Food for thought: A kosher slaughter

Even if you eat kosher meat, you probably haven’t seen an animal slaughtered first-hand using kosher methods. The Jewish Initiative for Animals organizes public demonstrations of the process to get eaters thinking about kosher food traditions and animal welfare. Contributor Sam Brasch files this field report from the Hazon Food Conference in Connecticut.

“Out of sight, out of mind” is just an expression for most people. It takes on a much larger meaning for Yadidya Greenberg. He’s an animal welfare advocate with the Jewish Initiative for Animals, and organizes live kosher slaughter demonstrations as a part of the job. By confronting eaters with a process usually hidden from view, Greenberg hopes people will consider what it means to kill animals for food. “If you just get meat from the store, it’s very easy to feel detached,” he says. “When you have slaughter right in front of your face, you really have to think about what it means.”

At the Hazon Food Conference this past winter in Connecticut, Greenberg led a kosher slaughter demonstration in the snow. A small crowd braved the cold to watch. Nine-year-old Meira Colton wasn’t sure what to expect, other than blood. “I eat meat to get good energy and stuff, but I kind of feel sad eating animals,” she said.

At the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center in Connecticut, shochet Shlomo Schachter cleans a vegetable knife he has modified into a blade for kosher slaughter. (Photo by Sam Brasch)

Greenberg explains that kosher laws aren’t just about avoiding bacon. The tradition codifies one of the oldest rituals for how to kill an animal. And this is not his first rodeo: Greenberg is a trained kosher slaughterer, or shochet. He spent three years working at an industrial kosher slaughterhouse in Nebraska. That job was the basis for his blog, The Kosher Omnivore’s Quest.

Another shochet by the name of Shlomo Schachter assists Greenberg with the demonstration. He invites the audience to say a prayer, followed by an “Amen.” “But don’t say it too loudly as we don’t want to frighten the chickens.” It’s one example of tzaar baalei chaim, the Jewish principle that bars causing unnecessary harm to animals. Next, Schachter runs a fingernail along his blade to make sure it’s sharp. Greenberg raises the first rooster by its legs and steadies the bird for Schachter, who pulls the bird’s head back and makes a back-and-forth cut across the neck. The rooster lets out a noise — something between a gurgle and a squawk — as Greenberg holds the bird upside-down inside an orange traffic cone. The blood drains onto dirt that has been placed over the snow for the ritual.

The rooster’s blood falls to the ground. Greenberg says this part of the process makes the slaughter more humane because the animal quickly loses consciousness and feels less pain. (Photo by Sam Brasch)

According to the Torah, the blood of an animal contains its soul, or nephesh. This is why kosher laws forbid the consumption of an animal’s blood. Catching the blood with dirt — and covering it with more dirt afterwards — represents a sort of burial. Greenberg says that the quick loss of blood results in rapid brain death and less pain for the animal. He assures the audience that the sounds and movements the bird makes for the minute-or-so after the cut are involuntary. The bird was rendered unconscious almost immediately.

Lisa Colton hugs her daughter, Meira Colton, as they watch the kosher slaughter demonstration at the Hazon Food Conference. (Photo by Sam Brasch)

Even so, Meira Colton cries during the presentation and leaves. Not her 12-year-old brother, Eli Colton. He rushes to help Greenberg pluck the feathers from the dead birds. This is no easy task. Most conventional processors scald their poultry in hot water to ease the process along. But this isn’t allowed under kosher law because it’s considered “cooking.” Tradition dictates the meat must be salted before it is cooked to draw out the last bits of blood. Once the roosters are finally plucked clean, Schachter dusts them with a healthy amount of kosher salt. “Every bit of salt is kosher to eat,” he explains. “It’s called kosher salt because we use it to make meat ‘kosher.’”

Kosher birds can’t be scalded in hot water before being plucked, which makes for a difficult job. (Photo by Sam Brasch)

Afterwards, Eli Colton says he was surprised it wasn’t more gruesome. He’s watched undercover investigations of kosher slaughterhouses on YouTube. There’s a good chance the organization PETA, also known as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, was behind some of them. The animal rights group began focusing its investigations on the kosher meat industry in 2004, when it exposed abuses at the Agriprocessors plant in Postville, Iowa. It was then the world’s largest glatt kosher facility.

More recently, PETA conducted investigations at kosher slaughterhouses in South America that employed the controversial “shackle-and-hoist” method, whereby animals are strung up by a hind leg during slaughter. The exposé helped bring about a pledge from Paraguay’s government to phase-out the practice. Improving animal welfare in the meat industry is one goal of the organization’s work, says PETA’s Hannah Schein, who oversaw the investigation. She says the undercover videos are meant to show consumers that slaughter simply isn’t humane. Rather, a plant-based diet is the right choice for people concerned with animal welfare.

Greenberg says the purpose of his demonstrations isn’t to promote any single dietary change. He doesn’t mind if eaters walk away as advocates for humane slaughter; mainly, he just wants them to take stock of the experience. “Seeing it in person is a good way for people to just see it,” says Greenberg. “There’s no camera where I am trying to make a powerful picture.”

Photo of rooster (top) by Brenda Timmermans

This story was made possible with support from KCRW’s Independent Producer Project and the UC Berkeley School of Journalism 11th-Hour Food and Farming Fellowship.