Videos Cited in Calling Kosher Slaughterhouse Inhumane

By DONALD G. McNEIL Jr

New York Times

December 1, 2004

An animal rights group released grisly undercover videotapes yesterday showing steers in a major kosher slaughterhouse in Iowa staggering and bellowing long after their throats were cut.

The plant, run by AgriProcessors Inc. in Postville, Iowa, is being denounced as inhumane by the group, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, and by several experts on animal science and kosher practice.

But the plant's supervising rabbi said the tapes were "testimony that this is being done right." And representatives of the Orthodox Union, the leading organization that certifies kosher products, said that while the pictures were not pretty, they did not make the case that the slaughterhouse had violated kosher law.

The plant is the country's largest producer of meat certified as glatt kosher, the highest standard for cleanliness under kosher law. ("Glatt" means smooth, or free of the lung blemishes that might indicate disease.) Employing 600 people and selling under the popular Aaron's Best brand, it is the only American plant allowed to export to Israel.

On the 30-minute tape, each animal is placed in a rotating drum so it can be killed while upside down, as required by Orthodox rabbis in Israel. Immediately after the ritual slaughterer, or shochet, has slit the throat, another worker tears open each steer's neck with a hook and pulls out the trachea and esophagus. The drum turns, and the steer is dumped on the floor. One after another, animals with dangling windpipes stand up or try to; in one case, death takes three minutes.

In most kosher plants, animals are tightly penned while their throats are slashed, and the organs are not torn; tearing by the shochet is forbidden under Jewish law. In nonkosher plants, animals by law must be made unconscious before they are killed.

Virtually all defenders of kosher slaughter, called shechita, insist that the prescribed rapid cut with a razor-sharp two-foot blade is humane because it causes instant and painless death. Jewish law forbids killing injured or sick animals, so they may not be stunned first, either with clubs as in ancient times or with air hammers, pistols or electricity today.

Federal law views properly conducted religious slaughter as humane, and so allows Jewish and Muslim slaughterhouses to forgo stunning. But the rules outlaw leaving animals killed that way conscious "for an extended period of time."

Rabbi Chaim Kohn, of the AgriProcessors plant, says the steers feel nothing, even as they struggle on the floor and slam their heads into walls. "Unconsciousness and the external behavior of the animal have nothing to do with shechita," he said.

Because the throat-tearing happens after the shochet's cut, the rabbi said, it does not render the animal nonkosher.

Other experts in kosher law were divided on the issue. Rabbis Menachem Genack and Yisroel Belsky, the chief experts for the Orthodox Union, which certifies more than 600,000 products as kosher, including Aaron's Best meats, said the killings on the tape, while "gruesome," appeared kosher because the shochet checked to make sure he had severed both the trachea and esophagus.

Scientific studies, Rabbi Belsky said, found that an animal whose brain had lost blood pressure when its throat was slit felt nothing and that any motions it made were involuntary.

"The perfect model is the headless chicken running around," Rabbi Genack said.

Both rabbis said they were willing to revisit the plant and study whether tearing the throat or letting steers thrash on the ground violated Talmudic proscriptions against cruelty.

The union, they said, prefers a type of pen designed by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, in which steers are killed standing up with their weight supported. They were designed in the 1950's so American kosher plants could stop killing live animals suspended on chains.

But a spokesman for Shechita U.K., a British group that defends ritual slaughter against the protests of animal rights advocates, said after watching the tape with a rabbi and a British shochet that he "felt queasy," and added, "I don't know what that is, but it's not shechita."

The spokesman, Shimon Cohen, said that in Britain an animal must be restrained for 30 seconds to bleed, and no second cut is allowed. Done correctly, Mr. Cohen said, a shochet's cut must produce instantaneous unconsciousness, so AgriProcessors' meat could not be considered kosher.

Asked how top authorities could disagree over such a fundamental issue, he replied: "Well, we don't have a pope. You do find rabbis who interpret things in different ways."

Dr. Temple Grandin, a veterinarian at Colorado State University who designs humane slaughter plants, viewed the tape last week without knowing the location. She called it "an atrocious abomination, nothing like I've seen in 30 kosher plants I've visited here and in England, France, Ireland and Canada."

Dr. Grandin said the throat-tearing violated federal anticruelty law. "Nothing in the Humane Slaughter Act says you can start dismembering an animal while it's still conscious," she said.

A spokesman for the Department of Agriculture, which also certifies the plant, said it had not received the tapes yet and had no comment.

Rabbi Kohn, of AgriProcessors, said the throat-tearing was done only to speed bleeding. Recent federal rules for slaughterhouse inspectors do recognize "the ritual cut and any additional cut to facilitate bleeding" as different from skinning or butchering, which is forbidden "until the animal is insensible."

The plant is at the center of a 2000 book, "Postville: A Clash of Cultures in Heartland America," by Stephen G. Bloom, which described the tensions in the tiny farming town between residents and Hasidic Jews from Brooklyn who took over its defunct slaughterhouse in 1987.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, known as PETA, posted the tapes at GoVeg.com yesterday and demanded that the plant be prosecuted for animal cruelty and decertified by the kosher authorities. While the group advocates vegetarianism, it accepts that shechita can be relatively painless, said Bruce Friedrich, a spokesman.

Mr. Friedrich said that after two fruitless years of pressing AgriProcessors to improve conditions, PETA sent a volunteer to the plant with a hidden camera for seven weeks last summer.

The cameraman, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said he had no trouble being hired (he was assigned to the sausage department) or filming during his lunch hours and on days he called in sick.

"I'm glad I did it," said the young man, who became a vegetarian and volunteered for undercover work two years ago after seeing a PETA videotape.