USDA Slaps Kosher Slaughterhouse
March 17, 2006
One of the nation's largest kosher slaughterhouses was censured by the United States Department of Agriculture for using inhumane methods in its slaughtering process.
AgriProcessors, a Chabad-Lubavitch-owned slaughterhouse in Postville, Iowa, was criticized in an internal report by the Department of Agriculture and later warned about its methods in a letter from the department. Since then, the procedures in question have been changed.
The slaughterhouse drew attention from the government in 2004 after an animal rights organization released an undercover video showing gruesome footage of cows being killed at the plant. AgriProcessors has faced questions from the Orthodox Union's kosher division and criticism from the Conservative movement's Rabbinical Assembly. The slaughterhouse has made some changes to its operations, but it has defended its old methods as consistent with kosher law — which aims to minimize suffering for the animal, among other things. The newly released report says the company had "engaged in acts of inhumane slaughter."
The internal report, which was written in April 2005 but only released this week, also criticizes the Agriculture Department inspectors who worked at the plant for ignoring the violations. According to the report, inspectors were playing computer games and sleeping on the job. The government decided not to pursue criminal action against AgriProcessors or against the inspectors.
A lawyer who represents AgriProcessors, Nathan Lewin, said the report makes it clear that everything done at the plant was approved by the Agriculture Department until the animal rights organization People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals made the video.
"The body of the report has got a lot of stuff that indicates that no one thought that there was anything inhumane," Lewin said. "It's only because it looks bad that PETA is able to exploit it."
AgriProcessors was founded by a group of Lubavitch Hasidim who moved from Brooklyn to northern Iowa in 1987 to revive the meat-packing plant, which had been shut down. Since then, AgriProcessors, which sells under the labels Rubashkin's and Aaron's Best, has become the country's single largest supplier of glatt kosher meat —? and the only one that is approved for import into Israel (though Israel currently does not import meat from America because of concerns about mad cow disease).
The slaughterhouse's recent problems began when PETA released its videotape, which was made by an undercover operative at the plant. The tape showed steers limping around the slaughterhouse floor — in some cases for more than a minute after their throats had been slit. The footage that generated the most criticism involved a so-called "trachea rip": The cow's trachea and esophagus were pulled out with a hook while the cow was still walking, in order to enhance bleeding.
A number of ultra-Orthodox agencies have stood by AgriProcessors' methods. Initially the O.U. supported the plant, but then pushed it to eliminate the trachea rip, which the plant did. In cooperation with the O.U. and the Agriculture Department, AgriProcessors also introduced a stun gun that immediately kills animals not rendered unconscious after the first cut. These animals are processed for nonkosher sale.
The director of kosher certification at the O.U., Rabbi Menachem Genack, said his organization has sent an inspector to the Iowa plant every other month since the controversy began. The O.U. is satisfied with the slaughtering process now used by AgriProcessors — although Genack said he still has questions about the rotating pen used at the plant, which turns the animal upside down before its throat is slit. The rotating pen is required for a plant to be certified kosher in Israel, but the O.U. has endorsed the use of a pen that keeps the animal upright.
The rotating pen was also at the center of a letter written last year by the president of the R.A., Rabbi Perry Rank. The assembly had encouraged slaughterhouses to abandon the rotating pen. Rank wrote, "When a company purporting to be kosher violates the prohibition against tza'ar ba'alei hayyim, causing pain to one of God's living creatures, that company must answer to the Jewish community, and ultimately, to God."
A spokesman for AgriProcessors said that the kosher status of the meat never has been in question, but he acknowledged that "every process can be improved. The modifications we made improved the process."
The O.U.'s Genack said he was happy with AgriProcessors' response to the O.U.'s concerns. However, he understands why the proceedings have become so emotionally charged.
"Any way of killing animals is not going to be a pretty sight," Genack said. "The notion that this is some sanitized easy procedure ?— no matter what system is used — it's not. But I'm happy that we changed the procedure."