Above: Hershey Friedman
The JTA has an interview with Hershey Friedman, the wealthy haredi businessman who purchased the Agriprocessors glatt kosher slaughterhouse after it went into bankruptcy months after the massive immigration raid and criminal the subsequent criminal indictment of the plant's VP (and, in practice, CEO) Sholom Rubashkin. Rubashkin was convicted in federal court on 86 financial fraud charges and lost every appeal of that conviction and of the27-year prison sentence he is currently serving.
Friedman, who renamed Agriprocessors "Agri Star," touts the changes he has made in the old plant to improve animal handling and humane slaughter, and the JTA report cites an article in a meat industry journal, Meatingplace, that seems to back him up.
But does it?
The article was written by Erika Voogd, a meat industry consultant who is paid by Agri Star. While the article cites summarized results of unannounced audits, it does not answer key questions about those audits and about directly related issues unique to that plant – issues that made international news a decade ago because the animal welfare abuse there was so cruel.
Voogd's Meatingplace article was a column, not a straight news report, and that meant Meatingplace wouldn't have fact-checked it like it would if it was straight news.
So I asked Voogd for corroborating information, and I also asked her several questions about the audit process, the plant's rotating pen – and whether or not the plant was still doing a so-called "second cut" in which a non-Jewish plant employee used a meat hook and a regular knife to hack at the throat of fully conscious animals animals only seconds after the kosher slaughter cut had been made by a shochet:
I read your Meatingplace article on Agri Star after I saw it mentioned in a JTA article on Agri Star’s owner. I have a few quick questions about how the unannounced audits you talk about work, the slaughter/post slaughter process, and some equipment questions.
Is Agri Star still using the same rotating pen Agriprocessors used? If so, what specific modifications were made to it? Is there a mandated maintenance schedule for the pen that auditors assure is being met? In the past, the issue with that plant and that pen went past how shochets were trained. There was an issue of cutting too deep, which could cause a knife to strike the metal of the restraint and become nicked. That caused shochets to make shallow cuts [which caused the animals to fail to quickly bleed out and lose consciousness]. What, if anything, has been done to change this?
Are animals always allowed to become fully unconscious before the rotating pen is revolved after slaughter and before the animals are dumped down the chute to the concrete floor?
Agriprocessors used a “second cut” procedure. Immediately after the shochet cut the animal’s neck, a non-rabbi worker used a regular knife and meathook to slash inside the shochet’s cut. This was often done while the animal was still conscious. Is this or any similar procedure still being used today? If so, is it reflected in those audits you cite? Or is it beyond the scope of those audits?
How much time elapses from the moment the auditor(s) enter Agri Star’s property to the auditor’s appearance at the slaughter point? Are we talking about 2 or 3 minutes? Or is the time longer than that?
Do auditors put on their boots, coveralls, hard hats, and other safety-wear outside plant property and in a place and manner in which Agri Star and its employees are not made aware of the auditor(s) presence in Postville? Or do the auditors don and doff inside the plant?
Are you or your consulting company paid by Agri Star or any of its affiliates or owners?
Are the other third party audits you cite done for outside groups like the AMI? Or are they all done for Agri Star directly and paid for by Agri Star directly?
Which firm does those audits?
I’d like to see the audits for 2011, 2014 and 2015. Can you share those with me, please?
Voogd responded by saying she needed permission from Agri Star to answer my questions:
I am going to refer your questions to the Agri Star plant representatives and determine how best to reply. My consulting with plants is considered confidential and I would need permission from the plant management to respond.
Shortly afterward Voogd told me she would not be able to answer my questions:
If you refer to the Meatingplace article, you will have details about the program at Agri-Star and many of the plant modifications.
They are doing a very good job. This is all I can provide at this time.
The Meatingplace article, which I'm reproducing in full below, does not answer the donning and doffing questions I asked. It also does not address the amount of time the plant has from the moment it knows an auditor is in Postville to the time the actual auditing begins. It does not answer the question about shallow cuts, and it does not answer the question about the second cut.
Temple Grandin, the world's foremost authority on animal welfare in commercial slaughter situations who is cited by Voogd in her Meatingplace article, told me personally years ago that for the Postville plant to be trusted, it needed to be completely transparent. She even advocated for a system that would have the slaughter floor and animal handling areas on live 24/7 video broadcast on the Internet. But what we have at Agri Star is the exact opposite of this.
Should you trust that Agri Star is now "doing a very good job," as Voogd claims?
I wouldn't, especially when you realize many of the same people who presided over the Agriprocessors debacle are still employed in management roles in the plant including, last I heard, at least one Rubashkin family member.
The JTA for whatever reason didn't ask the questions it should have and it misreported one key fact when it wrote without qualification that "in a recent audit, fewer than 2 percent of animals took more than 30 seconds to lose consciousness after their throats were cut – excellent by industry standards, Voogd wrote." That should read "excellent by kosher industry standards." In the rest of large animal slaughter business, animals lose consciousness several seconds (at the most) after being shot in the head with a captive bolt stun gun. (The newer generation of these captive bolt guns have a very low misfire rate. Haredi defenders of shechita like to cite the higher misfire rates of the first generation of these captive bolt guns without telling readers the newer guns are far better. Those newer guns have been in widespread use for decade or more.)
But even in the brief fluff piece, the JTA's Uriel Heilman did manage to call out Friedman for some of his more obvious non-slaughter-related misstatements, like when Friedman claimed all Israelis begin IDF service at age 16 (the actual age is 18 and can even be 19 if a person is still a high school student on his or her 18th birthday) and that Israelis don't pay a penny for university education (they actually pay tuition, and many Israeli university students are forced to first serve in the IDF for almost three years and then work full time while attending university just so they can pay tuition and eat).
Did Agri Star spend millions to improve the plant's animal handling as he claims? The plant flooded during the bankruptcy and had severe maintenance issues for years before that – so severe that much of its equipment was junk and was so worthless, creditors didn't want to repossess it. Millions had to be spent to replace this equipment and repair damage to the plant.
Were those repairs made with animal welfare kept in mind? They could have been, but newer support equipment for slaughterhouses like ramps and chutes already have many of the necessary animal welfare modifications included. That means animal handling pre-slaughter is almost certainly better than it was when the Rubashkin family owned the plant, but it does not address slaughter issues themselves.
The questions Voogd did not answer – especially my questions about shallow cuts and the inhumane second cut – directly related to that and are key to knowing if Agri Star is truly humane or not. Until those questions are answered, take your meat from Agri Star – if you take it at all – with a very large grain of salt.
Here's the Meatingplace.com article reprinted with permission:
Overcoming The Unique Challenges Of Religious Slaughter
Erika L. Voogd • Meatingplace.com
November 16, 2015
This article will focus on unstunned religious slaughter of cattle, primarily glatt kosher (shechita) and halal, as these methods present many unique challenges for the animal, plant and slaughterman.
The North American Meat Institute (NAMI) 2013 “Recommended Animal Handling Guidelines” prohibit religious slaughter plants from shackling and hoisting animals live. For this reason most plants are utilizing an upright or rotating restrainer box to hold cattle in place for the throat to be cut and the animal to lose consciousness from exsanguination (loss of blood) according to religious law.
Slaughtermen have a unique set of procedures to perform to meet religious requirements. Additionally, the operator wants to produce the highest quality beef product possible, and the animal needs to be harvested with the least amount of stress.
Managing all of these expectations requires diligence, ongoing measures and communication between all stakeholders. It is, however, possible and is being achieved at one of the North America’s glatt kosher plants, Agri Star Meat & Poultry LLC.
The plant opened in 2010, and the company’s program was initiated as follows.
Humane handling program development
First, employees and management were trained on humane handling principles and plant expectations. Documentation of training and a quiz administered assured understanding.
Additionally, the Rabbinical staff (shochet) received communication on plant expectations for a rapid cut:
The plant needed the shochet to perform any washing and preparation of equipment out of view of the animal, so as to not affect loading of the box.
A room and sink were provided to allow the chalef (knife) to be washed and sharpened prior to use on the next animal.
By having two shochet and two chalef, one shochet could prepare a second chalef and the other could wash and be ready to perform Shechita as soon as the next animal was situated in the box.
The goal was to cut within 10 seconds after the animal was “set up” and ready. This minimizes the time the animal is restrained prior to the cut.
Next, the team developed a written Robust Systematic Approach to Humane Handling of cattle. As part of this program the plant instituted a three-tiered approach to humane handling measurement.
Initially, each animal was assessed by a quality assurance representative for the AMI Core Criteria Measures of insensibility, electric prod usage, vocalization and falling.
Stun efficacy does not apply to unstunned religious slaughter; however, Temple Grandin explains on her website: “A skilled slaughterman can induce over 95 percent of the cattle to collapse within 30 seconds.”
For this reason, a stopwatch was used to measure bleed efficacy: box set up time, time from setup to cut and time for each animal to lose consciousness (measured by eye roll).
The plant also hired an outside auditor to perform an unannounced humane handling review each week of 40 – 45 cattle, during approximately one hour of production, following the AMI audit tool. Bleed efficacy was also measured in 10 cattle each week. Results were reported to the plant and Voogd Consulting, Inc.
At least annually, Voogd Consulting, Inc. also conducted a third-party, unannounced audit of humane handling. Feedback was provided to the plant.
Facility and equipment design modifications
Rotating restrainer box controls
As the plant was just opening, a tremendous amount of time was spent reviewing the layout of pens, alleys and the rotating box equipment. The team wanted to make sure that the plant design offered the most efficient movement of cattle, with non-slip flooring and little or no distractions that could cause balking or the need for electric prodding. Any areas that appeared to potentially cause animal stress were addressed.
One modification was the backup gates, which were heavy and could bruise valuable cuts like the rib and loin. Counter balances were installed to reduce weight and rollers were added to the bottom of the gates to allow cattle to smoothly walk under. Locks were added so the gates could remain up when not in use.
The alley prior to the restrainer box was darkened, to calm animals while staged. When the door was raised to the restrainer area, the cattle would move from dark to light.
A small sliding door was added to the side of the restrainer box so that the cattle could be gently encouraged to move forward with a paddle or a vibrating prod (non-electric).
A full-length metal mirror was added above the box to allow the restrainer operator to see where the animal was situated inside the box and view the shackle area.
To facilitate humane handling, the cattle restraining box needed to provide the following controls.
All movable parts are hydraulically controlled to move quietly and smoothly. Rough, jerky movements can scare animals.
Smooth movement of all moving parts that contact the animals. The control valves needed to have good throttling ability (similar to a car’s accelerator) so that the operator has control over the speed of movement (Grandin, 1992).
The restraining components – rear pusher, side wall and chin lift – have a separate hand control for each component.
Mid-stroke positioning of the component was needed to allow adjustment to vary depending on the size of the animal.
Pressure relief valves were installed to control the maximum pressure that can be applied and bleed off to prevent excessive pressure, injury or bruises.
Different parts of the restrainer require different maximum pressure settings. The head holder must be set at lighter maximum pressure than other parts of the restrainer such as a heavy door or butt pusher.
All of these controls help to assure that each animal is restrained gently and without injury or stress, which can cause vocalization and potentially bruising of the muscles.
A water spray was installed on the box to facilitate rapid wash of the neck area prior to throat cut. Hygiene of the throat area is important to the slaughterman to assure an effective cut and to prevent nicks on the cutting blade.
The plant recognized the importance of restraining the animal minimally before the cut to prevent bruising or vessel constriction.
Immediately after the throat is cut, the box restraint is quickly loosened on the head and body to facilitate a rapid blood flow and hasten loss of consciousness.
Audit data from weekly unannounced reviews (188 total audits) shows that the AMI limits were met for all measures when averaged, indicating program management and control.
Typical week-to-week variation occurred. Use of the electric prod was minimal, with the average being 2.7 percent, which is considered excellent. Having the availability of a vibrating prod and rattle paddle as primary driving tools greatly contributed to this very low rate. Vocalization was the most challenging criteria to control, with 33 percent of the audit scores exceeding the 5 percent AMI limit.
In most cases the cause of vocalization was difficulty restraining the head, especially on smaller cattle; vocalization during neck washing; or agitation after prod use. None of the cattle audited fell in the lead up chute or rotating box. Slipping is not considered a Core Criteria on the AMI audit; but is used as a secondary measurement tool.
The slipping average was low, at 0.6 percent. Occasionally, slipping exceeded the AMI limit with 2.7 percent of the audit results greater than 3 percent slipping. This would measure a steer or heifer that slipped to the knee, possibly during situating of the animal in the box.
Audit Data Summary (AMI Measures) December 2010 to December 2014
Animals Sensible on Rail
Animals Prod was used on
AMI Pass Limit percent
Data from bleed efficacy results
There were 1,810 timed measures of cut efficacy taken over a period of four years. There were nine different box operators, although three main skilled operators (85 percent of measures) consistently ran the restrainer box.
There were 34 different slaughtermen performing Shechita during the four years; however, five shochet were utilized for 1,121 cuts, accounting for more than 60 percent of the measures. The results indicate that the average box setup time was 25.5 seconds, with the longest time being less than one minute at 57 seconds. Reasons for longer set up time were usually because the animal was smaller and hard to situate, or it sat in the box or struggled.
The average time from setup to cut was 3.8 seconds, with the longest time being 18 seconds, indicating that the rabbinical team was timely and efficient in performing Shechita. The few longer cut times were usually documented as a slaughterman not ready or needing to wash the neck an additional amount of time.
Only 35 (1.97 percent) of 1,810 cattle measured took longer than 30 seconds to lose consciousness, with the longest time being 38 seconds. A cut efficacy of 98 percent exceeds the expectation of 95 percent or better in 30 seconds or less. The plant plans to shoot any cattle that do not bleed within 40 seconds; therefore, none of these cattle required a captive bolt shot due to ineffective bleeding. All cattle were insensible prior to the 40-second time and remained insensible on the bleed rail.
Bleed efficacy data
Number of cattle evaluated
Time between animal entering the box and completion of setup in seconds
Time between setup completion and throat cut in seconds
Time between throat cut and eye roll (loss of consciousness) in seconds
Cattle taking longer than 30 seconds to lose consciousness
Cattle requiring a captive bolt shot
By evaluating the humane handling processes, communicating expectations, establishing measures, monitoring and providing feedback on results, even the most challenging of operations can meet or exceed industry standards.
Thanks to Agri Star Meat & Poultry LLC for sharing its story.
– Erika L. Voogd is president of Voogd Consulting, Inc. in West Chicago, Ill. She is currently working as an independent consultant specializing in global assistance to the meat industry. Her expertise includes animal welfare, food safety, HACCP, quality assurance, sanitation and USDA regulatory compliance.