Friday, April 29, 2011

Maximizing Animal Welfare in Kosher Slaughter

By Temple Grandin
Published April 27, 2011

There are legislative attempts around the world to require stunning of animals prior to religious slaughter. I do not get involved in the politics of this issue, but the following discussion may help clarify where there are problem areas.

Over the past 30 years I have worked closely with the kosher industry to ensure that religious slaughter is performed in as humane a manner as possible. The issue of stunning, in my view, is not the most important issue when it comes to ensuring the welfare of animals before they are slaughtered. But it is critical to recognize that performing kosher slaughter with an acceptable level of welfare does require more attention to the procedure’s details than slaughter in which the animal is stunned.

There are two animal welfare issues when slaughter is performed without stunning. They are the method used to restrain the animal and the throat cut itself.

These issues are particularly relevant when it comes to cattle. Poultry can be slaughtered easily with a sharp knife, and there is no need for stunning. Sheep are smaller than cattle and easier to restrain and kill quickly. A lamb that is slaughtered with a sharp knife out on the farm, even without stunning, probably has better welfare than a lamb that has to ride on a truck to a slaughter plant. Due to anatomical differences in the blood vessels in the neck, cattle take twice as long as sheep to lose consciousness after the cut, and their size makes them difficult to restrain.

Some of the worst animal welfare problems in the kosher industry are the stressful methods of restraint that are still being used in some slaughterhouses. In the United States, there are still some kosher plants that hoist conscious animals by one rear leg. Fortunately, most of the large American kosher plants have stopped using this traumatic method.

In South American kosher slaughterhouses, however, the handling practices are often atrocious. The live cattle are shackled and dragged and then held down by several people. The methods of restraint are so bad that it is impossible to determine how the animal is reacting to the throat cut. Large amounts of kosher beef are imported into this country from plants that are using these barbaric methods of restraint.

Even when a plant has decent restraint equipment to hold the animal in a more comfortable position, it needs to be operated correctly. This requires management that is committed to good animal treatment.

I have observed that when kosher slaughter of cattle is done well, there is almost no reaction from the animal when the throat is cut. Flicking my hand near the animal’s face caused a bigger reaction. When the cut is done well, 90% or more of the cattle will collapse and become unconscious within 30 seconds.

There are new scientific studies that show there are welfare concerns when animals are slaughtered without stunning. New Zealand researchers conducted a study on calves with a new EEG brain wave method that indicated that the knife cut caused pain. In this study, however, they used a machine-sharpened knife that may have been too short. A knife that is too short will cause gouging of the wound. The results of this study clearly show that the knife they used was not acceptable. To this date, a similar study has not been done with the special long kosher knife.

Another study has shown that one of the most difficult welfare problems to solve is aspiration (inhaling) of blood into the lungs after the cut. Cattle continue to breathe after the throat is cut. There is much variation in the percentage of animals that aspirate blood. It may be possible to improve methods and reduce this problem. Aspiration of blood is an issue that must be fixed to have an acceptable level of welfare. It will require both research and practical experimentation with technique to solve this problem.

Finally, there needs to be accountability to ensure that both restraint and slaughter are done correctly. Over the years, I have become disgusted by the frequency with which procedures in a given plant seem perfect when I am visiting, but as soon as I have left an undercover video surfaces that reveals bad practices. This has happened in both conventional and religious slaughter plants.

To prevent this problem, I am a big advocate of video auditing over the Internet. An outside auditing company can view video from a plant and evaluate its practices using an objective scoring system. Some of the variables that can be measured are electric prod use, percentage of cattle vocalizing (bellowing) and acts of abuse. Video auditing is now being used in many large, conventional slaughter plants. Unfortunately, all kosher plants have resisted video auditing.

Kosher slaughter of cattle requires special care. While some kosher plants have done well, and many others are improving, too often kosher plants have been very badly managed compared to many of the big conventional plants.

In order to maximize animal welfare, kosher slaughterhouses need to take the following steps: 1) eliminate stressful cruel methods of restraint such as dragging, shackling and hoisting or leg clamping; 2) keep animals calm before slaughter, since an agitated animal is more difficult to kill and takes longer to become unconscious; 3) perform the cut immediately after an animal’s head is restrained; 4) use restraining devices that hold animals in a comfortable upright position; 5) perform collapse scoring to keep track of the proportion of animals that quickly lose consciousness; 6) use video auditing by an outside firm, and practice transparency by streaming the video to a webpage so that the public can view it.

Adhering to these practices would enhance animal welfare, and all these steps could be implemented without transgressing the requirements of religious law. The kosher industry has an opportunity to show the world that it is doing things the right way.
Temple Grandin is a professor of animal science at Colorado State University and a designer of livestock handling facilities. She is the author of “Animals Make Us Human: Creating the Best Life for Animals” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009).

Monday, January 10, 2011

Kosher Gets Ethical

A new standard is about to remake American Jews’ dietary code.


Kosher is about to get an American makeover. Sometime between Passover and Chanukah 2011, a new social responsibility certification—the Magen Tzedek (Star of Justice)—is expected to begin appearing on the labels of selected kosher food products throughout the United States.

Kosher products are those that meet the standards of kashrus, Jewish dietary law prescribing what foods or combination of foods are permissible or prohibited to eat. Pork and shellfish are forbidden. Meat and dairy products cannot be mixed. Ingredients and processes must be inspected to make certain that nothing prohibited is introduced. Even otherwise permissible meat is kosher only if slaughtered, processed and inspected according to specific procedures under the supervision of a specially trained rabbi. Some orthodox Jews insist on an additional set of inspections involving examination of the lungs and internal organs to make certain that they are smooth—glatt—and free of punctures or disease.

Kosher food is a $250 billion business, accounting for approximately 40 percent of all packaged foods sold in the United States. That makes kosher certification—by agencies specializing in rabbinic supervision of kashrus compliance—a big enterprise as well. By far the largest certifier of domestic kosher products is the nonprofit Orthodox Union, whose U inside an O symbol appears on more than 400,000 products, including Land O’ Lakes butter, Golden West beef, Jolt energy drinks, Oreo cookies, Glenmorangie Single Malt Scotch and Blue Bunny ice cream.

Those who remember the 1970s television ad for Hebrew National hot dogs (“We answer to a higher authority!”) can be forgiven for assuming that current kosher certification explicitly mandates labor standards, hygienic conditions and environmental ethics surpassing federal or state requirements. It does not.

Magen Tzedek certification, say its developers, is intended to assure purchasers that a kashrus-compliant product also conforms to Biblical and Talmudic ethical values and standards regarding the treatment of workers, animal welfare, environmental impact and fair business dealings. Criteria for product certification include: living-wage compensation and decent benefits, neutrality in labor organizing drives, documented compliance with EPA and OSHA regulations, adherence to humane animal treatment and farm standards, responsible energy and water consumption, use of sustainable materials and alternative fuels, and fair treatment of immigrant workers.

The new certification is now in beta testing, with an expected market rollout sometime during the coming year, says Rabbi Morris Allen, who is working with Cornell University meat science professor Joe Regenstein and Social Accountability International to ready the standard for market. The spiritual leader of the Beth Jacob Congregation in Mendota Heights, Minn., Allen has a history of involvement as a pulpit rabbi in issues such as prison reform and immigrants rights, and has been leading the push for Magen Tzedek during the last five years.

It has been a polarizing effort. Some Jewish leaders believe the new standard is redundant and unnecessary. Rabbi Avi Shafran, spokesperson for Agudath Israel of America—a leading fundamentalist Orthodox religious, educational and advocacy organization—isn’t convinced that kashrus needs yet another certification. “I think that many consumers have no reason to distrust the government agencies and law enforcement agencies as adequate safeguards for all those areas,” he says. “I know of no halachic [pertaining to Jewish law] opinion requiring a kosher consumer to try to ensure that companies go beyond what governmental rules require of them.”

Rabbi Menachem Genack, one of the foremost experts of kashrus certification in the world and the Rabbinic Administrator and CEO of the Orthodox Union’s kashrus program, is “keeping an open mind.” Under his leadership, the Orthodox Union will allow the Magen Tzedek to be placed on labels next to the familiar OU logo.

Allen is determined to bring the new kosher standard to grocery store shelves around the country. “We have one chance to do this right,” he insists. “We as a people should not be more concerned about the smoothness of a cow’s lung than the safety of a worker’s hand.”

Louis Nayman is a longtime union organizer. The views expressed are his own.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Jews Ready To Roll Out New 'Ethical Kosher' Seals

By Nicole Neroulias
Religion News Service

NEW YORK (RNS) What does it really mean for your Hebrew National hot dog to "answer to a higher authority?"

For years, it's meant a kosher certification that ensured Jewish (and non-Jewish) consumers were buying a product that met strict religious standards for slaughter and preparation that went beyond government requirements.

Now a controversial Jewish movement believes kosher food must meet an even higher ethical ideal -- and they're rolling out a stamp of approval to make it official.

The new Magen Tzedek "seal of justice," developed by Conservative Judaism's Hekhsher Tzedek Commission will be tested on at least two kosher food companies in early 2011.

Standards and fees will be adjusted after 10 weeks of reviewing a host of conditions -- including labor, animal welfare, consumer rights, corporate integrity and environmental impact -- and analyzed by a New York-based auditing firm, said Rabbi Morris Allen, the project's

The new seal is a response to poor labor and animal welfare practices at the now-defunct Agriprocessors meat plant in Postville, Iowa, which had earned a kosher stamp of approval from Orthodox rabbis.

The dueling kosher certifications have opened a rift between Hekhsher Tzedek's Conservative backers and Orthodox Jews, who control most existing kosher standards and are the largest consumers of kosher products.

Kosher certification, now available from hundreds of agencies and stamped on more than one-third of American food products, costs anywhere from a few hundred to tens of thousands of dollars, depending on a company's size.

The new, supplemental Magen Tzedek approval will probably cost in the "low-to-mid-four figures," Allen estimates, which shouldn't result in higher prices for kosher foods.

What may raise the price, however, is if a company needs to improve conditions to meet ethical standards.

"If the company wants our seal and they're paying (workers) poorly, they may have to raise their compensation to their employees, and those sort of things," Allen said. "But most companies that are already being good food production companies, it will be a negligible cost."

Critics say the new ethical kosher movement is an unnecessary layer of bureaucracy in an industry that's already under government regulation. The (Orthodox) Rabbinical Council of America released its own kosher ethical guidelines last January, but emphasized that food
supervisors don't have the expertise to recognize or handle illegal or unethical business practices.

Kosher certifications usually pay for themselves through increased market share, and skeptics are doubtful the industry will see the same benefits in a second ethical seal, on top of meeting federal USDA and work-safety requirements.

"Companies already have enough on their hands," said Rabbi Menachem Genack, the rabbinic administrator of the Orthodox Union's kosher division, which had certified Agriprocessors. "We think that the government agencies have the experience and resources to do that better than us."

Menachem Lubinsky, editor of Kosher Today and president of LUBICOM Marketing Consulting, which specializes in the kosher food industry, said most companies don't want yet another symbol on their packaging, and that the Magen Tzedek stamp may even prompt a backlash from Orthodox consumers.

"There's a perspective that those companies will be seen as having caved in to Conservative demands and being more left-leaning," he said, adding that smaller kosher producers won't be able to afford or compete with Magen Tzedek's requirements.

"(Consumers) see this as being superfluous and they have full faith in the government to protect them," he added. "There are always problems slipping through the cracks ... but (ethical kosher) would unfairly burden the small producers."

Allen maintains that it's not enough to merely expect kosher food companies to meet or exceed government workplace standards, just as Jews don't leave it to state laws to ensure that food advertised as kosher is actually kosher.

"The government is oftentimes stretched, and is not able to do the kinds of inspections that should take place," Allen said. "For us, these are religious issues, no less than certifying the ritual nature of the product. It's our responsibility to see that in the production of kosher
food, the ethical demands of the Jewish people are also being met."

Allen also dismisses critics who say Conservative Jews are trying to compete with, or supplant, the Orthodox in policing the kosher food industry.

"As far as I know," he said, "there's no unique responsibility for only the Orthodox to be involved in determining standards."

The movement does have some support among the Orthodox, including Uri L'Tzedek, an Orthodox initiative that aims to ensure that kosher restaurants pay minimum wage and overtime.

Since its debut in May 2009, about 60 kosher eateries in America have earned the group's Tav HaYosher seal. Director Rabbi Ari Weiss said several restaurant owners have told him that the ethical seal has improved business among customers who care about fair workplace standards.

The same may hold true for ethical kosher food products, he said.

"We see it as bringing ethics and ethical consumption into the Jewish marketplace," Weiss said. "In any community, there are bad actors and good actors ... We're asking them to abide by the law. Nothing more, nothing less."

Despite resistance from the Orthodox, ethical-kosher supporter say their efforts will appeal to the wider spectrum of Jewish and even non-Jewish consumers who care that their food comes from a place that paid, not just prayed, properly.

"At the end of the day, it's a win-win for the kosher food industry," Allen said, "because for some people, our symbol will be the only symbol that they will care about.

Monday, December 20, 2010

The Rise of Ethical Kashrut

Baltimore Jewish Times
December 20, 2010

I like my meat – even though I don’t eat it often due to kosher meat’s insanely high prices in this country. But when I do buy it, I’d like to know that child labor laws, environmental standards, communal responsibility and general decent human behavior has not been violated in its preparation. (Knowing of such things does govern where I shop, which is why I don’t care to step in a Walmart or a certain kosher market in Baltimore, which are stories I’d be happy to share…).

Now, thanks to the Conservative movement – in which I was raised and remain – I and so many others are poised to actually feel good about the kosher meat available.

Many remember how scandal rocked the kashrut industry three years ago. That’s when the behemoth (pun intended) Agriprocessors was cited for hundreds of labor violations, some involving children, and so much more. No longer could one believe the label “kosher” automatically denoted “better”. Rather, at best it meant that the food preparation hit a baseline standard of Jewish law.

Now, in good news for all kosher consumers and certainly the Jewish people’s image, what for some is an unlikely player is about to bring an ethical seal of approval into the marketplace.

The Conservative movement’s Hekhsher Tzedek Commission will in early January 2011 begin testing select companies’ domestic food production standards on five levels –labor practices, animal welfare practices, consumer protection, corporate integrity and environmental impact. After a three-month trial, the Commission will decide if the company deserves the designation of a “Magen Tzedek,” or “seal of justice,” reports “The Forward.” (See: Even better, the results will be made public in March.

Rabbi Morris Allen, director of the project, would not identify the companies, but called them “significant players in the food industry — and in the kosher food industry.”

How big could this get? Approximately 40 percent of food manufactured in the country carrying a kashrut certification, according to “The Forward.” Thus, the potential for ethical stewardship of so much more than ingredients is massive.

We may not quite be what we eat, but how that food arrives on our plate matters to many of us. And as discerning consumers, shouldn’t we care about what Judaism instructs, our role in our planet’s health and how those two efforts intersect?

Posted by Neil Rubin on 12/20/10 at 03:56 PM

Tough New Ethics Seal Set To Be Tested in Kosher Marketplace

The Jewish Daily Forward
December 15, 2010

After more than a year of fine-tuning, the criteria for earning a Magen Tzedek, the “seal of justice” to be awarded to kosher food producers that meet a detailed set of ethical standards, are about to be tested by American food companies. The seal would be added to products that already merit a hekhsher, or symbol certifying that a food item is kosher, to show that the product not only meets Jewish dietary laws, but comports with Jewish moral values, as well.

Beginning in January, several producers of kosher food will attempt to follow guidelines for everyday business conduct in five principal categories: labor, animal welfare, consumer issues, corporate integrity and environmental impact. The draft standards for these guidelines fill 150 PowerPoint pages. The companies’ efforts will be audited by Social Accountability Accreditation Services — an experienced social responsibility auditor based in New York City — with results to be announced in March.

Testing the standards represents the closest step yet to demonstrating “that Jewish ethical concerns that are based on who we are as a people are just as certifiable as Jewish ritual concerns,” Rabbi Morris Allen, a Minnesota pulpit rabbi, told the Forward. Allen is the project director of the Conservative-backed Hekhsher Tzedek Commission, which was formed in early 2007 after revelations of poor labor conditions — on top of previous exposés of brutal animal treatment — at the Agriprocessors kosher meat plant in Postville, Iowa, shocked some Jews into activism around the practice of kashrut.

“This is a serious religious undertaking to help restore a culture of kashrut in America. Kashrut itself suffered a black eye as a result of some of this,” said Allen, who hastened to note that many kosher food producers have always behaved ethically. Covering everything from employee access to binding arbitration, the nutritional value of the food produced and recycling resources within a factory, the standards represent “the most exhaustive and comprehensive undertaking in the kosher food marketplace ever attempted,” he added.

Allen said that the Hekhsher Tzedek Commission has signed agreements for testing with two companies and is closing in on a third. He would not name them, because the parties have signed confidentiality agreements that Allen said are aimed at promoting honest and robust testing of the standards. One of the companies is a kosher-specific producer, while the other two produce kosher food along with nonkosher products, he said. Allen called them “significant players in the food industry — and in the kosher food industry.”

Some major players in kashrut, however, aren’t as excited. Asked whether people in kosher circles are buzzing over either Magen Tzedek or the “Jewish Principles and Ethical Guidelines (“JPEG”) for the Kosher Food Industry,” released early this year by the Rabbinical Council of America, which represents Orthodox rabbis, some authorities said it’s quiet on the ethical-advancement front.

Rabbi Menachem Genack, rabbinic administrator of the Orthodox Union’s Kashrut Division, said, “I don’t hear them talking about either one.” Rabbi Sholem Fishbane, executive director of the Association of Kashrus Organizations, also said, “It’s been pretty quiet. I haven’t heard any movement at all on these things.”

Genack, who visited Agriprocessors during the crisis, and whose O.U. now certifies the successor company, Agri Star, said, “I frankly would be surprised if this really took off.” It’s hard to pay for the additional infrastructure, and companies are mostly interested in the marketing aspect of certifications, Genack said — meeting federal safety regulations keeps them busy enough.

“I’m interested just to see how it works out,” he said. “I don’t know. I don’t have a clue.”

Magen Tzedek is one of several initiatives that sprang from the collapse of Agriprocessors, which was the nation’s largest producer of kosher meat until its harsh treatment of animals and laborers came to light (largely through reporting in the Forward). Immigration raids on its workers followed, along with the indictment and imprisonment of CEO Sholom Rubashkin, and the plant’s bankruptcy and closure in the fall of 2008.

Although many Jewish consumers and kashrut authorities have backed the Brooklyn-based Rubashkin family, other critical responses have surfaced. In addition to the RCA’s “JPEG,” the Orthodox social justice group Uri L’Tzedek now grants a Tav Ha-Yosher, or ethical seal, to kosher restaurants around the country that meet basic standards for fair treatment of workers.

Because that initiative focuses on the comsumption end, while Magen Tzedek examines production, Uri L’Tzedek’s director, Rabbi Ari Weiss, calls the efforts “complementary.” (Kosher restaurants comprise a relatively small market share, while more than 40% of all food manufactured in the United States bears a kosher certification.) “The more rabbinic organizations and rabbis and leaders in the community who are talking about the significance and importance of ethics in both the workplace and kosher production — I think that’s an amazing thing,” Weiss said.

The Hekhsher Tzedek Commission released its “Standards for the Magen Tzedek Service Mark” in September 2009 and invited the public to comment. Joe Regenstein, professor of food science at Cornell University and an official adviser to the effort, said he received input from about 10 people, activists on various sides of the issue, which helped him fine-tune the standards that the beta-testing companies will use this winter. Their experience likely will lead to further retooling in 2011, Regenstein said.

Magen Tzedek’s project manager, Rabbi Iris Richman, wrote in an e-mail that audits “will take place both on factory floors as well as within the offices of these companies, where records, logs, and documentation will be reviewed. These auditors need not be Jewish nor do they require knowledge of kashrut, because the applicant facilities will already be kosher-certified.… The facilities themselves that apply for certification pay for audits, and auditors travel to the sites themselves, where they review documents, inspect the facilities, and interview workers confidentially. The exact details of these visits are being finalized as we speak.”

Although the Agriprocessors plant, bought by Orthodox Jewish Canadian plastics manufacturer Hershey Friedman in July 2009, can expect its practices to be scrutinized in the months and years to come, spokesman Jeff Pigott says the company isn’t eager to participate in the Magen Tzedek effort. “Right now, Agri Star has kosher certification they’re comfortable with, and they’re not looking for additional certification,” Pigott said.

For now, at least, the Magen Tzedek effort will be focused elsewhere. “This is not about Postville,” Allen said. “This is not just about one company in one state. This is about who we are.”

Contact Karen Loew at

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Newsweek's 50 Most Influential Rabbis in America: Magen Tzedek Scores Two!

by Michael Lynton and Gary Ginsberg
June 18, 2010

Two rabbi watchers release their 2010 list.

In the fall of 2006, Sony Pictures chairman and CEO Michael Lynton and his pal Gary Ginsberg, now an executive vice president of Time Warner Inc., began working on a list of the 50 most influential rabbis in the U.S.

The friends devised the following unscientific criteria to rank the leaders, whose specialties range from kashrut to Kabbalah: Are they known nationally/internationally? (20 points.) Do they have political/social influence? (20 points.) Do they have a media presence? (10 points.) Are they leaders within their communities? (10 points.) Are they considered leaders in Judaism or their movements? (10 points. ) How big are their constituencies? (10 points.) Have they made an impact on Judaism in their career? (10 points.) Have they made a greater impact beyond the Jewish community and their rabbinical training? (10 points.)

NEWSWEEK published that first list around Passover, 2007, with this caveat: “Is the list subjective? Yes. Is it mischievous in its conception? Definitely.” Now in its fourth year, Lynton and Ginsberg’s list includes eight fresh names and a new rabbi in the top spot.
10.Morris Allen—As program director for Magen Tzedek, the ethical kosher seal, Allen is changing the way the world thinks about kashrut and the ethical issues surrounding the hechsher. (NEW)
32.Michael Siegel—In addition to serving as senior rabbi at Chicago’s Anshe Emet congregation, Siegel is also nationally known as the co-chair of the Heksher Tzedek Commission. (NEW)

(Click here to see the complete listing.)

Friday, May 28, 2010

New ethical seal will take kashrut where it must go
Thursday, May 27, 2010

The laws of kashrut have guided Jews for millennia. But like everyone else on the planet, Jews can no longer deny the link between food and the socio-ecological impact of its manufacture.

That is why we applaud the Conservative movement for devising a new hechsher, or certification, that adds to the guidelines for what is — and isn’t — an acceptable kosher product.

Our story on page 8 details the movement’s new Magen Tzedek, which acknowledges what its designers call “Kashrut for the 21st century.” After a period of testing, the new seal of approval will make its debut, probably in the first half of 2011.

Beyond the rules of kashrut enshrined in the Torah –– rules that can never be modified –– the Magen Tzedek commission created additional categories by which to assess kosher status. Those categories include the welfare of workers and animals, the environment and corporate responsibility.

Some may look askance at this and similar efforts afoot in other denominations. After all, the Torah and Talmud already address a multitude of social justice issues. Over the years, the various streams of Judaism have codified the Jewish way when it comes to how we treat the planet and our fellow human beings.

The times we live in call for more.

Nothing has a greater impact on civilization than food production. There is no greater drain on resources, no endeavor more polluting, than the food industry. We depend on an unsustainable global system powered by fossil fuels, pesticides and exploitative labor practices.

And let us not forget the horrific level of animal cruelty at its base.

As the shameful example of the Agriprocessors scandal showed us, the kosher food industry is not immune to committing abuses.

Thus we face the omnivore’s dilemma. We must eat to live, but we must make sure that the food we eat meets the highest ideals of Judaism. It is no longer enough that a shochet properly applied his trade or that a rabbi supervised production in any given factory.

It means that at every step, from farmland to dinner table, from pasture to drive-through window, the food we eat embodies respect for the Earth, respect for animal life and respect for our fellow human beings.

The new Conservative hechsher absolutely upholds the letter of the law when it comes to kashrut. As one commission adviser says, there will be no hechsher on pork sausage.
But the Magen Tzedek hechsher upholds more than the letter of the law. It upholds the spirit, as well.