During the holiday season one thing is on everybody’s mind, food. For me this time of year is marked by mom’s extraordinary latkes. Traditions surrounding food are a special source of pride. I have always been particularly proud of the kosher diet, as a moral decision to think before eating.
Unfortunately for a long time I blindly believed that a kosher label on meat guaranteed the highest possible standards, without a second thought about the animals’ welfare. Far from proud, I am ashamed that kosher beef products at American grocery stores may come from cattle in South America hung in agonizing pain from one hind leg or cattle that suffered bleeding for minutes after slaughter.
The Torah arguably has the oldest set of laws on the ethical treatment of animals. I was shocked to learn about the horrific suffering of cattle that exists in the kosher slaughterhouses. Ideally kosher slaughter is painless, but in today’s food industry, this can be far from the truth, especially when it comes to beef.
The main difference between kosher and non-kosher slaughter is the use of stunning before the process begins. It is mandatory for non-kosher slaughter in America, but a violation of Jewish dietary laws. The religious laws require an expert butcher, a long, perfectly sharp blade, and a smooth, quick motion. These rules were clearly intended to help animals, but in our modern context they prohibit the use of stun bolts.
Kosher slaughter can be painless for cows, but the process is expensive. In the non-religious process, cattle are stunned before they are hung and killed. Animals must be conscious for kosher slaughter and they need to be raised above the ground for sanitary reasons. Because cattle are so large, kosher slaughterhouses must use mechanical restraint systems for the process to be humane. This is expensive because these mechanical restraints cost about $15,000 to $50,000 and require extra workers.
The cheapest method of restraint is called “shackle and hoist,” where workers hang cattle, weighing over a thousand pounds, from one hind leg. This causes bruising, tearing, and even the breaking of the cattle’s leg. This method has virtually disappeared in America, but it is common in South America. This is a concerning because a large proportion of kosher beef in America is imported from South America. Only meat slaughtered in accordance with American laws can be imported. For this reason I strongly believe that the United States should prohibit the use of the “shackle and hoist” method of restraint.
Kosher slaughter is very humane when workers use mechanical restraint systems and perform the slaughter carefully and correctly. Observers have noticed that cattle often do not even react when their throats are cut. Unfortunately many kosher slaughterhouses choose to use a faster assembly line speed for the industrialized killing to increase efficiency.
PETA illustrated this fact when they filmed inside AgriProcessors, which was the largest kosher slaughterhouse in America. In the video cattle bled for minutes after slaughter. They struggled helplessly, fully conscious as workers ripped out their esophagi and tracheas. The kosher certification company vouched that they never broke any Jewish dietary laws. AgriProcessors later shut down after an immigration raid, but the problem remains. During inspections slaughterhouses keep the process up to code, but behind closed doors they often allow for cruel practices to increase efficiency and profits.
To prevent cruelty from happening place behind closed doors, we must keep the doors open. I believe that all kosher slaughterhouses should be required to videotape the entire process for a third party to review. These changes will inevitably raise the price of kosher meat. I think it’s time we pay the true price for truly kosher meat.
When you are planning your holiday meals this year, take a second to investigate the source of your food. A kosher label does not necessarily make your meat ok. The sooner people become aware of the problems, the sooner we can reach a solution. Judaism has a long history of reverence and kindness towards animals, and we should be proud of our dietary laws. Hopefully next year I can fully enjoy my mother’s beef brisket as well as her latkes.