May 17th, 2017
RABBI SHMULY YANKLOWITZ
Israel is Ending “Shackle and Hoist” Imports. The United States must follow suit.
What is the price of consuming kosher meat? Is it a means to achieve a level of Godliness here on Earth, or is it the violent perpetuation of cruelty and needless pain on innocent creatures? The contemporary response can only be a resounding YES to the latter. When the cycle of violence for cheap meat is the preservation of profits over kindness and compassion, then the term “kosher meat” becomes a bitterly ironic phrase. Case in point: “shackle and hoist.”
But there is light on the horizon. For years, the Chief Rabbinate of Israel said they would ban “shackle and hoist” imports, but they took no action. Now Israel’s Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development has decided to put its foot down: in a stunning and, frankly, brave move, Israel just banned all “shackle and hoist” imports — effective immediately for new slaughterhouses, and with a deadline of June 1, 2018 for all currently authorized foreign facilities to transition to rotating boxes for use in kosher slaughter.
The chain of events leading to this ban has been swift. The first movements toward tangible repeal of this despicable practice occurred after shocking undercover footage in 2016 captured by PETA and Anonymous for Animal Rights was released, highlighting the singularly grotesque “shackle and hoist” method of slaughter for a wide audience. The undercover videos have given us transparency and indeed, this has been the most explosive exposé of the kosher industry since PETA released the infamous Agriprocessors video over a decade ago. We can’t deny the atrocities. The time when meat conglomerates can obfuscate the truth of their practices is coming to an end. Now we have the choice to be complicit or compassionate.
The process of “shackle and hoist” is as stark as it is cruel. Cows corralled into the abattoir, painfully restrained, their necks slit, and lifted up by one leg to bleed out. Undercover video showed workers then slicing into the animals’ heads, spiking them in the spine, and cutting their legs when the cows were hanging on the rail, still conscious. It is hard to reconcile the Heavenly ideals of kashrut with the barbaric and brutal reality of this practice. The wisdom of Dr. Temple Grandin on this subject of “shackle and hoist” has to be repeated often and loudly: shackle and hoist is “In a category by itself for badness.”
Why should kosher observant consumers care about the methods of animal slaughter? Doesn’t the fact that the meat is kosher attest to its ritual and spiritual forthrightness? Sadly, no. About 80% of the kosher beef in Israel is sourced from South American slaughterhouses that have used this brutal method. How lamentable that the demand for cheap meat has created a cycle of deprivation, suffering, and extraordinary cruelty to innocent creatures. Now, no longer!
The presence of “shackle and hoist” as the primary mechanism to obtain kosher meat has never been solely an issue for Israelis. The majority of foreign kosher beef destined for the American market comes from herds raised and killed in Uruguay and Argentina, where shackling and hoisting is the normal course of operations. Despite promises from American and Israeli authorities to reform the practices at these slaughterhouses after a 2008 video exposed this abuse and a 2010 video showed it continued, the recent 2016 video proved that “shackle and hoist” slaughter for kosher meat is, shamefully, still the standard.
While American kosher certification companies are not allowed to use the “shackle and hoist” method here within the United States, they do regularly certify meat from animals slaughtered in South America by this method; via a regulatory loophole that bypasses animal welfare concerns and labor rights alike. Compared to the ostensibly more humane, but slower and more expensive, rotating box method, “shackle and hoist” is primitive and cheap. As a result, the kosher industry has long endorsed animal suffering in order to produce inexpensive meat.
There is no, and never has been, any ethical justification for this practice.
So why do many of us tolerate the brutality? If the standards in South America are in violation of the fundamental Torah commitment to animal welfare, why do we still permit this meat to reach the plates of kosher-observant consumers? Most disturbing and saddening is the institutional reluctance to activate meaningful policy changes. We’ve often pressed Rabbi Menachem Genack, CEO of the Kosher Division of the Orthodox Union, about the need to implement more ethical strictures in kosher meat supervision and to advocate for the cessation of self-evidently cruel practices. For his part, Rabbi Genack has indicated interest in seeing the kosher meat ecosystem move away from such harrowing and heartbreaking methods of slaughter. But there have been no tangible results and he has made clear that low costs and profits are their priority:
“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 O.U.”
In the past, Rabbi Genack placed the burden of responsibility upon the Chief Rabbinate to be the impetus for the reforms; their unwillingness to enact meaningful change speaks to the deficiency of this deflection. This position has always been opaque: isn’t the OU one of the supreme arbiters of what is and what isn’t kosher? For millions of people around the world, the OU symbol is the gold standard of excellence. How can we — people of conscience — continue to accept the validity of the symbol if the organization behind it has been so far unwilling to go the extra step to ensure that every product is ethically sourced?
The American kosher industry should take this new Israeli policy to heart. It should be a beacon to the kosher industry; a model for demanding more humane methods of kosher slaughter. It should also push American kosher companies in the U.S. to go further. Israel’s new requirement to phase out cruel and archaic facilities means the installation of “rotating” boxes. While this is not ideal (the animals will still be hanging upside down), American kosher authorities don’t require inversion, and thus they should not settle for rotating boxes when there is a more humane option available.
Since the time of Rabbi Genack’s statement about disrupting supply, a new facility called BPU – Breeders and Packers Uruguay – became the only export-eligible facility in South America to conduct standing kosher slaughter, so a ban on “shackle and hoist” would not disrupt supply now as much as it would have nearly a decade ago. In addition to being less cruel, these upright restraint boxes are faster and cheaper than the rotating, upside-down boxes.
With this positive development from Israel, much needed reform in the kosher industry is finally seeing the light of day. While we are far from a world where cruelty to animals is the exception rather than the norm, every step—no matter how minor—is a small miracle. That Israel is finally taking a stand to cease the importation of maliciously-produced meat is a turning point in the conversation. How much longer can the broader world of kosher consumers avoid the reality of how their brisket or roast beef got to their plate? With every step towards reducing unwarranted cruelty to defenseless animals, the more humanity comes closer to the Edenic vision of the world, where everyone lives in harmony, never lacking for compassion and empathy towards their fellow creature.
Ultimately, what does Israel’s ban on “shackle and hoist” meat mean in the greater landscape of the kosher marketplace? The elevation of profits over prophetic kindness towards animals has brought about greater communal introspection about how we think about our food. If economic realities take precedence over adhering to inherent Jewish values, then Jews impede moral progress. Better alternatives are easily accessible if there is a will. The Torah calls for us to be respectful to Creation; embracing harmful methods of death only do a disservice to the calls of compassionate stewardship of the Earth.
Israel has finally shown leadership here and now the U.S. kosher industry must do the same. It is time that this chillul Hashem (disgrace to God) be reversed to be a kiddush Hashem (act of holiness).