PETA’s Not-So-Hidden AgendaAn open letter from PETA Senior Researcher (and undercover investigator) Philip Schein to YWN readers:
In response to PETA’s original 2007 investigation of “shackle and hoist” kosher slaughter in Uruguay, a representative of the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbinate of Israel defended the kosher status of the meat in the Jerusalem Post, arguing, “In fact, gratuitous cruelty to animals during the slaughter process does not disqualify the meat.”
It is a shame that to the general public, the image of kosher meat has degenerated from the proud, classic slogan “We answer to a higher authority” to “Gratuitous cruelty to animals does not disqualify the meat.”
Many kosher consumers, however, are disturbed by how tza’ar ba’alei chayim has been relegated to an afterthought in kosher meat production. For PETA, tza’ar ba’alei chayim is our primary focus. Much of our investigative work is clandestine, but we have an explicit mission to expose all the gratuitous cruelty that is obscured from the public so that consumers can make informed decisions and demand the best practices.
If companies are not transparent about their treatment of animals, our undercover footage provides a window into their operations. Audits—whether announced or unannounced—and orchestrated tours can never fully and candidly capture how a slaughterhouse functions. And as the investigations of Agriprocessors demonstrated, egregious practices can be conducted right under the noses of mashgichim and USDA inspectors. It is in this sense that we hope you can use PETA’s covert work to demand more transparency and vigilance on the part of companies and kosher certification systems.
Some of PETA’s tactics to publicize certain campaigns have been labeled as sensationalistic. This is true, but our core message is not extreme. Eliminating gratuitous cruelty to animals is a very reasonable, common-sense goal. Tza’ar ba’alei chayim is not a radical mission.
For example, whether one thinks kapporos should be performed with live chickens or with money, almost everyone would agree that providing no water to the chickens—or handling them roughly—is unacceptable. It is frustrating trying to work with the largest kapporos operations in Brooklyn to improve basic conditions and treatment of chickens only to be falsely accused of being anti-Semitic or anti-shechita.
Similarly, PETA’s investigations into the kosher slaughter industry were never about shechita but rather issues involving tza’ar ba’alei chayim in the handling of the animals and conditions for animals in the facilities. At Agriprocessors, the dismemberment of the tracheas and esophagi of still-conscious animals was conducted immediately after shechita—it was not part of the shechita process. These “dressing procedures” weren’t done for halachic purposes but rather for commercial reasons—to prevent blood splash (which reduces profits). Similarly, in South America, “shackle and hoist” kosher slaughter is done for commercial reasons only. One hundred cattle can be killed per hour by “shackle and hoist,” but only 55 per hour can be slaughtered using a more humane inverted pen.
This is the real hidden agenda. The kosher meat companies that PETA investigated were causing unnecessary pain and suffering for the sake of profit and then trying to defend those cruel practices by framing PETA’s efforts as an attack on shechita. In the wake of New Zealand’s recent ban on shechita, it is understandable that some in the Jewish community are nervous. But PETA’s investigations were never an attack on shechita. Quite the contrary. PETA said all along that the egregious practices filmed at Agriprocessors were violations of the legal exemptions provided for proper shechita in the U.S.—that what PETA documented was a horrible anomaly and needed to be corrected. Dr. Temple Grandin, the world’s leading slaughterhouse expert, agreed, saying that Agriprocessors’ methods were the “most disgusting thing” she’d ever seen and that these practices were never used in any other kosher slaughter plant that she had audited. Ironically, it was Sholom Rubashkin himself who said that they were “shechita in its full glory!” It was Rubashkin who made it about shechita and tried to defend the practice of hacking the tracheas/esophagi out of fully conscious animals (some of whom continued to struggle to their feet three minutes after shechita) as examples of standard, proper shechita.
The shocking findings of PETA’s 2004 investigation, confirmed by the USDA, naturally put the plant under greater scrutiny. But the conspiracy theories about PETA being in alliance with the unions, the government, the Catholic church, etc., in order to bring about the immigration raid and bring down Rubashkin are ludicrous. Our focus is always on humane improvements, and now that Agriprocessors has been sold, our attention is directed at working with Hershey Friedman of Agri Star to introduce third-party video-monitoring systems recommended by Dr. Temple Grandin. We would be pleased now to support any positive animal welfare reforms at Agri Star. We even praised Rubashkin when we indentified that Agriprocessors had a contract with the only plant in Uruguay that did not use “shackle and hoist” for kosher slaughter. So please be reassured that PETA has no anti-shechita or anti-Semitic agenda or a vendetta against Rubashkin.
Our kosher slaughter investigations make up only a small fraction of our work. Most of our efforts are directed at large conventional meat sellers such as KFC, McDonald’s, and Tyson Foods and at major offenders in other animal-exploiting industries, such as the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. We even conducted an investigation of a Catholic monastery that was running a factory-farm egg operation that confined tens of thousands of hens to battery cages. That monastery has since started growing mushrooms instead and is thriving.
Personally, I have conducted more than 30 undercover operations in diverse fields. Besides my investigations into the kosher slaughter industry in the U.S., Canada, and South America, I have investigated racehorse slaughter in Japan, bear hunting in Canada, a chinchilla fur farm in Michigan and many others. We are “equal opportunity” investigators.
I think we share the concerns of most kosher consumers. We hope that our work will lead to more humane and accountable systems. It is clear that more vigilance is required and that even the monitors need to be monitored. If proper systems are in place to ensure humane treatment of animals, PETA can be taken out of the equation. Our agenda is to make ourselves unnecessary. Our ultimate goal is to be obsolete.
Thanks to YWN for posting this. I know this is a very sensitive issue. I welcome comments and will try to answer your questions, and I hope this can be the beginning of a respectful and constructive dialogue.
(YWN Exclusive by Philip Schein – PETA)