Many people expressed concern about the standards for humane treatment of animals at a kosher slaughterhouse after viewing a well-publicized video of kosher slaughter at the AgriProcessors plant in Iowa, which was released by the animal rights organization PETA.
Any slaughterhouse, whether kosher or nonkosher, is by definition a disconcerting, blood-filled and gruesome place. Torah law, however, is most insistent about not inflicting needless pain on animals and in emphasizing humane treatment of all living creatures.
Kosher slaughter, shechitah, involves cutting the trachea and esophagus with a sharp, flawless knife. At the same time, the carotid arteries, which are the primary supplier of blood to the brain, are severed.
The profound loss of blood and the massive drop in blood pressure render the animal insensate almost immediately. Studies done by Dr. H.H. Dukes at the Cornell University School of Veterinary Medicine indicate that the animal is unconscious within seconds of the incision.
After the shechitah at AgriProcessors, an additional cut is made in the carotid arteries to further accelerate the bleeding. This is not done for kashrut reasons, for after the trachea and esophagus have been severed, the shechitah is complete, but rather for commercial reasons to avoid blood splash, which turns the meat a darker color. The carotid arteries are attached to the trachea, and at AgriProcessors, the trachea was excised to facilitate the bleeding.
In the overwhelming number of cases, the animal is insensate at that time. However and inevitably, particularly when it is considered that 18,000 cattle were slaughtered during the seven-week period when the video was shot, there was a tiny percentage of animals whose carotid arteries were not completely severed, so they were not completely unconscious. Although this is very infrequent, the removal of the trachea immediately after the shechitah has now been discontinued.
It should be kept in mind that in a nonkosher plant, when the animal is killed by a shot with a captive bolt to the brain, it often has to be re-shot, sometimes up to six times, before the animal collapses. The USDA permits up to a 5 percent initial failure rate.
At AgriProcessors and at other plants it supervises, the Orthodox Union (OU) is committed to maintaining the highest ritual standards of shechitah without compromising the halacha (Jewish law) one bit. The OU continues to vouch for the kashrut, which was never compromised, of all the meat prepared by AgriProcessors.
As I indicated previously, images of slaughter -- especially selected images in an abbatoir -- are jarring, particularly to the layman. Statements by PETA that animals were bellowing in pain after the shechitah are an anatomical impossibility. After the animal's throat and larynx have been cut, it cannot vocalize.
PETA is well known for the passion it brings to the issue of animal rights, but it is an organization devoid of objectivity. PETA's comparison of the killing of chickens to the Holocaust is, at a minimum, morally obtuse. So to whom should we turn for an objective view about the situation at AgriProcessors and about kosher slaughter in general? Here are the opinions of some experts:
1. Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Patty Judge inspected the plant. She found the handling of the animals to be humane and commendable.
She said after viewing the shechitah that the animals were unconscious within two to three seconds. She also said that chickens were handled more carefully by the rabbis than by her own "grandmother on the farm."
2. AgriProcessors is under constant USDA inspection. Dr. Henry Lawson, the USDA veterinarian at the plant, told me that he considers the treatment of the cattle at AgriProcessors to be humane, and that the shechitah renders them unconscious within a matter of seconds. He determines this by certain physiological criteria related to the eyes, tongue and tail of the animal.
3. Earlier, Rabbi Dr. I.M. Levinger, a veterinarian and one of the world's foremost experts on animal welfare and kosher slaughter, called the shechitah practices at AgriProcessors "professional and efficient," emphasizing the humane manner in which the shechitah was handled.
Levinger was also highly impressed with the caliber of the ritual slaughterers. He issued his evaluation following a thorough two-day on-site review of shechitah practices and animal treatment at the plant. He viewed the kosher slaughter of nearly 150 animals.
4. AgriProcessors has hired an animal welfare and handling specialist to evaluate the plant processes. The specialist was recommended by both Dr. Temple Grandin, a foremost expert in animal welfare, and also by the National Meat Association. In reviewing the shechitah process last week, the specialist made the following observations:\n
• The shechitah process was performed swiftly and correctly;\n
• The shechitah cut resulted in a rapid bleed.\n
• All animals that exited the box were clearly unconscious.
The OU and AgriProcessors are committed to the Torah principles of humane treatment of animals. At the OU, we constantly review our procedures, evaluate them and if necessary, improve or correct them. We don't want ever to be wedded to a mistaken procedure.
AgriProcessors has been completely cooperative in working with the OU and shares our philosophy.
As Torah Jews, we are imbued with the teachings which require animals to be rested, along with people, on the Sabbath and fed before the people who own them, and that the mother bird must be sent away before her young are taken to save her grief. These and similar statutes make it clear that inhumane treatment of animals is not the Jewish way.
Kosher slaughter, by principle, and as performed today in the United States, is humane. Indeed, as PETA itself has acknowledged, shechitah is more humane than the common nonkosher form of shooting the animal in the head with a captive bolt, for reasons noted above.
The Humane Slaughter Act, passed into law after objective research by the U.S. government, declares shechitah to be humane. For Torah observant Jews, it cannot be any other way.
Rabbi Menachem Genack is the rabbinic administrator of the Orthodox Union's Kosher Division.
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