Amid claims by animal rights groups of gratuitous suffering, the Chief Rabbinate is planning to gradually phase out the use of the "shackle and hoist" method of kosher slaughter in Israel and South America.
"We are working toward upgrading the way animals are prepared for slaughter to minimize animal suffering," a Chief Rabbinate spokesman said Sunday on behalf of Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi Yona Metzger, who is responsible for kashrut supervision.
"I want to reiterate that the methods used up until now were completely kosher," added the spokesman, "and that the Jewish method of slaughtering is the most humane in the world. But we are doing everything to improve."
The spokesman refrained from saying what steps Metzger would take to encourage slaughterhouse owners to make the transition from the cheaper shackle and hoist method to the more expensive "rotating pen" method.
"We plan to meet soon with importers and slaughterhouse owners who use the method in an attempt to reach an agreement," said the spokesman.
Most South American slaughterhouses and several older Israeli ones prepare cows for slaughter by tying the animal's hind legs to a shackle attached to a mechanical derrick and hoisting the cow off its feet.
The cow is then lowered to the ground on its side and held by three men - one at the head, one at the hindquarter and a third by one of the forelegs - while a fourth man, a shohet (one trained in ritual slaughter), cuts through the trachea and the esophagus.
Normally, the two carotid arteries, which supply blood to the brain, are also severed, causing the animal to lose consciousness within five seconds.
But the shackling and hoisting, which normally takes about 20 seconds, is performed while the animal is fully conscious. Animal rights groups claim this causes unnecessary anguish and pain.
They also say hanging the cow by its leg rips its muscle and tendons. However, sources at the Rabbinate said this is false, since ripping of tendons in the leg would render the animal treif, or nonkosher.
The pinning down of the cow after it is placed on its side, often with the use of prods and ropes, takes additional time during which the cow is under stress, the animal rights groups say.
In contrast, in a more humane method common in newer slaughterhouses, the cow is placed inside a pen that holds it tightly and flips it upside down, after which the cow is slaughtered.
However, there appear to be financial reasons slowing acceptance of the rotating pen method.
A source in the Rabbinate told The Jerusalem Post that adopting the rotating pen method involved a one-time expense of about $50,000 per pen. At least two would be needed to replace one shackle and hoist apparatus.
In addition, the source said, the rotating pen method is more labor intensive, requiring at least two trained shohets per pen, one who does the actual slaughtering and the other who checks the knife after each slaughter for nicks; as two pens are necessary to replace each shackle and hoist apparatus, twice as many shohets are required to achieve the same output.
Another shohet would probably be needed to relieve the four during breaks, added the source, who doubted that the change in method would cause a significant rise in the price of meat.
Another method of slaughter, considered the most humane within the framework of Halacha, entails cutting the cow's neck while it stands.
However, the Chief Rabbinate has adopted a strict interpretation of the Halacha that forbids stand-up slaughter for fear unnecessary pressure will be placed on the knife during the cutting. Therefore, the animal must be turned upside down.
Israel imports most of its meat, both kosher and nonkosher, from South America. Even the nonkosher meat is often derived from animals slaughtered in the shackle and hoist method. It becomes nonkosher after failing to meet various halachic requirements that have nothing to do with animal cruelty.
In fact, gratuitous cruelty to animals during the slaughter process does not disqualify the meat, said sources in the Chief Rabbinate.
"Obviously, the Torah prohibits causing unnecessary harm to animals. But the Torah also allows us to slaughter even if it causes some pain, because man is allowed to use animals for his own benefit," added a Rabbinate source.
Although the Chief Rabbinate has accepted the shackle and hoist method for decades, a clandestine video shot in October 2007 and circulated on the Internet by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) sparked new scrutiny.
In the video, filmed inside a slaughterhouse in Montevideo, Uruguay, a cow is shown hanging from a single leg, struggling and bellowing. After the animal is put on the ground, it is shown writhing and being restrained by several workers who step on it and prod it before the cut. According to PETA, the entire procedure takes several minutes.
Although the Rabbinate's kosher supervision council began reviewing the shackle and hoist method two months ago, perhaps in anticipation of the release of the PETA video, no formal decision has been published. The PETA video has provoked a new wave of pressure for change.
According to the Forward, America's largest kashrut supervision agency, the Orthodox Union has begun a quiet campaign to change the Israeli Rabbinate's policy on shackle and hoist.
One source inside the Rabbinate told the Post the attack on the shackle and hoist method came from impure motives. The source was concerned that Metzger's willingness to accommodate the critics would be interpreted as overly defensive and would give the impression that old methods were not kosher.
"This is not a campaign for the support of animals' rights, this is an anti-Semitic attack on shehita [ritual slaughter]," said the source.
PETA has denied being motivated by anti-Semitism and even mentions on its Web site the humaneness of traditional Jewish slaughtering methods when done properly.
However, PETA has a history of controversial campaigns.
On May 5, 2005, PETA issued an apology for its "Holocaust on Your Plate" exhibit, which traveled to more than 100 cities. The exhibit compared the treatment of farm animals to that of victims of the Nazi concentration camps. PETA President Ingrid Newkirk said she realized that the campaign had caused pain: "This was never our intention, and we are deeply sorry."
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