The Orthodox Union has instructed a kosher slaughterhouse under its supervision to alter its slaughtering practices after a hidden camera recorded what has been widely criticized as inhumane and cruel procedures.
Rabbi Menachem Genack, the OU’s kosher administrator, said the change was made after he and several other rabbis visited the plant in Postville, Iowa, owned by AgriProcessors Inc.
The visit was prompted by their viewing of the videotape made by the animal rights group PETA.
Rabbi Genack said the new procedure eliminates the removal of the animal’s esophagus and trachea, which had been done almost immediately after ritual slaughter, or shechita, which involves severing the carotid artery, the esophagus and trachea.
“There were obvious concerns in terms of whether this was an appropriate and necessary procedure in terms of pain towards the animal,” he said. “So that has now been eliminated.”
Bruce Friedrich, a spokesman for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, said his organization was pleased that the plant is no longer “mutilating conscious animals.”
But he said that PETA, which claims to be the largest animal rights group in the country, still wants the plant to stop using electric prods to coax the animals into pens and to refrain from turning them upside down so their necks can be cut for the ritual slaughter.
“They also need to pledge not to move the animals until they are dead after their throats are slit open,” Friedrich said.
He said he had spoken Monday with Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, executive vice president of the OU, and was assured that the OU would “do whatever is within halachic [Jewish law] parameters to ensure the most compassionate slaughter possible.”
Rabbi Genack said the pen used is the only one acceptable to the rabbis in Israel, and that it is not used at the other kosher slaughterhouses in the United States that are under OU supervision.
“The current chief rabbi in Israel inspected this plant,” he said. “The turnaround pen is the only one they use in Israel.”
Rabbi Genack noted that the meat from the Iowa plant continues to be accepted by the chief rabbis in Israel.
He said the removal of the trachea and esophagus, which was unique to the Iowa plant, had been designed to more easily cut the carotid artery a second time to facilitate increased blood flow. It will still be severed a second time but without the removal of the trachea and esophagus.
Nathan Lewin, the attorney for AgriProcessors, said the plant agreed to the change “purely to avoid pain to the onlooker.” He said experts agreed that “an animal feels no pain between two and six seconds” after ritual slaughter. Removing the trachea and esophagus “is no worse than removing a person’s appendix when he is under anesthesia.”
“It would be 100 percent wrong to say that anything on the PETA video made the meat from those animals not kosher,” Lewin said.
The video showed several animals walking around dazed after they were ritually slaughtered. There were 18,000 animals slaughtered during the seven weeks PETA taped the operation, and Rabbi Genack said he believes the number of so-called “walkers” was few.
He said that happened because “their carotid arteries were not completely severed, and so they still had a blood supply to the brain.”
“Those things are inevitable and we have to address that to make sure the animal is stunned or killed after that,” Rabbi Genack said.
Asked about the use of an electric prod to coax the animals into the pen, Lewin said the U.S. Department of Agriculture permits its use in no more than 5 percent of cases, and that the voltage used is lower than that used in non-kosher plants.
In addition, he said the rotating pen would continue to be used because it is the traditional method of ritual slaughter and the shochet, or ritual slaughterer, “cuts down and not sideways as he does when the animal stands up.”
During his visit to the plant, Rabbi Genack said he spoke with a senior inspector from the USDA and was told that he believed the ritual slaughtering was “humane and proper and meets all USDA regulations.”
Steven Cohen, a USDA spokesman, said Monday that his office had sent a team of inspectors to the plant to investigate the allegations by PETA, which promotes the principle that animals should not be eaten or worn, or used for experiments or entertainment.
“Until we get a report from our team, we are not in a position to make a determination or suggestion about whether what was done at the plant was contrary to the law,” Cohen said.
Temple Grandin, associate professor of animal science at Colorado State University and a leading expert on animal slaughter, said she was denied permission to visit the plant a year ago and found several questionable practices when she viewed the video.
Grandin said the animals were properly slaughtered but that other procedures needed to be changed, such as the speed with which the shochet swung the knife and positioning the animals upside down.
She said she was pleased the trachea and esophagus would no longer be removed from the animals because the animals “felt pain” during that process. And she said the plant needed to have both an external and internal audit system “to make sure things are done right.”
“They need to clean up their act and stop saying that everything is just fine,” Grandin said.
Rabbi Perry Rank, president of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Council of America, said the videotape generated outrage in the Jewish community because what was shown did not reflect “what we expect of shechita.”
But he said his organization believes the OU “is taking the required steps to correct the situation. … When shechita is done properly, it is a process that we believe brings the absolute minimum of pain.”