Friday, April 29, 2011

Maximizing Animal Welfare in Kosher Slaughter

By Temple Grandin
Published April 27, 2011

There are legislative attempts around the world to require stunning of animals prior to religious slaughter. I do not get involved in the politics of this issue, but the following discussion may help clarify where there are problem areas.

Over the past 30 years I have worked closely with the kosher industry to ensure that religious slaughter is performed in as humane a manner as possible. The issue of stunning, in my view, is not the most important issue when it comes to ensuring the welfare of animals before they are slaughtered. But it is critical to recognize that performing kosher slaughter with an acceptable level of welfare does require more attention to the procedure’s details than slaughter in which the animal is stunned.

There are two animal welfare issues when slaughter is performed without stunning. They are the method used to restrain the animal and the throat cut itself.

These issues are particularly relevant when it comes to cattle. Poultry can be slaughtered easily with a sharp knife, and there is no need for stunning. Sheep are smaller than cattle and easier to restrain and kill quickly. A lamb that is slaughtered with a sharp knife out on the farm, even without stunning, probably has better welfare than a lamb that has to ride on a truck to a slaughter plant. Due to anatomical differences in the blood vessels in the neck, cattle take twice as long as sheep to lose consciousness after the cut, and their size makes them difficult to restrain.

Some of the worst animal welfare problems in the kosher industry are the stressful methods of restraint that are still being used in some slaughterhouses. In the United States, there are still some kosher plants that hoist conscious animals by one rear leg. Fortunately, most of the large American kosher plants have stopped using this traumatic method.

In South American kosher slaughterhouses, however, the handling practices are often atrocious. The live cattle are shackled and dragged and then held down by several people. The methods of restraint are so bad that it is impossible to determine how the animal is reacting to the throat cut. Large amounts of kosher beef are imported into this country from plants that are using these barbaric methods of restraint.

Even when a plant has decent restraint equipment to hold the animal in a more comfortable position, it needs to be operated correctly. This requires management that is committed to good animal treatment.

I have observed that when kosher slaughter of cattle is done well, there is almost no reaction from the animal when the throat is cut. Flicking my hand near the animal’s face caused a bigger reaction. When the cut is done well, 90% or more of the cattle will collapse and become unconscious within 30 seconds.

There are new scientific studies that show there are welfare concerns when animals are slaughtered without stunning. New Zealand researchers conducted a study on calves with a new EEG brain wave method that indicated that the knife cut caused pain. In this study, however, they used a machine-sharpened knife that may have been too short. A knife that is too short will cause gouging of the wound. The results of this study clearly show that the knife they used was not acceptable. To this date, a similar study has not been done with the special long kosher knife.

Another study has shown that one of the most difficult welfare problems to solve is aspiration (inhaling) of blood into the lungs after the cut. Cattle continue to breathe after the throat is cut. There is much variation in the percentage of animals that aspirate blood. It may be possible to improve methods and reduce this problem. Aspiration of blood is an issue that must be fixed to have an acceptable level of welfare. It will require both research and practical experimentation with technique to solve this problem.

Finally, there needs to be accountability to ensure that both restraint and slaughter are done correctly. Over the years, I have become disgusted by the frequency with which procedures in a given plant seem perfect when I am visiting, but as soon as I have left an undercover video surfaces that reveals bad practices. This has happened in both conventional and religious slaughter plants.

To prevent this problem, I am a big advocate of video auditing over the Internet. An outside auditing company can view video from a plant and evaluate its practices using an objective scoring system. Some of the variables that can be measured are electric prod use, percentage of cattle vocalizing (bellowing) and acts of abuse. Video auditing is now being used in many large, conventional slaughter plants. Unfortunately, all kosher plants have resisted video auditing.

Kosher slaughter of cattle requires special care. While some kosher plants have done well, and many others are improving, too often kosher plants have been very badly managed compared to many of the big conventional plants.

In order to maximize animal welfare, kosher slaughterhouses need to take the following steps: 1) eliminate stressful cruel methods of restraint such as dragging, shackling and hoisting or leg clamping; 2) keep animals calm before slaughter, since an agitated animal is more difficult to kill and takes longer to become unconscious; 3) perform the cut immediately after an animal’s head is restrained; 4) use restraining devices that hold animals in a comfortable upright position; 5) perform collapse scoring to keep track of the proportion of animals that quickly lose consciousness; 6) use video auditing by an outside firm, and practice transparency by streaming the video to a webpage so that the public can view it.

Adhering to these practices would enhance animal welfare, and all these steps could be implemented without transgressing the requirements of religious law. The kosher industry has an opportunity to show the world that it is doing things the right way.
Temple Grandin is a professor of animal science at Colorado State University and a designer of livestock handling facilities. She is the author of “Animals Make Us Human: Creating the Best Life for Animals” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009).

Monday, January 10, 2011

Kosher Gets Ethical

A new standard is about to remake American Jews’ dietary code.


Kosher is about to get an American makeover. Sometime between Passover and Chanukah 2011, a new social responsibility certification—the Magen Tzedek (Star of Justice)—is expected to begin appearing on the labels of selected kosher food products throughout the United States.

Kosher products are those that meet the standards of kashrus, Jewish dietary law prescribing what foods or combination of foods are permissible or prohibited to eat. Pork and shellfish are forbidden. Meat and dairy products cannot be mixed. Ingredients and processes must be inspected to make certain that nothing prohibited is introduced. Even otherwise permissible meat is kosher only if slaughtered, processed and inspected according to specific procedures under the supervision of a specially trained rabbi. Some orthodox Jews insist on an additional set of inspections involving examination of the lungs and internal organs to make certain that they are smooth—glatt—and free of punctures or disease.

Kosher food is a $250 billion business, accounting for approximately 40 percent of all packaged foods sold in the United States. That makes kosher certification—by agencies specializing in rabbinic supervision of kashrus compliance—a big enterprise as well. By far the largest certifier of domestic kosher products is the nonprofit Orthodox Union, whose U inside an O symbol appears on more than 400,000 products, including Land O’ Lakes butter, Golden West beef, Jolt energy drinks, Oreo cookies, Glenmorangie Single Malt Scotch and Blue Bunny ice cream.

Those who remember the 1970s television ad for Hebrew National hot dogs (“We answer to a higher authority!”) can be forgiven for assuming that current kosher certification explicitly mandates labor standards, hygienic conditions and environmental ethics surpassing federal or state requirements. It does not.

Magen Tzedek certification, say its developers, is intended to assure purchasers that a kashrus-compliant product also conforms to Biblical and Talmudic ethical values and standards regarding the treatment of workers, animal welfare, environmental impact and fair business dealings. Criteria for product certification include: living-wage compensation and decent benefits, neutrality in labor organizing drives, documented compliance with EPA and OSHA regulations, adherence to humane animal treatment and farm standards, responsible energy and water consumption, use of sustainable materials and alternative fuels, and fair treatment of immigrant workers.

The new certification is now in beta testing, with an expected market rollout sometime during the coming year, says Rabbi Morris Allen, who is working with Cornell University meat science professor Joe Regenstein and Social Accountability International to ready the standard for market. The spiritual leader of the Beth Jacob Congregation in Mendota Heights, Minn., Allen has a history of involvement as a pulpit rabbi in issues such as prison reform and immigrants rights, and has been leading the push for Magen Tzedek during the last five years.

It has been a polarizing effort. Some Jewish leaders believe the new standard is redundant and unnecessary. Rabbi Avi Shafran, spokesperson for Agudath Israel of America—a leading fundamentalist Orthodox religious, educational and advocacy organization—isn’t convinced that kashrus needs yet another certification. “I think that many consumers have no reason to distrust the government agencies and law enforcement agencies as adequate safeguards for all those areas,” he says. “I know of no halachic [pertaining to Jewish law] opinion requiring a kosher consumer to try to ensure that companies go beyond what governmental rules require of them.”

Rabbi Menachem Genack, one of the foremost experts of kashrus certification in the world and the Rabbinic Administrator and CEO of the Orthodox Union’s kashrus program, is “keeping an open mind.” Under his leadership, the Orthodox Union will allow the Magen Tzedek to be placed on labels next to the familiar OU logo.

Allen is determined to bring the new kosher standard to grocery store shelves around the country. “We have one chance to do this right,” he insists. “We as a people should not be more concerned about the smoothness of a cow’s lung than the safety of a worker’s hand.”

Louis Nayman is a longtime union organizer. The views expressed are his own.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Jews Ready To Roll Out New 'Ethical Kosher' Seals

By Nicole Neroulias
Religion News Service

NEW YORK (RNS) What does it really mean for your Hebrew National hot dog to "answer to a higher authority?"

For years, it's meant a kosher certification that ensured Jewish (and non-Jewish) consumers were buying a product that met strict religious standards for slaughter and preparation that went beyond government requirements.

Now a controversial Jewish movement believes kosher food must meet an even higher ethical ideal -- and they're rolling out a stamp of approval to make it official.

The new Magen Tzedek "seal of justice," developed by Conservative Judaism's Hekhsher Tzedek Commission will be tested on at least two kosher food companies in early 2011.

Standards and fees will be adjusted after 10 weeks of reviewing a host of conditions -- including labor, animal welfare, consumer rights, corporate integrity and environmental impact -- and analyzed by a New York-based auditing firm, said Rabbi Morris Allen, the project's

The new seal is a response to poor labor and animal welfare practices at the now-defunct Agriprocessors meat plant in Postville, Iowa, which had earned a kosher stamp of approval from Orthodox rabbis.

The dueling kosher certifications have opened a rift between Hekhsher Tzedek's Conservative backers and Orthodox Jews, who control most existing kosher standards and are the largest consumers of kosher products.

Kosher certification, now available from hundreds of agencies and stamped on more than one-third of American food products, costs anywhere from a few hundred to tens of thousands of dollars, depending on a company's size.

The new, supplemental Magen Tzedek approval will probably cost in the "low-to-mid-four figures," Allen estimates, which shouldn't result in higher prices for kosher foods.

What may raise the price, however, is if a company needs to improve conditions to meet ethical standards.

"If the company wants our seal and they're paying (workers) poorly, they may have to raise their compensation to their employees, and those sort of things," Allen said. "But most companies that are already being good food production companies, it will be a negligible cost."

Critics say the new ethical kosher movement is an unnecessary layer of bureaucracy in an industry that's already under government regulation. The (Orthodox) Rabbinical Council of America released its own kosher ethical guidelines last January, but emphasized that food
supervisors don't have the expertise to recognize or handle illegal or unethical business practices.

Kosher certifications usually pay for themselves through increased market share, and skeptics are doubtful the industry will see the same benefits in a second ethical seal, on top of meeting federal USDA and work-safety requirements.

"Companies already have enough on their hands," said Rabbi Menachem Genack, the rabbinic administrator of the Orthodox Union's kosher division, which had certified Agriprocessors. "We think that the government agencies have the experience and resources to do that better than us."

Menachem Lubinsky, editor of Kosher Today and president of LUBICOM Marketing Consulting, which specializes in the kosher food industry, said most companies don't want yet another symbol on their packaging, and that the Magen Tzedek stamp may even prompt a backlash from Orthodox consumers.

"There's a perspective that those companies will be seen as having caved in to Conservative demands and being more left-leaning," he said, adding that smaller kosher producers won't be able to afford or compete with Magen Tzedek's requirements.

"(Consumers) see this as being superfluous and they have full faith in the government to protect them," he added. "There are always problems slipping through the cracks ... but (ethical kosher) would unfairly burden the small producers."

Allen maintains that it's not enough to merely expect kosher food companies to meet or exceed government workplace standards, just as Jews don't leave it to state laws to ensure that food advertised as kosher is actually kosher.

"The government is oftentimes stretched, and is not able to do the kinds of inspections that should take place," Allen said. "For us, these are religious issues, no less than certifying the ritual nature of the product. It's our responsibility to see that in the production of kosher
food, the ethical demands of the Jewish people are also being met."

Allen also dismisses critics who say Conservative Jews are trying to compete with, or supplant, the Orthodox in policing the kosher food industry.

"As far as I know," he said, "there's no unique responsibility for only the Orthodox to be involved in determining standards."

The movement does have some support among the Orthodox, including Uri L'Tzedek, an Orthodox initiative that aims to ensure that kosher restaurants pay minimum wage and overtime.

Since its debut in May 2009, about 60 kosher eateries in America have earned the group's Tav HaYosher seal. Director Rabbi Ari Weiss said several restaurant owners have told him that the ethical seal has improved business among customers who care about fair workplace standards.

The same may hold true for ethical kosher food products, he said.

"We see it as bringing ethics and ethical consumption into the Jewish marketplace," Weiss said. "In any community, there are bad actors and good actors ... We're asking them to abide by the law. Nothing more, nothing less."

Despite resistance from the Orthodox, ethical-kosher supporter say their efforts will appeal to the wider spectrum of Jewish and even non-Jewish consumers who care that their food comes from a place that paid, not just prayed, properly.

"At the end of the day, it's a win-win for the kosher food industry," Allen said, "because for some people, our symbol will be the only symbol that they will care about.