It's not every day that people affiliated with a strident animal rights group talk turkey with those who oversee kosher slaughter.
But that's exactly what happened this week, when an unpaid adviser to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) discussed allegations of improper slaughtering practices at an Iowa kosher meat plant with the head of the Orthodox Union's kashrut division.
Tuesday's late-afternoon talks involving Aaron Gross, a doctoral student at UC Santa Barbara, and Rabbi Menachem Genack were the latest development in a story that has placed the slaughter practices at Agriprocessors Inc. in Postville, Iowa, under question.
They came one day after PETA filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The complaint alleges that the plant is violating Jewish law by not instantly killing the animals, and therefore is violating U.S. slaughter laws, which allow for Jewish ritual slaughter.
The telephone discussion between PETA and the Orthodox Union ended in an impasse, participants said.
The controversy, which has alarmed some Orthodox institutions, is being seen as the most widely publicized dispute over kosher slaughter in the United States in a decade.
At issue is an undercover video taken by PETA-affiliated individuals over a seven-week period between July and September of this year. The video shows animals being slaughtered at the Agriprocessors plant, which processes meat for the Rubashkin/Aaron's Best label. One of the plant's supervisors is the Orthodox Union, a major supervisor of kosher food in the United States.
In the video, one slaughterer cuts a cow's throat, resulting in extensive bleeding, while another takes the trachea out. Other clips show cows running around which appear to be alive after the killing is presumably completed.
"This not how shechitah is supposed to be done," Tal Ronnen, a spokesman for the Norfolk, Va.-based PETA, said, using the Hebrew term for ritual slaughter. "If it's done correctly, the animal is supposed to be dead in 30 seconds to one minute."
Orthodox officials, while admitting the video isn't pretty, don't agree, saying that reflexive movements by animals after they are slaughtered are not uncommon.
"We thought it was in consonance with the halachah," Genack said after viewing the video.
PETA first raised the issue with Agriprocessors in June, after being tipped off to allegations of improper procedures inside the plant. In an exchange of letters, PETA raised objections and asked that an expert on slaughter be allowed to witness the process.
Agriprocessors responded through its attorney, Nathan Lewin, who said he asked for more specifics. PETA said it followed up with that request, but Lewin said he never received the second letter. PETA said that after it did not get a response from Lewin, it pursued the undercover investigation.
On Monday, PETA filed a complaint with the USDA, complaining that government regulations were not being followed at Agriprocessors. It sought suspension of the plant's license and possible criminal proceedings.
PETA's letter to the USDA detailed what it called violations of the 1902 Humane Methods of Livestock Slaughter Act. The letter claimed that by violating halachic procedures, the company was violating the legislation, under which animals can be killed according to Jewish law.
Steven Cohen, a USDA spokesman, confirmed the agency had received the PETA letter, but said it was waiting to review the video before deciding how to handle the complaint.
Genack said he had discussed the issue with USDA officials, and is confident that government guidelines are being followed satisfactorily.
For its part, Agriprocessors released a statement this week saying it follows the practices set out by its kosher supervisors.
"Agriprocessors does not control anything that happens in the kosher ritual processes," the statement said. "We adhere strictly to the instructions given to us by the rabbinic authorities and will continue to do so. As we always have, we will also continue to follow the strict guidelines set out by both federal and Jewish law for the humane treatment of animals during the slaughter process."
One expert in slaughtering practices, who reported that she has visited 30 kosher slaughtering plants, said that from what she can tell from the video, the practices at Agriprocessors are poor.
"I've never seen trachea removal before," Temple Grandin, an associate professor of animal science at Colorado State University, said in a telephone interview.
"Nobody else cuts out the trachea, and they're doing it while the animal is still conscious," said Grandin, who was the expert PETA had wanted to have access to the plant.
Orthodox Union officials said that the animal is unconscious after the throat is slit. Some Orthodox officials called PETA's campaign an attack on shechitah more generally and part of a history of anti-Semitic canards.
"Shechitah often comes under attack by elements that are unsavory, and in general, PETA is not an organization that commands our great respect," said Rabbi Avi Shafran, a spokesman for Agudath Israel of America, an Orthodox organization.
He and others noted that the Nazis publicized photographs of Jews performing cruel slaughter practices as part of their campaign to inflame sentiment against Jews.
"We'll put them on the wall with Hitler," Nathan Lewin, an Orthodox Jew and a lawyer for Agriprocessors, said, referring to PETA. "The PETA folks might not like eggs, but they have eggs all over their face."
Lewin, citing a 1997 judgment in which the American Broadcasting Co. was ordered to pay $5.5 million to the Food Lion supermarket chain following an investigative piece that alleged food safety violations, suggested that PETA could be subject to legal action.
PETA is known for its aggressive tactics in promoting its animal rights agenda. The group generated controversy last year when it compared the meat industry to the Holocaust.
In another one of its more controversial campaigns, it displayed ads a few years ago with the phrase, "Got prostate cancer?" and showing Rudolph Giuliani, the then-New York City mayor who had been recently diagnosed with the disease. The billboards also included the line: "Drinking milk contributes to prostate cancer."
But in this case, PETA is presenting a more moderate face. Those affiliated with PETA said the group is not going after kosher slaughter but just those practices underway at Agriprocessors. Further, they said, PETA is sensitive to issues of anti-Semitism.
"PETA has gone out of its way" to avoid anti-Semitism, and agrees that shechitah, when properly practiced, is a "better procedure than general meat industry practices," Gross said.
Gross, who describes himself as a liberal but active Jew -- and a member of the Jewish Vegetarians of North America's advisory committee -- said he became involved in the issue after the exchange of letters with Lewin failed.
Kosher consumers extend across the Jewish community, but the issue generated an immediate response among those active in the Orthodox community. Participants at the Agudath Israel of America's annual convention voted unanimously Sunday to condemn PETA's attack.
When Rabbi David Zwiebel, an Agudath official, announced at the conclusion of the conference that the issue was going to hit The New York Times, "you could hear the murmurings," Shafran said. "The hands just shot up for the vote. It was unanimous with gusto."