Why we’ve stopped buying red meat

By | September 16, 2008

My wife and I have recently made the decision that, at least for the time being, we will no longer buy any Kosher butchered red meat (although we will probably continue to eat red meat out of our house and buy pre-prepared fleishig foods). I am writing this article to explain our decision, to (a) clarify my thought processes for my own benefit, (b) share those thought processes for others who might benefit from them, and (c) strengthen my resolve to follow through on our decision (think of this as my public declaration of our “no meat resolution”).

Our decision is motivated by three considerations:

  1. We have doubts about the kashrus at Agriprocessors.
  2. We have doubts about the integrity of the kashrus of the meat-packing industry in general.
  3. The business practices at Agriprocessors are sufficiently abhorrent to warrant a boycott regardless of whatever issues there might be surrounding their kashrus, and it is currently difficult for us to buy meat that wasn’t produced at Agriprocessors.

Doubts about the kashrus at Agriprocessors

Several groups of prominent rabbis have visited Agriprocessors recently to observe their operation and evaluate their kashrus. All of them joyfully and confidently declared that Agriprocessors is running a top-notch operation and that there are no questions whatsoever about its kashrus. One of the groups even released a video of the visit, showing shechita taking place.

Subsequent to these visits, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) released a hidden-camera video, taken in August 2008 after all of the rabbi visits, of the Agriprocessors slaughterhouse in operation.

I disagree with PETA on most things, and I acknowledge that their ultimate goal is to eliminate the consumption of beef completely, and thus their motives in attacking the slaughtering practices at Agriprocessors must be kept in mind. Nevertheless, there has been no challenge to the authenticity of the August video, which means that it is legitimate to ask: does this video raise legitimate concerns about Agriprocessors’s operations? To my mind, the answer is undeniably yes.

The video taken when the rabbis were visiting the plant is markedly and undeniably different from the video taken by hidden camera. In particular, I observe that:

  1. During the rabbi visit, the neck of the cow being slaughtered was carefully and thoroughly washed before the slaughter. There is no washing at all in the PETA video.
  2. During the rabbi visit, the cow was killed with a single stroke of the shochet‘s knife, after which the shochet walked away from the animal. In the PETA video, the shochet is clearly seen cutting into the cow’s neck in a back-and-forth sawing motion.
  3. During the rabbi visit, there is a large, clear eruption of blood from the cow’s neck when the shochet makes his cut, thus lending credence to the claim that the cow loses consciousness within seconds as demanded by halacha. There is no visible eruption of blood in the PETA video (although I acknowledge the possibility that this may be due to the quality of the video).
  4. During the rabbi visit, there is no “second cut” by another plant worker after the shochet‘s cut. In the PETA video, there is a second cut, in which a worker other than the shochet uses a sawing motion with a much smaller knife to deepen the shochet‘s incision. In at least some of the slaughters shown in the PETA video, it appears that the cow is still moving when the second cut is made.

A shochet must consistently operate at the highest level of care and diligence. Every single shechita should be done the best way possible. Anything less than this means unnecessary tza’ar ba’ale chaim to the animal. While we are permitted to cause the minimal pain necessary to slaughter the animal, we are obligated to ensure that we cause only the minimal pain.

I am no expert on hilchos shechita. I do not claim to know whether it is normal and acceptable for the shochet to use a sawing motion with his knife, or for the flow of blood from the shochet‘s cut to vary. I accept the assertion of the OU that the second cut is permissible once the animal is already dead according to halacha. However, I am qualified to draw the obvious conclusion that if you do things differently when you know there are cameras watching, this suggests that you have something to hide. I have yet to see a credible explanation for why the video taken during the rabbis’ visit differs so markedly and obviously from the one taken by hidden camera; if anyone has knowledge of such an explanation, I would like to hear about it.

As I note below, I also have serious concerns about Agriprocessors’s business practices. It seems clear to me at this point that they have violated not only secular law but also halacha, if for no other reason than because of dina de’malchuta dina (but probably for other reasons as well). The mitzvot are not a menu from which one can pick and choose which to follow and which to ignore. If the owners’ sense of yiras shamayim is not enough to compel them to obey the laws related to their business practices, then I cannot trust that they are sufficiently pious to diligently obey the laws related to kashrus.

Several years ago, slaughterhouse expert Dr. Temple Grandin visited and toured the Agriprocessors plant at their invitation and afterwards declared that their practices were both acceptable and humane. Agriprocessors touted her endorsement at that time. Now, after the release of the PETA video, Temple Grandin has expressed her profound dismay that the practices she observed were nothing like what is seen in the video and that the animals being slaughtered as shown in the video certainly experience pain and suffering. In response, Agriprocessors’ defenders have vilified Dr. Grandin and claimed that she wants to outlaw shechita. But Agriprocessors can’t have it both ways — if they were happy to tout her evaluation of their facility when it was positive, then they cannot simply dismiss it when it is negative.

Doubts about the kashrus of the meat-packing industry

I think it is possible to shecht beef in a humane way. However, I am no longer convinced that large corporate slaughterhouses consistently do so, and furthermore, I have begun to suspect that it may be impossible for mashgichim to cost-effectively and reliably ensure that they do. Given my lack of confidence, I am not sure that I can continue to eat meat from such slaughterhouses.

If the way shechita is done at Agriprocessors when visitors are present is markedly different than how it is done when there are no visitors, then the mashgichim must be aware of this, since they are there all the time. If they choose not to reveal this fact, then there is at least the appearance of impropriety, i.e., that the mashgichim were aware of a conscious effort to deceive outsiders about the practices at the plant and chose remain silent about it.

There is simply no ignoring the fact that the OU has a huge vested interest in Agriprocessors continuing to operate and in the Jewish community continuing to purchase its products. Agriprocessors is by far the largest source of Kosher meat in the country, and that means that they are also one of the OU’s largest hashgacha contracts. In short, if Agriprocessors goes under or stops being Kosher, the OU loses a heck of a lot of money.

As we recently read from the Torah on Shabbat Shoftim, “You shall not take a bribe, for bribery blinds the eyes of the wise and perverts the words of the just.” We cannot deny the reality that the money paid by Agriprocessors to the OU for its supervision services has at least the potential to cloud judgment.

It is the very nature of large-scale assembly-line operations that management is always looking for ways to make things faster and more efficient. The shochtim and other employees at Agriprocessors or any other large meat-packing plant are not rewarded for taking the time to handle each and every shechita diligently, carefully, and with the utmost of care. Rather, the reality is that the employees are undoubtedly encouraged to do each shechita as quickly as possible. This problem is not unique to Agriprocessors, which is why the debacle at Agriprocessors has prompted me to consider whether the kashrus of any large-scale slaughterhouse can truly be trusted.

Ideally, the mashgichim would be responsible for supervising each and every shechita to ensure that everything is done properly. However, as noted above, I have lost confidence in the mashgichim. If I can no longer trust either the shochtim or the mashgichim, then I can no longer trust the kashrus of the shechita process at all.

Agriprocessors business practices

Despite all of my concerns about kashrus, our final decision to stop buying Agriprocessors meat actually had little to do with its shechita. Since I am not qualified to judge whether their shechita is kosher, I was willing to trust, at least to some extent, the OU’s certification. On the other hand, I am qualified to use the intelligence God gave me to evaluate how likely it is that the accusations of hypocrisy, mistreatment of workers, and violations of the law are accurate. I have reluctantly concluded that they are, and I cannot in good conscience patronize a business which engages in such practices. This is just as true for a business that sells meat as it would be for a business that sells sneakers, lima beans or anything else I buy.

This brings to mind an incident that my wife and I witnessed years ago at the Boston University Hillel House. Students at dinner in the cafeteria were discussing the case of a haredi man in New York who was arrested and charged with some particularly appalling crime. One of the students made the comment, “I can’t understand how a religious Jew could do something like that.” The Hillel rabbi, Rabbi Joseph Polak, overheard the comment and immediately interrupted: “That man is not religious.” Some of the students attempted to argue with him, pointing out that the man lived in the haredi community, was shomer mitzvot, etc. Rabbi Polak responded, “The Torah contains mitzvot between man and God and mitzvot between man and his fellow man. All the mitzvot are important. A Jew who knowingly and intentionally violates the mitzvot between man and his fellow man isn’t ‘religious’ even if he displays the outward trappings of a religious Jew.”

The haftarah we will soon read on Yom Kippur reads, in part, as follows:

“Why, when we fasted, did You not see?
When we starved our bodies, did You pay no heed?”
Because on your fast day
You see to your business
And oppress all your laborers!

The people who run Agriprocessors may display the outward trappings of religious Jews. They may be staunchly defended by a community so terrified of outside influence that they instinctively defend their own. But Aaron and Shalom Rubashkin sat in shul every Yom Kippur and listened to this haftarah, and then went back to work the next day and continued to oppress their workers. They have lost sight of what it means to be righteous, what it means to be religious, and what it means to be a light unto the nations.

We need to remind them.

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  1. Pingback: Something better to do » Blog Archive » Terrified by the idea that I might find myself forced to boycott the OU

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