"I've noticed that quite a lot of people who are prominent in the animal liberation movement are Jews. Maybe we are simply not prepared to see the powerful hurting the weak." --Peter Singer (Author, Animal Liberation)


Speech for "Religion and Food" Class at NYU

On December 9, I was the guest speaker for an undergraduate "Religion and Food" class at NYU. Below is an edited, abbreviated version of the speech I gave to the class.

Today I'm going to talk about vegetarianism in general, use the case of AgriProcessors as an example of how the kosher meat industry isn't all it's cracked up to be, and discuss how kosher-keeping Jews can avoid supporting the cruelty to animals documented at AgriProcessors.

Before we focus on kosher meat, I think it's important to define some of the terms that we'll be using:
  • "Animal rights" means that animals have their own rights; imagine that animals have giant "No Trespass" signs over their bodies and that humans can't violate their bodies for the sake of their own desires. It's been said that the truth of animal rights is not larger cages for animals but rather empty cages. This notion has been popularized by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), whose mission is "Animals are not ours to eat, wear, experiment on, or use for entertainment."
  • "Animal welfare" means that it's OK to use animals for humans' use like food and clothing, but we should treat them as well as possible along the way. We recognize that animals feel pain (e.g., there's a difference between mowing grass and setting a cat's tail on fire), and we should try to minimize that pain as much as possible.
  • Philosopher Peter Singer wrote a book in the '70s called Animal Liberation, in which he promoted a utilitarian outlook that doesn't neatly fit into either the animal rights or the animal welfare camps. Essentially, Singer said that animals are capable of suffering and humans must consider that suffering as part of a moral equation. The immense suffering experienced by veal calves outweighs the fleeting pleasure gained from eating veal, and therefore eating veal is wrong. Hypothetically, though, the benefit gained from a medical experiment that saved many humans (or other animals) would outweigh the suffering of animals (or, for that matter, humans) in the experiment.
  • Tsa'ar ba'alei chayim is a Hebrew term that translates to "unnecessary animal suffering." Much as we discussed with animal welfare, the notion is that if humans do use animals, they should strive to avoid causing any suffering that isn't necessary.
  • "Vegetarian" means that a person doesn't eat any kind of animal, including mammals, birds, and fish.
  • "Vegan" is a type of vegetarian who, in addition to avoiding all animals, doesn't eat animal byproducts like eggs and dairy products. Many vegans also avoid the use of animal products in areas outside their diet, such as by not wearing fur, leather, wool, or down.
  • "Factory farms" are large-scale industrialized farms that try to cram as many animals as possible into as small a space as possible in order to make the highest profit. Animals' welfare is not a priority. More than 99 percent of meat in this country comes from factory farms.
More than 10 billion land animals each year are slaughtered for meat in the U.S. For the vast, vast majority of these 10 billion animalswhether they'll be slaughtered for kosher meat or nonkosher meatthe abuses are horrendous. Calves raised for veal, pregnant and nursing pigs, and egg-laying hens are confined to spaces so tiny that they can hardly move. Chickens and turkeys, who in nature would establish a pecking order rather civilly, would peck each other to death in the close confinement of sheds with literally thousands of animals, so their sensitive beaks are cut off with a hot iron blade. Cows are branded and dehorned as well, and the males of many species are castratedall these bodily mutilations are done without any painkillers.

So why am I vegan? I'm vegan because I oppose the cruel way that factory-farmed animals are treated. Animals are given so little space they can hardly move, are taken away from their mothers shortly after birth, and are denied everything that's natural and important to them. The best way not to support all that unnecessary animal suffering is by boycotting meat and other animal products altogether.

Case Study: AgriProcessors
"Kosher" means that food is "fit" and "proper" to eat. Pork and shellfish are off limits. You can't mix meat and dairy. And kosher slaughter (shechita) means the slaughterer slits a living, conscious, healthy animal's throat with a knife and severs the jugular vein and the carotid artery in one fell swoop. When shechita is performed correctly, the animal is supposed to die instantly without feeling any pain. Kosher slaughter is regulated by both religious and government authorities, so in kosher slaughterhouses, there'll be representatives of both a kosher certification agency (such as the Orthodox Union) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Although the federal Humane Slaughter Act otherwise requires animals to be rendered insensible to pain prior to slaughter (i.e., stunned), the law exempts kosher (and halal) slaughter so that the animals can be fully healthy and conscious, per the technicalities of kosher laws, at the time of slaughter.

You saw the video of AgriProcessors. In 2004, PETA went undercover at a leading kosher slaughterhouse in Postville, Iowa. I know that the content of the video was graphic and unpleasant to watch, but it's important to have a clear idea of what happened rather than talking abstractly. In the video, cattle had their tracheas ripped out of their throats and suffered prolonged agony following shechita. Part of the problem is that the animal is dead according to the religious concept once the initial cut of shechita has been made, even though they're scientifically still alive, conscious, and able to feel pain for at least a short while. The undercover investigator said, "Many cows were still alive and conscious when they came out of the tube and were slammed onto the floor. Their heads often hit the concrete with a sickening crack. The USDA told the plant to stop the throat-ripping procedure and determined that AgriProcessors employees "had engaged in acts of inhumane slaughter."

Most of the controversy focused on cattle, but the investigator also saw problems with chickens and turkeys. In his words:
  • "Some birds fell after being placed into bucketsthese birds flopped around on the ground violently, and once stopped, they were thrown into the garbage."
  • "I took footage of chickens in trailers where the vents/fans were not running. It's August 11 and really hot. I also took footage of the dumping of chickens onto the conveyor system to be killed. I noticed that one chicken had her foot caught between the conveyor and the wall, and she was unable to pull her foot out."
  • "I filmed another chicken who was caught in the conveyor system of the poultry line. This time, the chicken's head and wing were caught between the retaining wall and the conveyor. I did my best to free her, but access to the conveyor itself was blocked."
These problems point to a larger issue than what the video footage showed. In a commercial, industrialized slaughterhouse, even one with the best of intentions, animals are not seen as individuals. Their welfare is not prioritized. The institution operates on such a large scale that the well-being of animals cannot possibly be ensured. The kill line runs too fast, and the entire system is dependent on keeping this assembly-line production moving, no matter what is happening to the animals involved. When we talk later about supposedly humane alternatives, ask yourself whether it's possible for a slaughterhouse to operate on a large enough scale to be a successful business while still looking out for the unnecessary suffering of individual animals. Inherently, these large-scale slaughter facilities (and many smaller-scale ones) simply can't attend to individual animals' welfare.

Here were the investigator's take-away points:
  • "The suffering and cruelty I witnessed didn't phase anyone on that killing floor."
  • "I just wish that people who eat meat could stand where I did for a day and see cows whose eyes are wide with fright have their throats slit and their tracheas gouged out."
  • "There is no justification for the cruelty I documented in that slaughterhouse. The presence of the USDA didn't have any effect, nor did the presence of the rabbis. These animals were failed by both religion and regulations."
The story broke in November 2004. Scientists and animal welfare experts unanimously agreed that the cows shown in the video were still alive, conscious, and suffering when their tracheas were ripped out. Rabbis from numerous Jewish movements condemned the cruelty in the PETA video. For example, the Rabbinical Assembly of the Conservative movement stated: "When a company purporting to be kosher violates the prohibition against tza'ar ba'alei hayyim, causing pain to one of God's living creatures, that company must answer to the Jewish community, and ultimately, to God."

Yet you had some (certainly not all) within the Orthodox community (e.g., Agudath Israel of America) and the kosher meat industry (e.g., AgriProcessors attorney Nathan Lewin) claiming that everything was fine. Why? Because according to the letter of the law, religiously speaking, the animals were dead once they had been subjected to shechita. Some people with this view saw the scandal as an attack on the Jewish community that PETA had no place in. A year ago, at a Yeshiva University panel discussion about whether ethics played a role in determining whether food is kosher, three bigwig, establishment Orthodox rabbis (including representatives from the Orthodox Union and Agudath Israel of America) all said no. A representative from the Orthodox social justice group Uri L'Tzedek was the lone dissenting voice, and even he discussed the spirit of the law rather than arguing about the letter of the law.

As much as I'm trying to focus on animal issues, it's impossible not to talk about some related matters. In 2006, the Forward (the nation's leading Jewish newspaper) exposed major labor problems at AgriProcessors. AgriProcessors employeesmany of whom were illegal immigrants who were desperate for employmentreceived some of the lowest wages in the industry, were not given adequate training to operate deadly machinery, did not have easy access to health insurance, and were viewed as second-class citizens compared to the Jewish staff. The paper also included a transcript of an undercover investigator's failed attempt to receive worker's compensation after contracting a bacteria infection while on the job. The Forward has also reported about labor problems at Alle Processing, which became the leading kosher slaughterer in the U.S. in the wake of AgriProcessors' demise.

In 2007, PETA did an undercover investigation at Local Pride in Gordon, Nebraska, which, like AgriProcessors, was owned by the Rubashkin family. In 2008, PETA conducted another undercover investigation at AgriProcessors. Both these investigations showed that workers were ripping at the throats of animals immediately following shechita, when the animals were still conscious, alive, and able to feel pain. The slaughterhouses had not done so during tours given to rabbis, the media, and animal welfare experts, but when they thought nobody was looking, animals were still being mistreated.

In 2008, about a dozen government agencies raided AgriProcessors and arrested 389 illegal immigrant workers. Problems ranged from employment of illegal imigrants to child labor to a meth lab. AgriProcessors went bankrupt in the wake of the raid. The AgriProcessors slaughterhouse was bought by a new company and renamed.

Last month, the head of AgriProcessors, Sholom Rubashkin, was found guilty on 86 of 91 financial charges. He faces more than 1,000 years in jail, so as a practical matter, the 72 immigration-related charges he faced in a separate trial were dropped. That was all on the federal level. He still faces more than 9,000 Iowa state charges for child labor violations.

What Does This Mean for Kosher-Keeping Jews?
The kosher meat industry's controversial practices have been a hot topic in the Jewish community over the last five years. In the wake of such eye-opening horrors, kosher-keeping Jews essentially have three choices on how to react. They can go on as if nothing happened; after all, kosher certification agencies say that the meat was still kosher according to the letter of law of what's required for shechita. They can go vegetarian, which I maintain is the most consistent and surefire way to avoid causing animals unnecessary suffering. Or as was discussed in the article you read for class, "Kosher Wars," they can try to find some middle ground. I don't particularly endorse any of the middle-ground solutions, but especially for the sake of class discussion, they are worth exploring.

One idea is to cut back on the amount of meat consumed. At the 2007 Hazon Food Conference, Rabbi Seth Mandel, head of meat supervision for the Orthodox Union (which has a vested interest in promoting kosher meat), conceded that American Jews these days eat much more meat than they traditionally have. He said, "You have to understand, the Torah did not envision us to eat as much meat as we do. Rambam in the Mishneh Torah says that Jews should eat meat at most two times a week, and if Jews decided to do that, all the problems of kosher slaughter would be solved." I don't think all the problems would be solved, but making the kosher meat industry run on a smaller scale would be a step in the right direction. I'm not holding my breath for this to happen.

The Conservative movement is developing a Magen Tzedek, or shield of justice, that would ensure that approved products were acceptable from the standpoints of animal welfare, treatment of employees, environmental impact, and corporate transparency. Regarding the latest draft of the animal welfare guidelines, I'm holding out judgment until I hear back from a much more knowledgeable expert, who will likely write a guest post on this topic for heebnvegan next month.

There have been initiatives in Israel, Los Angeles, and New York to certify that restaurants and other businesses treat workers well. In New York City, Uri L'Tzedek, the aforementioned Orthodox social justice group, has given its Tav HaYosher (ethical seal) to about 20 restaurants that give their employees fair pay, fair time, and a safe work environment.

And of course, as "Kosher Wars" noted, there have been several efforts to start small-scale operations with humane intentions, including Simon Feil's work, KOL Foods, and Mitzvah Meat. I can't speak to the specifics of those three operations, but consider the following points about other supposedly humane, smaller-scale operations:
  • In his new book, Eating Animals, Jonathan Safran Foer explains how almost all commercially farmed turkeys must be artificially inseminated, even if they're on supposedly humane farms. The variety of turkeys typically raised for meat in the U.S. have been genetically engineered to have their bodies produce more meat in the desired spots, and they physically are not capable of natural reproduction anymore. In almost all cases, this is true of factory-farmed turkey meat and the rare turkey meat from small-scale, humane farms too. Perhaps this isn't an example of suffering, but it does seem to me that relying on birds who can't even mate naturally is an example of interfering with nature and it just isn't right.
  • In The Omnivore's Dilemma, Michael Pollan held up Joel Salatin's Polyface Farms as the pinnacle of ecologically sound practices for a commercial farm, and the animals were supposed to be treated well too. Pollan spent time on the farm and slaughtered "a dozen or so" chickens there, but he noted that the manner in which the chickens were grabbed for slaughter seemed "unduly rough." He didn't know "if there is a more humane way to catch three hundred chickens." Surely the animals could be treated more humanely if several hundred weren't slaughtered in one "as fast and as surely as possible" session. But of course, slaughtering birds on a significantly smaller scaleand treating animals as individualsisn't a viable option for a commercial farm. "Scale makes all the difference," noted Salatin. In order for a farm to use fewer animals and attend to animals' individual welfare, the farm would compromise its commercial viability, which is not an option for many profit-driven businesses. If this is the best we can do in trying to find a middle-ground compromise, I say it's not good enough.
My personal feeling is that while these small farms are better than factory farms and the like from a welfare perspective, they're far from perfect. They inherently can't operate on a large enough scale for their meat to be a viable alternative in the kosher market. Also, if all unnecessary animal suffering should be avoided, it's hard to see how any animal suffering is necessary if humans don't need meat (and tend to be healthier without it).

If we say that there must be kosher meat, then there will be some solutions that aren't perfect but are better than others. But if we accept vegetarianism as a healthier, ethically sound alternative, for kosher-keeping Jews and indeed everyone, we can consistently avoid the problems inherent to commercial animal agriculture.


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