by Brian Tomasik
First written: 2006; last update: 21 Jan. 2015

Summary

Are kosher animals raised and slaughtered humanely? Clearly conventional (non-kosher) animals are not. During slaughter, for instance, a number of conventional farm animals are dragged, scalded, and cut open while still conscious. Some claim that kosher slaughter can, in principle, be relatively painless, while others contend that cutting the throat of a conscious animal is always inhumane. Regardless, kosher slaughter may be very brutal in practice, as scandals have shown. Moreover, even if kosher animals are killed humanely, most of them are still raised in the same deplorable factory farms as other animals.

Note: This piece leaves out many additional references that are helpfully collected on Wikipedia's Shechita article.

Introduction

I have found that in discussions on the topic of vegetarianism, the question of kosher slaughter frequently arises. When I tell people that I do not oppose the killing of animals as such -- but rather the weeks of wretched conditions that animals endure in cramped and disease-ridden factory farms and the pain and stress that their subsequent slaughter generally involves -- they ask whether I would object to humanely raised, grass-fed animals that are killed painlessly. I respond that I would not object to such a hypothetical scenario out of concern for the farm animals themselves (though there are other relevant factors to consider). The other person then asks whether I would prefer the purchase of kosher meat, since kosher animals are supposedly slaughtered quickly and with minimal pain. The present piece is my attempt at a response.

Conventional slaughter is not humane

Before considering the topic of kosher slaughter, I'll note that I do not approve of most forms of conventional slaughter, as they have the potential to cause severe agony. For instance, consider this selection from a press release put out by Public Citizen, a consumer-advocacy organization:

Beef inspection USDAThe Humane Slaughter Act [HSA], passed by Congress in 1958 and amended in 1978, requires that all slaughter animals must be humanely handled and "stunned" prior to being hoisted up on the production line. It also requires that, once stunned, animals must remain unconscious throughout the butchering process. Evidence from slaughterhouses around the country shows that, due to increased production speeds and industry deregulation, slaughter animals are routinely dragged, skinned, dismembered, and scalded while alive and fully conscious. [...]

The petition [by Public Citizen and others] highlights a long list of HSA violations. The most brutal of these violations is the common occurrence of inaccurate and ineffective stunning which does not render the animals unconscious yet still forces them to move down the line through the slaughter process causing cattle to be skinned and dismembered and hogs to be scalded while they are still conscious. Petitioners also point to other violations such as dragging, beating, and excessive electric prodding, including abusive treatment of disabled animals. These illegal practices happen every day at USDA-inspected plants across the country.

Concerns over kosher slaughter

When I first looked into the topic of kosher slaughter, I was concerned by what I found. For example, consider the following selections from a BBC article on the subject:

The Farm Animal Welfare Council (FAWC), which advises the government [of the UK] on how to avoid cruelty to livestock, says the way Kosher and Halal meat is produced causes severe suffering to animals.

Both the Jewish and Muslim religions demand that slaughter [be] carried out with a single cut to the throat, rather than the more widespread method of stunning with a bolt into the head before slaughter. [...]

FAWC said it wanted an end to the exemption currently allowed for Kosher and Halal meat from the legal requirement to stun animals first.

It says cattle can take up to two minutes to bleed to death -- amounting to an abuse of the animals.

"This is a major incision into the animal and to say that it doesn't suffer is quite ridiculous," said FAWC chairwoman, Dr. Judy MacArthur Clark.

This selection is from a piece about Temple Grandin, a renowned animal-welfare scientist:

Dr. Grandin has caused a minor revolution in the way shechita is done around the world. Rabbayim are listening to what she has to say about shechita. She has shown them a way to restrain the animal while shechting that is easier, faster, causes less problems with blood flow, and is a far more humane way to shecht.

She told me that the first time she visited a kosher slaughter house, she heard screaming cattle from a half kilometer away and wondered what was different in this place. What she saw was shocking. I quote from her book, Thinking in Pictures, and Other Reports Prom My Life With Autism:

I will never forget having nightmares after visiting the now-defunct Spencer Foods plant in Spencer, Iowa, fifteen years ago. Employees wearing football helmets attached a nose tong to the nose of a writhing beast suspended by a chain wrapped around one back leg. Each terrified animal was forced with an electric prod to run into a small stall which had a slick floor on a forty-five degree angle. This caused the animal to slip and fall so that workers could attach the chain to its rear leg [in order to raise it into the air]. As I watched this nightmare, I thought, `This should not be happening in a civilized society.' In my diary I wrote, `If hell exists, I am in it.'

The AgriProcessors scandal

"Kosher Authority Seeks Change in Steer Killings":

Killings at the plant, AgriProcessors Inc., in Postville, Iowa, were clandestinely recorded this summer by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. A videotape showed workers cutting the throats out of living steers and then dumping the animals on the floor where they thrashed and bellowed while bleeding to death. [See PETA for more info and videos.]

The plant is the country's largest producer of meat that is glatt kosher, the highest standard of cleanliness. It is also the only American plant allowed to export to Israel.

Also yesterday, a representative of Israel's chief rabbinate said AgriProcessor's meat would no longer be accepted in Israel if the scenes he saw on tape were standard practice.

The response of the Orthodox Union to the AgriProcessors scandal included the following statement:

We continue to vouch for the kashrut of all of the meat prepared by AgriProcessors, Inc., which was never compromised. Like all the more than 6,000 plants -- producing all kinds of foodstuffs -- that are certified by the OU, it has always been under our regular supervision.

Can kosher slaughter be humane?

These selections come from a detailed paper by Temple Grandin and Joe M. Regenstein on proper kosher-slaughter procedures for minimizing pain and distress:

This process when done properly leads to a rapid death of the animal. A sharp cut is also known to be less painful. [...]

A key intellectual consideration is separation of the variable of restraint stress from the animal's reaction to the slaughter procedure. Stressful or painful methods of restraint mask the animal's reactions to the throat cut. In North America some kosher slaughter plants use very stressful methods of restraint such as shackling and hoisting fully conscious cattle by one rear leg.

Observations of the first author [Temple Grandin] indicate that cattle restrained in this manner often struggle and bellow and the rear leg is bruised. Bruises or injuries caused by the restraint methods (or from any other cause) would be objectionable to observant Jews. [...]

In all three slaughter plants [that used well designed holders], there was almost no visible reaction of the animal's body or legs during the throat cut. [...]

Since animals cannot communicate, it is impossible to completely rule out the possibility that a correctly made incision may cause some unpleasant sensation. However, one can definitely conclude that poor cutting methods and stressful restraint methods are not acceptable. Poor cutting technique often causes vigorous struggling. When the cut is done correctly, behavioural reactions to the cut are much less than reactions to air hissing, metal clanging noises, inversion, or excessive pressure applied to the body. Discomfort during a properly done shechitah cut is probably minimal because cattle will stand still and do not resist a comfortable head restraint device.

However, a recent study suggests that slaughter without stunning does indeed cause pain:

The researchers then showed that the pain originates from cutting throat nerves, not from the loss of blood, suggesting the severed nerves send pain signals until the time of death. Finally, they stunned animals 5 seconds after incision and showed that this makes the pain signal disappear instantly.

"It wasn't a surprise to me, but in terms of the religious community, they are adamant animals don't experience any pain, so the results might be a surprise to them," says Johnson.

Is kosher slaughter currently humane?

These selections come from an article (February 2005) in the Jerusalem Post:

It has been scientifically determined that industrial holding pens that allow the animal to stand upright during shechita (kosher slaughter) greatly reduces the animal's pain and stress at the time of slaughter. When shechita is performed properly in this manner, the animal does not kick or bellow or display other outward signs of anxiety, and evidently is rendered insensate within seconds.

This is hardly the case with the shackle and hoist method nor an inversion holding pen as is evidenced by the recent revelations in Iowa. Since more humane systems exist, the inversion methods are avoidable, and thus a violation of Jewish law.

Last November, an undercover investigation by an animal rights group (see PETAV) caused quite a stir when it revealed grotesque abuses at AgriProcessors, a glatt-kosher slaughterhouse in Iowa. The graphic video, and the subsequent statements by kashrut certifying agencies and the Israeli Rabbinate that the abuse of the animals does not affect the kosher status of the meat, show that the laws of shechita alone do not protect against animal abuse. [...]

It would be ironic if kashrut, which historically represented a breathtaking ethical advance in the relationship between people and animals, were to be seen as indifferent to calls to become as ethical as it can and must be. The Conservative movement holds that Jewish law, properly implemented, does not allow this indifference.

FailedMessiah reported in 2014:

It is 10 years since the Agriprocessors abuses were made public. Since then, animal abuse at other kosher slaughterhouses in South America, Europe, the US and Israel have repeatedly created public scandals.

During those 10 years, kosher certifiers and haredi rabbis have fought and blocked attempts to institute ethical kosher supervisions that would only certify the humane treatment of animals and employees by kosher slaughterhouses, leaving the actual kosher supervision to existing haredi or Orthodox supervisions.

It's been a decade. Orthodox and haredi rabbis have been left on their own to fix the problems. But nothing has changed.

Conditions of raising

The preceding discussion concerned itself exclusively with the topic of whether kosher slaughter was humane. I have so far ignored the other question: Under what conditions were the animals raised?

From what I have been able to ascertain, the kosher label does not imply anything about conditions of raising.

"When Kosher Isn't Kosher":

[O]n today's factory farms it is perfectly routine and legal to cut horns, testicles, and beaks off animals without painkillers, and to confine animals for their entire lives in spaces so cramped that they must be fed antibiotics simply to keep them alive. Sadly, virtually all kosher meat comes from animals that are raised in the same abusive factory farms that produce most meat in America.

"Kosher Meat":

Kosher animals are raised on conventional farms, which often administer growth hormones and antibiotics.

Thus, the welfare concerns that apply to regular factory-farmed meat also apply to most kosher meat. For more on the brutality of the conditions in which factory-farmed animals are raised, I recommend these sources:

  • "Why Vegan?" a series of pages on various aspects of factory farming.
  • "Meet Your Meat," a powerful thirteen-minute video.