehita (ritual slaughter). Raful said he had been informed by sources in AgriProcessors that only non-Jews performed the ripping.
Raful said it was unfair to apply subjective criteria of cruelty to shehita.
"For me it is terribly cruel to boil a lobster live or to fry a live shrimp or freeze a fish live. It depends on what you are used to. It's all very subjective.
"But the Torah is not subjective and the same Torah that prohibits cruelty to animals allows shehita," he said.
AgriProcessors, which employs 700 workers, is America's largest producer of glatt kosher meat, the strictest standard of kashrut. "Glatt," the Yiddish word for smooth, means the slaughtered animal was free of lung blemishes that might indicate disease. AgriProcessors products sell under the brand names Aaron's Best, Rubashkin's and Iowa's Best Beef.
In 2003, PETA clashed with Jewish organizations when it launched its "Holocaust on Your Plate" campaign, which included displays of 60-square-foot panels displaying gruesome scenes from Nazi death camps side by side with disturbing photographs from factory farms and slaughterhouses.