The recent Polish government ban on shechita (Jewish ritual slaughter) overlooks some important considerations. These are thoroughly covered in the book Slaughterhouse: The Shocking Story of Greed, Neglect, and Inhumane Treatment Inside the US Meat Industry, by Gail Eisnitz.
Through many interviews with slaughterhouse workers and USDA inspectors, she carefully documents in gut-wrenching, chilling detail the widespread, unspeakable torture and death at US slaughterhouses, where animals are stunned prior to slaughter.
The book discusses several cases of animals being dismembered while still alive when the stunning is not properly performed.
Here is the testimony of one worker, on cow slaughter: “A lot of times the skinner finds a cow is still conscious when he slices the side of its head and it starts kicking wildly. If that happens ...the skinner shoves a knife into the back of its head to cut the spinal cord.” (This paralyzes the animal, but doesn’t spare it the pain of being skinned alive.) And of another worker, on calf slaughter: “To get done with them faster, we’d put eight or nine of them in the knocking box at a time.... You start shooting [with the stunning gun], the calves are jumping, they’re all piling up on top of each other.
You don’t know which ones got shot and which didn’t.... They’re hung anyway, and down the line they go, wriggling and yelling.”
Many workers admit to becoming sadistic and cruel under the horrible conditions of their daily efforts.
Eisnitz’s closing comment, “Now you know, and you can help end these atrocities,” is still applicable today. While her research involved only US slaughterhouses, it is likely in today’s highly competitive markets that conditions in Polish and other country’s slaughterhouses are not very different.
Second, the Polish government ignores the many factors in the shechita process designed to minimize pain. Animals are to be killed by a shochet (ritual slaughterer), a religious Jew who is specially trained and certified.
He kills the animal with a single stroke, using a very sharp knife that is inspected frequently to make sure there are no imperfections, causing a rapid loss of consciousness and a minimum of pain.
Unfortunately, as in non-kosher slaughterhouses, shechita is not always carried out perfectly under current mass production conditions.
The horrible treatment of animals at the largest kosher slaughterhouse in Postville, Iowa, revealed by undercover videos, is one example. And even when shechita is properly carried out, animals are killed to create products that are not necessary for human health and, indeed, very harmful to human health.
Also, shechita involves the final seconds of the animals’ lives, but the many months of mistreatment of the animals on factory farms should also be considered. While Jewish Vegetarians of North America, of which I am president emeritus, opposes all forms of slaughter, because animal-based diets and agriculture are inconsistent with basic Jewish teachings on health, compassion, environmental sustainability, and conservation of resources, we protest when shechita is selected for special criticism or is banned.
The Polish government fails to extend its commendable, though misguided, concern for animal welfare during the final minutes prior to slaughter to the many abuses that occur for months on factory farms in Poland and other countries.
Male chicks at egg-laying hatcheries are killed almost immediately after birth, since they can’t lay eggs and have not been genetically programmed to produce much flesh.
Dairy cows are artificially impregnated annually on “rape racks,” so that they will be able to continue “giving” milk; and their young are taken away almost immediately, often to be raised as veal under very cruel conditions.
If the Polish government wants to improve conditions for as many animals as possible, it should take steps to reduce the consumption of meat and other animal products. This would have additional benefits.
There would be a reduction in the widespread heart disease, several types of cancer, and other diseases afflicting many people. There would be a reduction in the emission of greenhouse gases. While the world is increasingly threatened by climate change, a 2006 UN Food and Agriculture Organization report, “Livestock’s Long Shadow,” indicated that animal-based agriculture emits more greenhouse gases (in CO2 equivalents) than is emitted by the cars and all other means of transportation worldwide combined.
There would also be a reduction in environmental problems, including deforestation, soil erosion, water pollution, loss of biological diversity, and desertification.
Finally, resources would be used more efficiently. In an increasingly thirsty and energy-dependent world, a person on an animal-based diet requires up to 14 times as much water (mainly for irrigating feed crops) and 10 times as much energy as a person on a vegan (only plants) diet.
There would potentially be a reduction in the number of hungry people.
At a time when food prices are skyrocketing, an estimated 20 million people die annually worldwide from hunger and its effects, and almost a billion are chronically hungry; 70 percent of the grain produced in the United States and 40% produced worldwide is fed to farmed animals.
What makes that even more shameful is that corn, soy and oats, high in fiber and complex carbohydrates are converted into animal products that are devoid of these nutrients, but high in cholesterol and saturated fat that are very harmful to health.
Given the history of centuries of anti-Semitism in Poland, including the collaboration by some Poles and the denial-through-silence of many others while the Nazis were exterminating millions of Jews on Polish soil, Poland should be especially cautious and ashamed about banning ancient Jewish practices. If people like the Danes or Dominicans, or residents of Shanghai, who rescued thousands of Jews, were to ban shechita, that would be an ignoble mistake, but for Germans or Poles to try to outlaw shechita resonates especially bitterly in light of their recent genocidal histories.
Their adoption of such a ban deserves particular condemnation and vilification.
The author is professor emeritus at the College of Staten Island and the author of Judaism and Vegetarianism, Judaism and Global Survival, Mathematics and Global Survival, and Who Stole My Religion.