Practices at the glatt kosher Iowa slaughterhouse once home to the scandal-ridden Agriprocessors meatpacking firm are improving, observers and plant operators say. But some techniques employed at the plant continue to draw criticism from activists.
Agriprocessors, once the country’s largest kosher slaughter operation, went bankrupt in the wake of a 2008 immigration raid at its Postville, Iowa plant. It was, at the time, the largest such raid in the nation’s history. Previous investigations had uncovered significant animal welfare and worker-safety issues there.
Then, in 2009, the plant was bought by another firm and reopened under the name Agri Star. The new firm undertook significant reforms at the plant. But the slaughterhouse continues to use a high-tech pen to flip cattle upside down before they are killed. It’s a practice animal welfare experts deem acceptable, if not ideal. But activists with groups such as People for Ethical Treatment of Animals decry the practice as unnecessarily cruel.
“We prefer to do standing shechita,” said Menachem Genack, rabbinic administrator of the Orthodox Union’s kosher division, referring to the upright pen method of slaughter that is considered the humane gold standard. But the O.U., which certifies Agri Star, continues to allow the firm to use the inverting pens.
The Agri Star plant has acceded to a number of animal welfare suggestions made in 2009 and 2010 by PETA, the animal rights group that first exposed some of the abuses taking place at the plant under Agriprocessors. In response to questions submitted by the Forward, Agri Star said in a statement that it had retained an external animal welfare consultant who sends inspectors on unannounced weekly audits of the plant.
Agri Star declined the Forward’s request to speak with the animal welfare consultant, Erika Voogd, citing the confidential nature of the information the firm shares with her.
In its statement, Agri Star wrote that so-called “vibrating prods” were now used as a more humane alternative to electric prods to move cattle into the plant in most cases.
The statement also said that the plant now stuns animals that do not die immediately after slaughter. According to PETA, the plant previously used a rifle to shoot animals that remained conscious after their throats were cut. But workers needed permission to use the rifle, and getting that permission took too long to make the practice effective in reducing suffering, critics said.
Though these are seen as positive steps, Agri Star also continues to use a rotating pen that inverts the cattle for slaughter. The pen is considered a more humane alternative to the previous method, known as shackle and hoist, which subjected the animals to just those actions. But the rotating pen method is also controversial.
“In the big picture, a well-operated upside-down pen is a lot better than a poorly operated upright pen,” said Joe Mac Regenstein, a professor at Cornell University’s Department of Food Science. Comparing a well-operated upright pen with a well-operated upside-down pen, Regenstein said that an upright pen is “clearly better, but not by enough that it’s worth fighting the fervently Orthodox rabbis.”
Hannah Schein, PETA’s manager of undercover operations, said that Agri Star had led PETA to believe that the plant was no longer using the inverting pen. When informed by the Forward that it is still doing so, Schein issued a statement condemning the practice, and condemning the O.U. for continuing to allow it.
“Flipping cattle upside down violates the prohibition of tsa’ar ba’alei chayim — causing unnecessary suffering to animals — and defies the humane kosher slaughter recommendations of renowned animal welfare experts such as Dr. Temple Grandin,” Schein wrote.
Agri Star defended its practices. “We are confident that the steps we have taken significantly improved the conditions in our facility,” the company said in its statement.
Josh Nathan-Kazis is a staff writer for the Forward. He covers charities and politics, and writes investigations and longform.