“They have to learn to keep their process good,” she added.
Grandin’s positive remarks came as a welcome piece of good news for AgriProcessors, which has come under fire on a number of fronts since the slaughtering controversy. In May, the Forward published an article about the working conditions of the largely immigrant work force at the Iowa plant. The main union of Conservative rabbis has since formed a task force to investigate the situation. Then, last week, The Jewish Week reported that the company, along with other kosher meat producers, had been subpoenaed by a federal agency for issues reportedly relating to price fixing and antitrust violations.
AgriProcessors is the only kosher producer that slaughters both poultry and beef, which are sold under the brand names Aaron’s Best and Rubashkins. But it was the videos made by PETA that first brought AgriProcessors into the consciousness of many kosher consumers. In the video, which was shot by an undercover PETA investigator, cows could be seen standing up and walking after their throats had been cut. As the animals struggled, another employee pulled out the trachea and esophagus with a hook, apparently to speed up the bleeding process.
Company officials said they were pleased by Grandin’s findings.
“Given her commitment to animals, her pleasure is high praise and validates AgriProcessors’ humane treatment of its animals,” said Mike Thomas, a spokesman for AgriProcessors.
From the beginning of the PETA controversy, the animal rights group pushed AgriProcessors to have Grandin visit the facility and offer suggestions for improvement. She has visited more than 30 kosher beef plants during her career, and has designed equipment to aid in humane slaughter. Moreover, Grandin, who is autistic, is renowned for her sensitivity to animals. Her book “Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism To Decode Animal Behavior” was a bestseller last year.
Officials at the most powerful kosher supervision agency in the country, the Orthodox Union, say that they immediately pushed for a visit from Grandin after PETA released the video. PETA says that the plant initially rejected its requests for Grandin to visit the plant, but AgriProcessors says the animal rights group had nothing to do with the visit.
“PETA’s efforts to further their extreme political agenda at the expense of religious freedom have never been a factor in AgriProcessors’ thinking,” Thomas said. “Dr. Grandin has been to AgriProcessors before; she consulted with AgriProcessors shortly after the plant opened in 1989. We had been asking her to consult with us again for a number of years, and three months ago we were finally able to settle on a date.”
The Orthodox Union has been the most ambivalent player in the dispute over AgriProcessors. The O.U. has said that the images on the video would not threaten the plant’s kosher certification. But a week after the PETA video was released, O.U. officials said that they wanted to see changes in the slaughter process at the plant. They prevailed on AgriProcessors to introduce a stun gun on the kill floor to immediately knock out any animals that appeared conscious after the first cut.
During her tour of the plant last week, Grandin went through the entire slaughter process, from the barns to the kill floor. AgriProcessors uses what is known as a rotating pen, which turns the cow upside down before the first cut across the neck. This device has been controversial, but Grandin said that the pen was being operated skillfully during her visit. Previously the animals in the videos had been dumped on the floor immediately, but Grandin said they are now being checked for any signs of consciousness before being dumped. In the clearest sign that things were operating smoothly, Grandin said that the cows were not making any noises.
“I didn’t hear any cows mooing,” Grandin said. “When they do things wrong, cows moo.”
Grandin said that at the end of her visit, she recommended that the plant internally audit its slaughter process every week. “They’ve got to have that kind of auditing control — otherwise they have a tendency to slip back,” she said.
Menachem Genack, the rabbinic administrator of the Kashrus Division of the O.U., said that he was glad the plant had been able to fix its problems; however, he was hesitant to give credit to PETA, which first brought those problems to light.
“Do I think PETA represented things accurately and appropriately? I don’t,” Genack said. “Do I think there were mistakes there that had to be corrected? I do.”
Although a spokesman for PETA, Bruce Friedrich, said he was happy that the plant had taken corrective steps, he questioned whether the O.U. has taken sufficient measures to ensure that similar problems do not crop up in the future at AgriProcessors and at other kosher plants.
“It shouldn’t require a PETA investigation and three years of hand wringing to ensure that the Jewish commitment to compassion is part of the O.U.’s standard operating procedure,” Friedrich said.