Armed with a stomach-turning, clandestinely made videotape and statements from two foreign rabbis, a leading animal-rights organization is accusing the world’s largest glatt kosher slaughterhouse of violating both American and Jewish laws mandating the humane slaughter of animals.
The allegations are being leveled by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals against AgriProcessors, an Iowa-based firm that markets its meat under the Rubashkin and Aaron’s Best brands.
The film, which was made by a PETA volunteer who had been hired to work in the plant’s sausage department, focuses primarily on the slaughter of a procession of steers. In the video, the animals are loaded, one by one, into a mechanized device, called a Weinberg pen, which rotates the animal upside down so as to facilitate the slitting of the throat. Though common in kosher slaughterhouses in Israel and Europe, AgriProcessors is the only facility in the United States to employ the device.
The flap is the latest in a long string of controversies involving the AgriProcessors plant in Postville, Iowa, which is manned by hundreds of Lubavitcher Hasidim who moved to the town from Brooklyn, N.Y., in 1987. For the most part, the problems have involved clashes with local residents. In this case, however, the plant finds itself at ground zero of a battle with potential international ramifications.
Defenders of the company, including noted Orthodox attorney Nathan Lewin and representatives of the organizations responsible for certifying the kashrut of the plant’s meat, conceded that the footage in the PETA video can be jarring to those unfamiliar with the slaughtering process. Still, they insisted, the process captured in the footage is consistent with both the letter and spirit of American and Jewish law.
According to the laws of shechita, or Jewish ritual slaughter, an animal’s throat must be slit by a trained butcher, or shochet, with a knife that is free of blemish and with an incision that cuts through the esophagus and trachea and causes instantaneous death. The rabbinic thinking, for millennia, has been that this is the way to ensure the least amount of suffering on the animal’s part.
The problem, according to some who have seen the PETA video, is that the animals shown in it appear to be in pain. After the incision is made, the Weinberg pen returns the animal to an upright position and then releases it onto the slaughterhouse floor, where it will writhe and wriggle, with some even managing to stand up and stumble around for a half minute or longer.
“I certainly saw enough evidence of mobility on the part of the animal to conclude that it is not dead,” said Rabbi David Rosen, former chief rabbi of Ireland and one of the rabbis whose comments are used in PETA’s literature. Also troubling for Rosen was what he saw as the “pulling out of the trachea and esophagus by hand” after the incision had been made. “I’ve been in many slaughterhouses in my time,” he said, “and I’ve never seen anything like that.” On the whole, Rosen concluded, what is shown in the video is a “flagrant violation” of Jewish law, or halacha.
Rosen is the international director of interreligious affairs of the American Jewish Committee, but said that he was not speaking on behalf of the organization. Some in the AgriProcessors camp have questioned his objectivity, noting that he is a vegetarian.
PETA, which drew criticism for a previous campaign comparing the slaughter of animals to the Holocaust, also claims the support of a second religious figure, Shear Yashuv Cohen, chief rabbi of Haifa. But Cohen, arguing that he was approached by PETA under false pretenses, has distanced himself from comments attributed to him by the animal-rights organization.
The organization was condemned by a leading ultra-Orthodox organization, Agudath Israel of America, in a statement describing PETA as “devious and unscrupulous.”
Officials with the agencies that provide the company with kosher certification maintain that movements of the animals after their release from the pen should not be equated with the movements of a sensate being. “These are reflex reactions, like chickens with their heads cut off,” said Rabbi Menachem Genack, head of the kashrut department of the Orthodox Union. “What you see in that video does not necessarily demonstrate pain to the animal.”
Rabbi Chaim Kohn, who oversees kashrut for AgriProcessors, argued that post-incision movement is actually rarer than the PETA video would suggest. What some had described as the “pulling out” of the trachea actually was an attempt at moving the severed tube aside in order to better cut the ceratoid artery so as to quicken the loss of blood necessary for a complete cessation of movement, he said.
The company’s supporters argued repeatedly that while kosher slaughter looks worse, it is possibly more humane than other methods of slaughter.
Ultimately, Kohn said, the PETA case might have more to do with human sensitivities than with animal ones. “One who views the video may be pained by what he sees,” he said. “But that’s not the point. The point is what the animal is feeling.”