So what is really happening on this new PETA video taken at Rubashkin's Gordon, Nebraska plant? I've spent the last few days doing some legwork, including a long interview with the OU's Rabbi Menachem Genack, the OU's head of shechita Rabbi Seth Mandel, Dr. Temple Grandin, the USDA and other insiders, and here's what seems to be the inside scoop.
Rabbi Genack was unable to tell me why the non-Jewish worker probed inside the neck of the animal after shechita. He referred me to Rabbi Seth Mandel, assuring me that Rabbi Mandel "speaks for the OU."
Rabbi Mandel told me the following:
- The probing is done to separate the trachea from the esophagus.
- It is done at the request of the USDA.
- It is not done as part of the kosher slaughter process and is not a second cut.
- It is not done at the OU's request.
- It is not done at Rubashkin's request.
- It is completely humane.
- The animals feel no pain.
- The animals are not conscious.
- When I challenged him about this, he said there are "conflicting" studies. I pointed out that experts are unanimous in agreeing these particular animals are still conscious. He then said, if PETA were "serious" about protecting animals, they would "pay for a study" to show when animals become unconscious. That they have not is a sign that PETA's "agenda" is "anti-shechita."
- I pointed out that any such study would involve killing animals, and PETA will not do this.
- Rabbi Mandel then said that PETA "goes after" shechita.
- I pointed out the dozens of other campaigns PETA has run that have nothing to do with shechita or Judaism.
- He then asked why PETA was focusing on Rubashkin. Doesn't this focus prove an anti-shechita bais?
- I told him that, after the Postville scandal, what would you expect PETA to do? Stop looking? Close their eyes?
- Rabbi Mandel insisted the neck incision is probed with an "instrument." "It is not a meat hook! It is not a meat hook!" Rabbi Mandel said.
- The ear tags are most likely cut off by removing the button that holds it on, not by cutting the ear.
- Rabbi Mandel spoke extensively about PETA's "agenda."
- Rabbi Mandel makes monthly "surprise inspections" of the Gordon plant.
- The head of the shochtim (rosh hashochtim) is an employee of Agriprocessors and is paid by Rubashkin, not the OU.
- Rabbi Mandel refused to give me his name without first getting permission from Rubashkin.
The USDA's FSIS chief spokesman Steven Cohen, when told that the OU claims this procedure is mandated by the USDA and approved by the USDA, told me that "the USDA does not interfere in ritual slaughter." He was unaware of this particular procedure and believed it to be part of the shechita process.
Dr. Temple Grandin told me that there is no such USDA-mandated procedure and that she has never seen anything like it done at any other kosher plant. She also insists the "instrument" used to probe the neck is a small meat hook. "It should be in the boning room used to move pieces of meat. It should not be on the kill floor."
She tells me the animals would feel pain and that "you should not even put a pencil in there" until the animal is insensate.
Another USDA and kosher slaughter insider told me there is a mandated USDA procedure called Weasand, which is the tying of the esophagus to prevent the stomach contents from coming up. He also said the "instrument" looks like a hook.
So what is happening at Agriprocessors Gordon plant?
In October of 2003 a meeting was held in the USDA between Agudath Israel of America, rabbis from various kosher supervising agencies and senior USDA officials including, according to some reports given me, Ann Veneman, the then-Secretary of Agriculture. The rabbis complained about the wording of a new USDA Humane Slaughter directive that outlawed "sawing." They were afraid USDA inspectors would stop slaughter lines because they would mistakenly view a shechita cut as "sawing."
The outcome of that meeting was a new directive (some say the wording of this new directive came from Nathan Lewin, Rubashkin's attorney and a Agudah operative) that prevented line inspectors from stopping ritual slaughter lines without first gaining approval of a regional USDA office. This was understood by some inspectors to mean, "Keep your hands off the rabbis and let them do whatever they want."
Indeed, one can see a USDA inspector in the new PETA Rubashkin video. He does not stop the line.
Whatever Rubashkin's employees are doing with that meat hook, US law prohibits doing any butchering or preparatory work on an animal until it is dead. The definition of death is the legal definition, not the halakhic definition some use that, once the knife begins to cut the animal is dead.
You can see that a meat hook is used. You get a clear shot of it during the penultimate slaughter. (Click on the photo to the right for an enlargement. Another picture can be seen here, as well.)
Whatever the reason for its use, it is illegal and it must be immediately stopped.