December 9, 2004
The Kindest Cut
Last week for Chanukah I wrote about latkes, this week, the brisket.
Butchered cows have provoked quite a controversy over the past two weeks. That's because the animal rights group, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), released an undercover video taken at the AgriProcessors Inc. plant, a kosher beef abattoir in Postville, Iowa. The plant supplies kosher beef for the Aaron's Best/Rubashkin brand.
The tape shows factory workers ripping out the trachea of a cow after the rabbi has sliced open its throat. Cows stagger to their feet and bellow in agony for several minutes after the shochet (butcher) slices their necks.
Last June, PETA, responding to complaints about operations at AgriProcessors, wrote a letter calling the plant's practices into question. The Orthodox Union (OU), which oversees the plant's kosher certification, fired back a somewhat nasty missive. PETA responded by releasing the video, which raised the eyebrows, if not the ire, of people on all sides of the issue.
Some Orthodox rabbis were sharply critical of the practices they saw on the video. Many others attacked PETA, accusing it of launching an assault on the institution of shechita (kosher slaughter). No doubt PETA's concerns would have carried more weight if the organization hadn't launched a cruel and insensitive ad campaign last year comparing factory farming to the Holocaust. Why taunt the very people you claim to want to work with on behalf of animals?
PETA meanwhile filed lawsuits with the U.S. Department of Agriculture against both the plant and the OU. The Internet filled up with attacks on PETA, "a terrorist organization" in the words of many flamers.
The OU's defenders were not without cause. Hitler outlawed kosher slaughter in 1933, declaring it cruel, and the practice has been a favorite target of anti-Semites through the ages.
The laws of shechita were developed about 3,000 years ago. Then, prior to refrigeration, the primitive temptation was to cut the flesh from a living animal as it was needed, letting the beast languish in pain for as long as possible to keep the meat "fresh."
Judaism's innovation was humane slaughter. In Genesis, God commanded Noah: "But flesh with its living soul, its blood, you shall not eat," comprising one of the seven Noahide Laws -- a shortlist of universal morality incumbent on all humanity, not just the Jews.
Shechita is informed by this revolutionary sense of responsibility and compassion. Kosher slaughter, done correctly, should render the cows unconscious within seconds. "If you do shechita right, it's going to be significantly more humane than all the forms of killing an animal were when shechita was invented," said Rabbi Paul Plotkin, chairman of the Kashrut Subcommittee of the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Conservative movement. Plotkin, rabbi of Temple Beth Am in Margate, Fla., told me that he spent several days this year inspecting kosher slaughter at different Midwestern plants -- and in all cases saw the cows die quickly and without any apparent fear or pain.
The economics of factory farming have taken all of us, kosher or not, a long way from the whetstone and the chopping block. But the genius of Jewish tradition is its ability to adapt to changing modernity without sacrificing eternal principals.
As the controversy stands now, the OU seems to have chosen a path of compromise. Sometimes, even a tainted messenger like PETA can be correct. After a tour of the AgriProcessor plant by OU rabbis, including Rabbi Menachem Genack, head of the OU's kashrut division, the organization agreed to make two changes to slaughtering procedures.
The plant will no longer allow slaughterers to pull out a slaughtered animal's trachea in order to hasten death. The OU also said it would look for a way to either kill or stun cows that are still walking even after the initial stage of slaughtering.
The hero in this dispute is Dr. Temple Grandin, an associate professor of animal science at Colorado State University, who is one of the world's foremost experts on humane factory slaughter. Grandin, who is not Jewish, has praised shechita as a humane technique, but has been highly critical of the AgriProcessors plant. She can serve as a bridge between PETA and the OU, and hers should be the cooler head that prevails.
The last word I have on this comes from the blunt, salty man who sells me kosher meat. I asked him if his largely Orthodox customers were talking about the controversy.
Not at all, he said, no conversation, no drop in sales.
"Nobody gives a sh -- about PETA," he said. But the kosher meat man also said change was inevitable. "Obviously they're gonna have to slow the kill down and keep [the cows] in confinement a bit longer," he said, referring to two of Grandin's recommendations. No one needs the bad publicity. Retail, after all, is a cutthroat business.
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