Friday, November 21, 2008

Gam Zu L'Tova - 3

Agriprocessors. The largest kosher beef slaughterhouse and processing plant in the country. Revitalized the economy of moribund Postville, Iowa and became its largest employer. Featured in Jewish Action and other publications. Then suddenly the whole house of cards crumbled. Federal immigration agents raided the place and arrested hundreds of illegal immigrant workers. Allegations of child labor and unsafe working conditions resulting in loss of fingers in some cases. Production crippled due to a shortage of workers. Finally the operation filed for bankruptcy. Retail butchers around the country face severe shortages of meat. Other kosher plants try to take up the slack but lack the production capacity.

Eventually the situation will get back to normal. Either Agriprocessors will successfully reorganize, another kosher producer will buy and operate the plant, or existing kosher suppliers will expand their operations and entrepreneurs will enter the field figuring to make a buck. But until then we will be thinking about where our meat comes from, whether we need to eat so much of it, or any at all, and whether the kosher meat industry as presently constituted is consistent with Jewish ethics.

Agriprocessors, like most American meat processing plants, was based on "factory farming." A factory farm has little to do with the family farms that used to be the backbone of American agriculture or the farming practices described in Tanakh. On a factory farm an animal is a production unit first, and a living, sentient organism a distant second. Male animals are castrated and shot full of female hormones so they could grow faster, but the growth is mostly fat. Cattle, which naturally eat grass, are fed grain instead, again for accelerated growth, but this unnatural diet makes them sick. They are packed into feedlots, wallowing in their own filth, which also makes them sick. The animals are then fed antibiotics to which the infecting pathogens develop resistance, which is transfered to human pathogens. Any number of gastrointestinal outbreaks have been traced to factory farms. It is an understatemet to say that factory farming practices raise issues of tza'ar ba'alei hayyim, unnecessary suffering of sentient animals. It also raises more mundane issues of kashrut. A modern slaughterhouse is an assembly line, where profit is maximized by processing the largest number of animals in the shortest amount of time. Can a shohet pay as much attention to the condition of the knife and the exacting technique of shehita as he could on a family farm where he could take as much time as he needed for each individual shehita? Clandestine video taken at Agriprocessors shows ghastly suffering from what looks to the layperson's eye like massively botched shehita. Granted, the video was taken by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), a group hostile to shehita in general and not especially concerned with ethical treatment of humans if they happen to be Jewish. But pictures don't lie, and living cows writhing in pain with their trachea and esophogi hanging out is inconsistent with Jewish values, if not with halakha.

Now, for the time being, factory-farmed kosher beef will be in short supply. What there is of it will be much more expensive, due both to supply and demand and to the rising cost of animal feed and transportation. Cash-strapped Jewish families will be eating less beef, and that will be to their benefit. Factory-farmed beef is much fatter than what our stone-age ancestors hunted down on foot with primitive weapons, and fatter than livestock raised before the advent of farm machinery. All that fat is unhealthy and a major contributing factor to obesity and its sequelae. In my family we eat beef very rarely; we eat chicken (much leaner than factory-farmed beef) on Shabbat and holidays, and vegetarian fare during the week. Thank God I am a healthy and vigorous 56, at an age when my father's health began to fail, as is that of many of my carnivorous contemporaries.

We are now in a position to insist that our beef be raised sustainably, in a manner consistent with the animals' well-being and our own, fed mostly on grass, with a minimum of fertilizers and pesticides. The operation will be less profitable, and less beef will be produced. What used to be on the menu every day if not twice a day will become a treat for Shabbat and Yom Tov. And we will all be better off for it.

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2 Comments:

Anonymous Garnel Ironheart said...

Another question my butcher friends like to ask is: What exactly did the Rubashkins do that was wrong... that pretty much every other large factory across the United States didn't?

Illegal workers? Hardly a Rubashkin's exclusive. Unsafe working conditions? Again, no monopoly there. Child labour? Ask Cathy Lee Gifford about that one.

What they did wrong was put a frum face on the front page of the NY Times in the worst possible context.

We must remember that as frum Jews it isn't enough to go with the "flow of traffic". The point of Jewish ethics is that what's good enough for everyone else isn't for us.

Sat Nov 22, 08:50:00 PM EST  
Blogger Neandershort said...

1. If you're caught doing 90 miles per hour on the turnpike, "Everybody else does it" won't carry much weight with the judge.

2. When I was newly married, I had the privilege of hearing Rabbi Joseph Telushkin speak on Kol Nidre night. He reminded us of the then-current Hebrew National commercial that ended with, "We answer to a higher authority." His point was yours, and it still needs to be made decades later. It's not enough that we don't cheat more than anybody else. We have to cheat a lot less. Two weeks from now we will read about Ya'akov's sojourn with Lavan. Rubashkin is nothing less than a Jewish Lavan, and that thought is very unsettling to this Jewish union member.

Sat Nov 22, 10:53:00 PM EST  

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