A call for integrity when discussing kosher meat

There is always room for improvement in the realm of animal welfare, particularly in the meat production business.

March 21, 2015 22:08
A KOSHER slaughterhouse.

A KOSHER slaughterhouse.. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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A recent opinion piece in The Jerusalem Post (“A call for transparency in the kashrut industry,” by Shmuly Yanklowitz) appears to raise valid concerns regarding the kosher meat industry and call for constructive reform. Unfortunately the article is disingenuous and could benefit from some fact checking and a heavy dose of integrity.

The article starts off by decrying the “factory farming industry,” and that the “vast majority of kosher animal products are produced within the same factory farm industry.” He then proceeds to criticize kashrut agencies for using meat from South America.

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He can’t have it both ways; meat from Argentina and Uruguay is actually not raised according to the factory farm system, but is largely grass fed. Furthermore, in general, farmers do not own the meat processing plants, and the meat processing plant owners usually do not own the farms. And the rabbis own neither.

The rabbinic organizations are paid to go into the processing plant to ensure that the rules of kashrut are observed there. In general, there are no farms under rabbinic supervision.

Only when questions of kashrut arise at the farm, such as how to vaccinate chicks or how to surgically repair a displaced abomasum, are the rabbis sent to provide kashrut consultation/ supervision at the farm level as well.

The issue at hand is one of kashrut.

There are a myriad of other Jewish laws that exist on the farm and in the slaughterhouse, in addition to kashrut and the animal welfare issue raised by Yanklowitz. Is he suggesting that the rabbis inspect the farm and slaughterhouse to guarantee the workers are paid on time, the work environment is safe, taxes are paid, that the male workers are never alone with female workers, the workers’ clothing does not contain shatnez (a mixture of wool and linen, forbidden by the Torah), etc.? Of course they first would have to train as accountants, safety workers, tailors, etc., and then pass along all the inspection costs to the consumer.

Or perhaps it is better that rabbis should oversee only kashrut and, because we thankfully live in functioning, Western democracies, the appropriate government agencies should oversee the other aspects. This is essentially what the “spokesman for the Agudah” with whom the author disagreed, said.

And indeed the values of modesty do not interrelate to kashrut unless they prevent kashrut supervisors from doing their job. So too, an unsafe work environment that prevents the rabbis from fully functioning in their capacity as kashrut supervisors would preclude kosher certification.

The article next condemns the “shackle and hoist” method, which, we are told, is worse in kosher slaughterhouses because “kosher facilities don’t allow for stunning the animal during the traumatic experience.” That assumption is not based on hard fact. It is far from clear that stunning is a more “humane” method of slaughter.

Indeed a recent paper in Meat Science, the official journal of the American Meat Science Association, shows that, contrary to what Yanklowitz would have one believe, it is the electrical stunning of animals that is the traumatic experience. Humans undergoing similar treatment, i.e.

those receiving ECT (electro-convulsive therapy) treatment for depression, have attested to that fact.

Furthermore, the system used today in South America is not “shackle and hoist.” Yanklowitz simply invents statements to bolster his argument. No animal is slaughtered “while the animal is up in the air.”

As another example of how he makes baseless statements, he states, “Today, imported meat is the rule rather than the exception. The majority of the kosher meat destined for the American market comes from herds raised and slaughtered in Argentina and Uruguay.” No kosher meat comes from Argentina, and that has been true for the past decade. Nor is the majority of kosher meat in the United States imported, not from Uruguay nor from anywhere else. Most meat and poultry labeled kosher sold in the United States is raised and slaughtered in the United States. Even if we restrict the statement to “glatt kosher meat,” most comes from the United States.

A certain amount comes from Central America, where boxes similar to those used in the United States are used to restrain the animal. The meat from South America is nowhere near a majority. In certain categories, such as veal and poultry, a significant percentage does come from outside the United States: from Canada, where the slaughter process is the same as in the United States. No kosher veal or lamb in the United States comes from South America, nor does kosher poultry. It is worth noting that there is reliably kosher meat raised and slaughtered “humanely” commercially available in the US, but it is more expensive than other kosher meat. The consumer is free to choose.

It would indeed be very nice if all slaughterhouses in the world followed the highest humane standards.

It would even be nicer if cocoa farms did not use child labor, if clothing factories did not use slaves, and if food production facilities followed the most careful standards to prevent any and all contamination and adulteration.

The question is how to achieve these admirable objectives and yet keep items affordable for all. Judaism places value on a market in which products are available to the poor and money is not overly spent.

Yanklowitz makes it seem as if he just wants better conditions for animals even if the final product is priced out of affordability for many kosher consumers. Here is the ultimate in lack of integrity – he may actually wish it to be unaffordable, because as a proselytizing vegan he wants us all to be vegans. What is needed is more transparency in the motives behind those who are calling for change. Yanklowitz’s right to give up his, as he wrote, daily (!) meat is unchallenged in this inter-Temple period – may it speedily be rebuilt. For him to argue that non-kashrut related principles, even important ones such as tza’ar ba’alei chaim (literally: “the suffering of living creatures”), impact on kashrut, is nothing short of ziyuf hatorah, a misrepresentation of the Torah, a violation that the Maharshal, one of the pillars of Ashkenazi Jewry in the 16th century, said requires martyrdom.

There may be instances where ill treatment of animals can lead to kashrut issues, as may have occurred last year in an Israeli poultry plant, or where support for egregious animal abusers should be discouraged, as Rabbi Moshe Feinstein advised regarding veal production methods in his day and Rabbi Ovadia Yosef said about bull fighting, but this is not the same as claiming that animal welfare impacts on kashrut.

Millions of traditional (i.e. they eat meat and keep kosher) Jews are relying on the kosher supervisory agencies to provide high quality, reasonably priced meat. There is always room for improvement in the realm of animal welfare, particularly in the meat production business. We rely on the rabbinic organizations to properly balance the competing Jewish values of high standards of kashrut, concern for the Jewish poor, and animal welfare. It is not an easy job and we wish them continued success.

The author, a rabbi, is on the faculty of Bar-Ilan University, where he researches neuroscience and ethics, and is an expert on kosher food.

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