A Call For Transparency in the Kashrut Industry

April 2nd, 2015


The evils of factory farming have been well known to the public for years. Decades of shocking undercover exposés, as well as high-exposure works like Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals, have left no doubt that cruelty to animals is the norm in the modern meat industrial complex. The Jewish community must grapple with the fact that the vast majority of kosher animal products are produced within the same factory farm industry.

The milk comes from the same cows, the eggs come from the same chickens, and the animals slaughtered come from the same farms and are prepared for slaughter in the same way; the kosher and non-kosher industries are intertwined at every level other than the actual slaughter itself. It is time for the Jewish community to rise above their tacit approval and demand more transparency and oversight on industrial farming.

Only then will we be true to the religious and moral values that our Torah and sages mandate.

Industry officials have taken the position that kosher consumers actually don’t care if animals are mistreated or not. They view their role as improving affordability and accessibility to their product. And sadly, for the most part, they have been proven right about consumer apathy. Yet, a sea change has come.

Publicized abuses, widespread availability of information, and health-related concerns linked to animal product consumption sparked an upsurge in demand for greater transparency, third-party audits for animal welfare and even plantbased alternatives to animal products; it is in this milieu where the call for greater scrutiny occurs.

The Jewish tradition is a tumult of infinite commentary and legal rulings that cover every aspect of daily living.

Throughout history, Jews have tried to understand the logic behind commandments, of which the kashrut laws are among the most debated: countless rabbis have argued that the laws of kashrut are primarily concerned with basic ethics and character development. In addition to the technical laws of kashrut, there is the prohibition of causing pain to animals (tza’ar ba’alei chaim), the mandate to pursue the holy path (kedoshim tiyu), and the warning against becoming a scoundrel within the boundaries of the technical laws (naval birshut ha’Torah).

Further, there is thousands of years of precedent for following the higher standard.

Yet the spokesman for the Agudah wrote in response to my op-ed in The Wall Street Journal calling for a higher ethical standard in the kosher industry: “‘Kosher,’ however, has nothing to do with health or ‘ethics.’” I am not convinced of this position in the least. The contemporary kashrut agencies themselves have coupled kashrut certification with various values outside the ritual laws of kashrut such as undesirable restaurant names, modeling a sports bar, female dress attire, and dancing. Why should values of modesty be inter-related with kashrut while animal treatment is not?

Case in point: the “shackle and hoist” method, which is worse in kosher slaughterhouses (outside of the US) than non-kosher slaughterhouses since kosher facilities don’t allow for stunning the animal during the traumatic experience. A particularly torturous practice of killing livestock, this method includes chaining and suspending an animal’s hind leg as it’s lifted in the air to be easily moved to the abattoir. While in the air, shechitah (the ritual aspect of the slaughter, by cutting the jugular vein) is performed, and the animal is dropped to the ground to bleed out. The kosher industry claims it’s a quick death, but undercover videos shows the animals writhing in pain, squirming around for up to two minutes before dying.

This short description only gives a snapshot of the horror of the shackle and hoist method. It is hard to reconcile the humane slaughter that kashrut is meant to represent with this barbaric practice. Even Dr. Temple Grandin, one of America’s most respected animal science and welfare experts and a friend of kosher slaughter, describes shackle and hoist as “in a category by itself for badness.”

Because of the objectively tremendous suffering that these animals endure, shackle and hoist has been all but abandoned, even sometimes outlawed in the US, Israel and the European Union.

To the credit of the kashrut industry, though, no large kosher certification companies in the US will certify meat from animals slaughtered by the shackle and hoist method as kosher if those animals are killed on US soil. Yet, to their discredit, these same kosher certification companies regularly certify meat from animals slaughtered by the shackle and hoist method if the meat is imported.

Animal welfare and worker’s rights laws in South America are much less strict, virtually non-existent. This leads to lower production costs, and importing this meat lowers the cost of meat to the consumer. There is no ethical justification for this practice. It is simply a matter of supporting animal cruelty that the kashrut industry itself acknowledges, in order to produce cheaper meat.

Today, imported meat is the rule, not the exception. The majority of the kosher meat destined for the American market comes from herds raised and slaughtered in Argentina and Uruguay where the slaughterhouses primarily use shackling and hoisting. In spite of promises from leading kashrut authorities to reform the practices of these slaughterhouses after a 2008 video exposed this abuse, a 2010 video from the Frigorifico Las Piedras slaughterhouse in Uruguay documented that shackle and hoist slaughter for kosher animals is, lamentably, still the standard.

If the standards of producing meat in South America have been shown to be in violation of the very essence of animal welfare, why do we still allow for their import for American kosher consumers? What I’ve found disturbing, and saddening, is the institutional hesitancy to activate meaningful policy changes. Rabbi Menachem Genack, CEO of the Kosher Division of the Orthodox Union, the largest kosher certification agency in the world and a Torah scholar and authority of the minutiae of kashrut law, speaks of his interest, albeit hesitant, in seeing improvements in the system. But so far no results have demonstrably transpired.

Rabbi Genack has placed the burden of responsibility upon the Chief Rabbinate of Israel to insist upon reforms on abuses from kosher slaughter in South America.

This claim is difficult to understand, since the OU gives its approval for nearly every certified kosher product; it wields significant power to create change in the South American kosher meat industry if it was willing to do so.

While 80 percent of Israel’s kosher beef is imported from South America’s shackle and hoist factories, The Chief Rabbinate of Israel, which is primarily responsible for kosher certifications for Israeli Jews, has been equivocal in dealing with this issue. In 2010, press reports indicated that then-chief Ashkenazi Rabbi Yona Metzger’s top aide, Avi Blumenthal, had indicated that the Chief Rabbinate would not certify meat from slaughterhouses using the shackle and hoist method after 2011.

However, in mid-2011, Blumenthal indicated that Rabbi Metzger’s position was of an advisory nature (urging a shift to the inversion method) and not mandatory, despite the fact that the South American kosher meat industry must have the approval of the Chief Rabbinate’s office before it can export meat to Israel. When footage was released of the cruel and primitive method of “shackle and hoist” kosher slaughter in South America, a representative of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel tried to defend the kosher status of the meat by speciously arguing: “Gratuitous cruelty to animals during the slaughter process does not disqualify the meat.”

So why can’t the OU just cut off all supply from the abusive factories in South America? Rabbi Genack explained: “It’s quite easy to say, ‘Why don’t we just cut out South America?’ But it would represent a disruption of supply and inevitably would mean kosher meat would go up higher in price. We’re trying to supply a modest cost for struggling families. That’s the whole concept behind the OU.”

I would respectfully argue back that giving hashgacha (kosher certification) to factory farming with horrible conditions injures the intrinsic holiness of the Torah and denigrates the relevancy of the moral calling of the Jewish people.

Kashrut authorities argue that they are following industrial standards, which is true. They also argue that economic incentives takes precedence over adhering to eternal Jewish values, which is not true.

Better alternatives are accessible if there is a will. The Torah I believe in and the Orthodoxy I embrace is maximalist: we must live not just according to the letter of the law, but also according to its spirit. At the very least, our community now deserves more transparency on how things are operating.

What we need is not only food that is technically kosher but also food that is morally proper. We need moral leadership and ethical transparency.

Without following these precepts, I fear that the very essence of kashrut will wither away into nothingness. The kashrut community has always celebrated a “Higher Standard.” Now is the time consumers valued this moral and spiritual ideal. Maimonides argued that: “Animals feel very great pain, there being no difference regarding this pain between man and other animals.” Why should we be unconcerned about this pain if our tradition is so adamant about these values? As kosher consumers, we must not acquiesce, we must stop allowing ourselves to be helpless, and must start calling upon the kosher authorities to affect real change. Oversight is needed more than ever, and we need more mechanisms in place that provide for transparency.

The power is in our hands. Our moral tradition and billions of sentient creatures depend on it.

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