O.U. Reverses Stance on Slaughterhouse

By Gabriel Sanders

Published December 10, 2004, issue of December 10, 2004.
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In a significant shift, the Orthodox Union has moved from supporting the controversial practices employed by a kosher slaughterhouse under its supervision to requesting that certain of these practices be changed.

The move came amid a furious publicity blitz conducted by the animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. Armed with a clandestinely made videotape, the group, known as PETA, charged that the Postville, Iowa-based AgriProcessors meatpacking plant was employing inhumane slaughtering practices.

AgriProcessors, which markets its meat under the Aaron’s Best brand, is the world’s largest glatt kosher slaughterhouse.

The videotape featured difficult-to-watch footage of steers limping around the slaughterhouse floor — in some cases for more than a minute after their throats had been slit. It prompted the U.S. Department of Agriculture to send a team of inspectors to the site and also caused concern among the Orthodox Union’s own constituency of consumers of kosher goods both in the United States and Israel.

PETA had filed complaints with the USDA against both AgriProcessors and the O.U., the world’s largest kosher certifying authority and an organization representing about 1,000 congregations.

When the story first broke last week, O.U. officials told the Forward and other media outlets that, while sure to be jarring to those unfamiliar with kosher slaughter, what was captured on the videotape was in keeping with both the letter and spirit of Jewish law.

But in an interview published in the December 3 New York Times, the O.U.’s executive vice president, Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, appeared to take the opposite view, saying the video “raises all sorts of questions.” Particularly objectionable, he said, was the apparent tearing out of the trachea and esophagus of the animals before movement had ceased. This procedure was “especially inhumane” and “generally unacceptable,” he said.

PETA representatives seemed pleased by the O.U.’s reversal.

“We were pretty stunned that their position now was not their initial position,” PETA spokesman Bruce Friedrich said.

As it stands now, the O.U. position seems to rest on a distinction between what constitutes kosher slaughter and what is humane slaughter. According to the O.U., one can have the former without the latter.

“In terms of kashrus, the plant was very much in order,” said Rabbi Menachem Genack, head of the O.U.’s kashrut department and a member of an O.U. delegation that visited the Iowa plant early this week. “I was impressed with the commitment of the personnel to kashrus.”

It is in the realm of trying to make slaughter more humane that the O.U. has now recommended refinements to the AgriProcessors model.

The first, and perhaps most significant, of these is that the plant no longer will allow an animal’s trachea to be pulled at as a means of gaining better access to the carotid arteries.

What will make this possible is that a second incision will be administered so as to ensure that the carotid arteries are spliced cleanly and that the animal looses its blood as quickly as possible. The hope is to limit the sort of post-incision movement that was seen on the PETA video.

The O.U. has also now allowed for animals to be stunned in the event that they continue to move for long after their throats are cut.

Orthodox authorities have in the past been wary of introducing stun guns into the slaughtering process, for stunning the animal before an incision is made will render it unkosher.

The O.U.’s reversal comes as the organization was already scrambling to extinguish a separate controversy. The organization’s new president, Stephen J. Savitsky, placed an advertisement in the Jerusalem Post in which he apologized for earlier remarks to the newspaper that were widely interpreted as a swipe at immigrants who came to Israel many years ago. Savitsky had been quoted as saying: “Years ago, aliya (immigration to Israel) was for people who were running away from something. They weren’t successful. They didn’t have a successful marriage. They were coming because there was a reason. They weren’t role models.”

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