If you haven’t already, please read Part One.
The slaughter of animals according to kosher law is called shechita. In contrast with standard humane practice in the U.S., even in factory farms, the animal is not stunned insensate prior to slaughter. The conscious animal’s throat is cut by drawing a very sharp knife across it. Most animal welfare groups object to kosher slaughter because it can take several minutes for the animal to die, since the spinal cord is not severed completely at the first cut.
Jews have historically insisted on compassion for animals. The concept, in Hebrew, is called tsa’ar ba’alei chaim. But it seems to me that the Orthodox rabbis heading the governing bodies of the kosher industry are focused more on the letter of the law and less on its spirit. The goal should be to make the ancient laws of kashrut relevant to modern life (or, more to the point, modern agribusiness).
Kosher slaughter is prohibited in Iceland and Norway, slaughterhouse workers in Germany and Sweden have held strikes in protest against shechita, and the United Kingdom forbids shechita while the animal is lying on its back (known as “shackling and hoisting,” this method is part of the traditional practice of shechita). Temple Grandin has weighed in, too. Dr. Grandin, an animal scientist and leading designer of slaughterhouses, explains that when the cut is done correctly, the animal appears not to feel it. From an animal welfare standpoint, her concern is the stressful and cruel method of restraint used in some plants. Here’s what Dr. Grandin has observed:
- When animals are led quietly into a restraining device in which they stand upright, into a frame that supplies chin and head support, the animals have little or no reaction to the cut. When a shochet uses a rapid cutting stroke under these conditions, 95% of calves collapse almost immediately.
- However, where there is a poorly designed restraining device or the animal is shackled and hoisted, the cattle may react vigorously during the cut, kicking, twisting and occasionally going into spasms.
- The problem is that some rabbinical authorities prefer an inverted restraint method that allows the shochet to cut downward, because they are concerned that an upward cut may violate the Jewish rule forbidding excessive pressure on the knife. There is concern that the animal may push downward on the knife during an upward cut. But observations indicate that just the opposite happens. When bulls are held in a pneumatically powered head restraint in which they can easily move, the animals pull their heads upwards away from the knife during a mis-cut, reducing pressure on the blade.
All of this raises two questions: How often is the cut done incorrectly, and how often are poorly designed or inverted methods of restraint (or shackling and hoisting) used? Good luck finding this information.
Short of personally witnessing the moment of death, it’s impossible to know how the kosher meat on your plate was slaughtered. The same is true for any meat, of course. If we’re concerned about animal welfare, our decision to eat a specific piece of meat comes down to trust. Do we trust the rabbis who assign kosher seals? Do we trust corporations like McDonald’s, whose “humane auditors” are employed by the same companies that manufacture its hamburger patties? Temple Grandin? Animal welfare groups who audit farms and slaughterhouses for humane practices? The farmer at the farmers’ market who describes directly to the customer how she raises her chickens?
Personally, I tend to trust the last three parties listed above. But deciding who to trust can be difficult. How do you know you’ve made the right decision? In this regard, I envy those whose religious faith makes such decisions a lot easier.
(Stay tuned for a piece by my friend Semil Shah on growing up “beyond vegetarian” as a Jain Buddhist. And please feel free to comment on the way this issue relates to your own religion or belief system.)