June 20th, 2013
RABBI SHMULY YANKLOWITZ
More than a century ago, Americans became outraged after investigative journalists (derisively called “muckrakers” at first) and novelists uncovered the deplorable conditions under which slaughterhouses operated. The alarming reports of unsanitary slaughtering and processing techniques led to passage of the first legislation to ensure the inspection of meat so as to prevent consumers from coming to harm, and for decades afterward the incidence of food poisoning diminished. At that time, neither the animals who were killed at these plants, nor the workers who labored there, garnered much attention. In this century, a new movement has emerged, one of men and women who stand for the humane treatment of animals, including those that are slaughtered. Some critics argue that there is no such thing as humane slaughter; interestingly, rabbis in Israel have weighed in on this issue during a current legal case.
The animal rights group Anonymous for Animal Rights recently exposed the significant animal abuse at Israel’s largest supplier of animal-based foods. In December 2012, Israeli television broadcast scenes of animal cruelty at the Tnuva Food Industries Adom Adom slaughterhouse in Beit She’an, clandestinely documented over a month and a half by journalist and animal rights advocate Ronen Bar. Many viewers expressed shock at the secret video that showed workers using a forklift to drag animals by one leg, clubbing calves and lambs, throwing lambs in the air, and hanging the still-conscious animals upside down after they were slaughtered. The police subsequently confiscated an electric cattle prod, rods, and ropes that were apparently used to torture the animals.
When Perach Amzaleg and Ruth Kolian moved to file separate class action suits this May against Tnuva Food Industries for the animal abuse that had been exposed in these reports, there was a surprising turn of events from the company, which acknowledged and defended the cruelty at its Bet She’an slaughterhouse.
In the hearing, the plaintiffs argued that Tnuva promoted a false image of strict observance of regulations and that it treated animals humanely, whereas the video clips showed that they abused calves and lambs on a regular basis. Thus, Tnuva had promoted consumer deception to illegally profit from the public, as many people would refuse to buy Tnuva’s meat if they knew how the animals were treated. In response, Tnuva stated to the court that unlike other industries, where the consumer could be assured that workers were being treated fairly, “the consumer of meat products cannot make a similar assumption […] since slaughtering by its very nature causes the animals great suffering.”
Aviad Amzaleg, Perach’s attorney and husband, told the court that Tnuva misrepresented itself in commercials that claimed it followed regulations for quality and hygiene: “Not only is the slaughter process at the plant not of high quality, it is also not under the supervision of inspection agencies and is in violation of regulations.”
The other plaintiff, Ruth Kolian, an ultra-Orthodox Jew, offered a religious objection to Tnuva’s practices: “We have a holy Torah, and it explicitly prohibits animal cruelty.” She obtained rulings from the Ashkenazi Eda Haredit slaughter board and Sephardi rabbi Shlomo Yosef Mahfoud that unnecessary cruelty to animals would make that meat unkosher. Kolian maintained that every observant Jew would be horrified to see the cruelty exhibited at the Adom Adom plant.
In reply, Tnuva argued that people would have been horrified even if they had seen “the usual, violent procedure in accordance with the regulations concerning the animals at the time of their slaughter, the legality of which is not in dispute.” Tnuva maintained that consumers do not want to know how their meat is produced, so they can “enjoy the product while repressing the thought that their enjoyment entails causing suffering to a living creature.”
In addition, Tnuva pointed out that methods to reduce animal suffering at the time of slaughter, such as the stun methods promoted by the World Organization for Animal Health, “are incompatible with the Jewish kashrut laws requiring the animal to be fully conscious at the time of slaughter and which Tnuva observes so that the factory’s products can be sold as kosher.” It was supported in its position by Israel’s Chief Rabbinate, which examined the video but decided not to withdraw Adom Adom’s kashrut certification.
It is interesting that Tnuva, in its response, included two fascinating letters by rabbis. Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger wants to state the problem of animal abuse but in the end knows that kashrut concerns are still the strongest legal argument for why this abuse is unacceptable. He wrote:
Therefore it is required that if the Kashrut staff notices an abuse against a beast, it should be marketed as treif, if not for any other reason than for the concern that damage might have been caused to its internal organs which might make it treif.
Then Rabbi Machfud, the lead kosher supervisor for Tnuva, argued that kashrut and good treatment toward animals are directly interconnected:
Everyone who studies knows that animal suffering, if not for the needs of man, is forbidden from the Torah. And whoever causes animal suffering not for the needs of man should be warned according to the law, because you do not punish without warning. And if he still does not obey, and does not listen, one should withdraw the kashrut from him without delay and announce it in the customary way.
The stakes in the class action suits are high. Amzaleg wants NIS 200 million damages for all the consumers who purchased products produced at the Adom Adom plant and who suffered emotional distress from viewing the video of animal cruelty. Kolian is requesting NIS 100 million damages for the approximately 200,000 people (average NIS 500 per capita) who consumed these products. Both plaintiffs have pledged to donate any damages to organizations that promote animal welfare. For its part, Tnuva claims that the incident happened in 2012 and that it has addressed the complaints, although it has been reported that the employees who committed the abuses were still working at the plant. Rabbis have submitted rulings on both sides of the case, acknowledging that cruelty can render meat treif, both in the law’s letter and in its spirit.
It is, of course, not just Tnuva and they are correct in their claim that the suffering is inevitable. We have all become painfully aware at how rampant the abuses are in today’s factory farming industry and we must take a spiritual accounting of this new reality. Meat eaters have a great challenge to obviate the dilemma of either pretending that they do not know how animals are slaughtered versus the risk of becoming morally and spiritually desensitized to violence if they view and approve of the slaughtering process. We dare not live in ignorance or apathy.