The recent Belgian government ban of shechita (Jewish ritual slaughter) overlooks some important considerations.
First, it ignores the many problems related to stunning, their preferred method of slaughter. 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 cases where animals are dismembered while still alive when the stunning is not properly performed, which frequently happened under the frenzied slaughterhouse conditions . 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 stop 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” (to be slaughtered while fully conscious).
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 Belgium and other countries’ slaughterhouses are not very different.
Second, the Belgian 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 especially 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 very harmful to human health. Also, shechita involves the final seconds of the animals’ lives, but the many months (and sometimes years) of mistreatment of the animals on factory farms should also be considered. While Jewish Veg, 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 Belgian 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 (or years) on factory farms in Belgium and other countries. Just a couple of examples: (1) 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. (2) Dairy cows are artificially impregnated annually so that they will be able to continue “giving” milk, and their babies are taken away almost immediately, often to be raised as veal under very cruel conditions.
If the Belgian government wants to improve conditions for as many animals as possible, they should take steps to reduce the consumption of meat and other animal products. Besides reducing the number of animals suffering on factory farms, 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 be a reduction in environmental problems, including deforestation, soil erosion, water pollution, loss of biological diversity and desertification.
• 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 are dying annually worldwide from hunger and its effects, and almost a billion of the world’s people are chronically hungry, 70% of the grain produced in the United States and 40% produced worldwide are fed to farmed animal. What makes that even more shameful is that the corn, soy and oats that are 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 that Belgium has admitted complicity in the Holocaust, they should be especially ashamed about banning an ancient Jewish practice.
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