Kosher’s Not So Kosher for the Animals – Part Two

four kosher symbols

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.

Kosher’s Not So Kosher for the Animals – Part One

(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.)

2 thoughts on “Kosher’s Not So Kosher for the Animals – Part Two

  1. Condemning an entire group because of the actions of a few is a big no-no. Just because unethical acts were discovered in one Kosher slaughterhouse does not mean that all Kosher slaughter is unethical. I discussed your blog with a well-known Orthodox Rabbi in Israel who said, “Judaism is very severe in its prohibition of cruelty to animals. The fact that big companies make compromises doesn’t make them right. I also saw the PETA movie on slaughter in America, and it was disgusting. In true kosher slaughter, the animal or bird doesn’t feel a thing – the Torah requires us to be humane.” There are many, many shochets (Kosher ritual slaughterers) who use the utmost care and respect (demanded by the Torah) when shechting (slaughtering).

    With regard to the efforts to ban Kosher slaughter in Europe: If you think that the slaughter houses in Norway, Iceland, Germany, Sweden, or the UK are any more humane to their victims than the Kosher ones, I suggest you go and visit them. Then do a Kosher comparison. Inferring that Kosher slaughter is banned because it is inhumane is ridiculous. I could understand the ban if these countries were banning all other kinds of slaughter, too, but why just Kosher? If you ban one, then ban them all!! Do you really think that Jewish slaughterers are less compassionate than gentile ones? It is obvious that the reasons are socio-economic, political, and anti-Semitic, and have nothing at all to do with animal compassion.

    Meanwhile, here are just a few facts that you may not be aware of:

    * Did you know that most Kosher slaughter is done in a regular (non-Kosher) slaughter house by independent shochets (ritual slaughterers)? (Not in giant, Kosher slaughter-houses.)
    * Did you know that giraffe is Kosher, but because the neck is so long, it is impossible to shecht (slaughter ritually) it without causing it pain, and therefore it is never eaten by religious Jews. Can you name any other group of people who will not kill something and eat it because they are not exactly sure that it will not suffer?
    * Because of its innate cruelty, hunting for sport is strictly forbidden by Jewish law.
    * Did you know that in Europe, (where they are trying to ban Kosher slaughter), a delicacy of monkey brains, eaten out of the head of a LIVE monkey is often served in the most fancy restaurants?
    * Are you aware that in Iceland, (also mentioned in your blog as a place trying to ban Kosher slaughter), the still-warm heart of the Puffin is eaten straight out of the bird?
    * In Germany, (also mentioned in the blog), the conditions in many of the non-Kosher slaughter-houses (including the “organic” ones) are absolutely horrific. I will not disgust you with the details.

    I think there is a lot more research needed on this topic before it can be discussed with any authority. I have two Rabbis who would be happy to speak to you: One who works in the Star-K, a well known and much trusted Kosher certification organization, and another who is a shochet (ritual slaughterer).

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