Why do the OU and Israel's rabbinate condone barbarity?

The scandal of meat that's technically 'kosher' and ethically tainted.

slaughtered ox 224.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
slaughtered ox 224.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
A recent undercover investigation into slaughterhouse practices in South America has revealed the heinous use of the animal restraint method known as "shackling and hoisting" during the kosher slaughter process. We in Israel have no reason to feel immune from responsibility for these barbaric practices as South America is the largest source of kosher beef imports into Israel. Additionally, South America is the largest offshore supplier of kosher meat to the United States. Both the Israeli rabbinate and the Orthodox Union (OU) in the US explicitly endorse these methods by providing their kosher authorizations to the resulting meat. Shackling and hoisting is the brutal and outdated technique of chaining and suspending in mid-air a fully conscious adult cow by its rear leg. The problems associated with this method include the animal's scientifically measured hyper-stress levels, tearing of muscle tissue, tendons and skin, the compression of internal organs by the immense weight of the cow's mass on the organs and more. According to the halacha of kashrut, none of these injuries cause the animal to become tref , or unkosher. Due to the high incidence of worker and animal injury, this method of restraint is no longer practiced in the United States. The advent of safer and more humane animal handling systems encouraged kosher slaughter in North America to abandon the practice years ago. In a Sept. 25, 1998 article in Haaretz magazine Yossi Bar-Moha gave this eye-witness account of the process: "One of the local workers grabs a back leg of the bull and lashes it to an iron chain. The door is raised again and the bull is yanked violently upward by the chain attached to his back leg. The animal is now dangling in the air - its immense weight held by one foot, its head down. A second worker locks the head into a crescent-shaped device that has been grafted onto a long iron rod. The slaughterers advance…The [cut] is dazzlingly swift, a second or two, one cut forward and another backward across the bull's neck. It is done. Immediately the two animals, their bodies jerking convulsively, are lifted upward with the iron chain, unleashing a torrent or blood. Wasting no time, the slaughterers and the workers turn to the ... Box, where the next two steers are already waiting. ... Their bellowing intensifies. The slaughtered animals, by now dangling from large hooks, are pulled up to the second floor, where workers attach them to a gigantic machine. A quick cut loosens a flap of skin, which is inserted into the machine and pulled by two rollers until the animal is completely skinless. It is all done with astonishing speed…By this method, more than 100 steers are slaughtered within an hour, 50 per Box, 27 seconds on average for each. .... Tubol, who is my guide in the meat factory, assures me that "this is an advanced plant, compared with others where kosher slaughter is done." ANIMAL SCIENCE data reports that a cow killed by means of a valid kosher slaughter cut loses consciousness between 8 and 60 seconds after the cut is made. According to the above testimony, after the cut is made the animal is immediately moved to the stage of flaying (removing the skin), and a cow is processed every 27 seconds. Many of these animals are being skinned while still conscious - a fact that does not violate the laws of kosher slaughter, but tramples upon the laws of ethical behavior toward a living creature. The leading authority in livestock animal handling systems, Dr. Temple Grandin, is on record as saying that, when implemented responsibly, kosher slaughter is the surest pain-minimizing way to industrially slaughter animals. This opinion is due to the meticulous precision of the shochet to make a proper cut at the time of death - an imprecise cut means the animal becomes treif. However, Grandin holds that by employing these crude handling systems which show no regard for animal welfare, kosher slaughter is now a leading perpetrator in the vile abuse of animals in the food production industry. What does Jewish law have to say about animal welfare? An emphatic opinion is that of Shulhan Arukh commentator the Yad Ephraim, Rav Ephraim Zalman Margalit: "It is necessary to warn slaughterers on this matter… [the slaughter of a chicken in front of other chickens waiting to be slaughtered] is not [acceptable] as it entails tsa'ar ba'alei haim…[animal suffering] and there is no greater form of tsa'ar ba'alei haim. (Yoreh Deah 36:14) That is, the law against unnecessary infliction of pain to animals applies not only to the animals' physical well being, but also to the animals' emotional well being. In his gloss on the Shulhan Arukh, Rabbi Moshe Isserles (Rema) says: "anything (treatment of an animal) necessary for medical or other purposes is not a matter of tsa'ar ba'alei haim. Therefore, it is permitted to pluck the feathers from live geese; nevertheless the world abstains from such for it is cruelty. (Even HaEzer 5:14) Here, even the Rema who defines the proscription against animal mistreatment as solely a law against human sadism and upon whose opinion on the matter most modern arbiters of Jewish law hold says that cruelty - even if technically permitted - is to be avoided. IF BETTER systems exist for protecting the welfare of workers and animals, why do the Israeli and US kashrut authorities condone their continued systematic abuse in South America? Does the one-time cost of the refined equipment - costs that every Western abattoir incurs - compare to saving the limbs, eyes and teeth of South American workers? Does the one-time cost of the refined equipment - costs that every Western kosher abattoir incurs - justify inflicting excruciating, yet avoidable, pain on an animal? The kosher meat industry is a for-profit business. As such, the approach to production is to manufacture an item as cost efficiently as possible. Compared to South America, the US Departments of Agriculture and Labor and the intermediary meat-sanctioning bodies have much stricter standards for worker and animal welfare and facility sanitation. Additionally, in developed countries employers have the obligation to pay worker accident insurance. The high rate of employee injury in the slaughter business (meatpacking is the most dangerous factory job in America) makes meat production costly and factors into the decision to produce kosher meat in countries with few to no regulations for worker and animal welfare. Thus, kosher meat authorities exploit and benefit from the lack of worker protection and animal welfare laws in South America. Judaism is prideful of the fact that Jewish law protects the rights of workers and protects against the unnecessary infliction of pain to an animal. It is for these reasons that the exploitation of worker and animal welfare by current rabbinic leadership is so disappointing, and enraging. The Jewish laity places its trust in rabbinic authority. Not only is a halachic cut assumed, but a kosher leadership is expected. For its part, the Conservative movement in America is in the process of creating the Hehhsher Tzedek - a seal of approval of worker rights and animal welfare that will accompany kosher supervision stamps for qualifying kosher meat producers. Still, the ability and responsibility to implement caring changes in kosher meat production is in the hands of the Israeli rabbinate and the OU - the two authorities who support the import of South American kosher meat for sale in their respective countries. Without question, a diet consisting of minimal animal products reduces the instances of cruelty toward animals. In the case of Israel's kosher meat, the consumer can be certain that refraining from meat consumption sends a message of condemnation to both the governing authorities and businesses that prosper from the industry. This refrain will also ensure the individual's lack of participation in the chain of abuse, and the closer fulfillment of mitzvat tsa'ar ba'alei haim. The writer is rabbi of Congregation Moreshet Yisrael in Jerusalem, Israel's flagship Masorti synagogue. www.chai-online.org