Is shechita truly inhumane compared to other methods? Not necessarily.
All across Europe, veterinarians and animal-rights activists are trying to ban shechita, Jewish ritual slaughter of animals • Their argument is that the traditional method is “inhumane” compared to practises in non-kosher industrial slaughterhouses • Going beyond superficial impressions, Jonathan Sacerdoti argues that shechita is in many ways more humane than other methods currently in use • Taking a closer look at the food we eat
Kosher slaughter methods are being called into question across Europe, with a ban on shechita now in place in Denmark. A ban was recently introduced in Poland thanks to the passing of a law which confusingly contradicts an existing law protecting the right of Jews to carry out shechita, leaving the Jewish community there uncertain of their rights. There are moves elsewhere aimed at pressuring European governments into banning the practice of slaughtering animals without separate “pre-stunning” being carried out beforehand. Earlier this month, a story on the front page of the UK’s Times newspaper quoted John Blackwell, the incoming president of the British Veterinary Association, as calling for measures which amount to a total ban on shechita in the UK. Yet many argue that the swift severance of the frontal structures of the neck as carried out during the rapid incision required by shechita, provide the same effect as mechanical stunning, with the speed and accuracy demanded of the shochet (slaughterer) resulting in a humane slaughter.
In conversation with the BVA, I learned that they would hope for a ban on slaughtering without mechanical stunning to be “Europe-wide”, making the availability of fresh Kosher meat to European Jews unaffordable or impossible. This trend is of great concern to Jewish communities in Europe, as a ban on kosher slaughter makes the perpetuation of Jewish life increasingly difficult — meat either needs to be imported, or those who keep kosher need to go without. This contributes to a climate in which Europe’s Jews feel increasingly apprehensive about attitudes towards Jews in Europe; the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights reported last year that 66% of European Jews surveyed in its recent research consider antisemitism to be a major problem in their countries, with 76% saying that the situation had become more acute over the last five years.
Most newspapers referred to Mr. Blackwell as the UK’s “top vet”, implying that he has some sort of regulatory role. However, while the BVA is indeed the national representative body for vets, “promoting and supporting the interests of its members, and the animals under their care”. It is in fact more like a trade union, representing the interests of thousands of vets in the UK including those who work in the industrialised farming industry. It is in these farms and in non-kosher abattoirs that animal cruelty has recently been revealed on a huge scale. Between 2009 and 2011, the animal rights organisation Animal Aid discovered and filmed abhorrent cruelty to animals at eight out of nine slaughterhouses selected at random. It is in fact not the BVA but the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons which is the statutory body set up to administer the Veterinary Surgeons Act, and which can properly be considered to be a regulatory body for vets.
Despite the Times’ enthusiasm for the story, the BVA insists that its position on the issue of kosher slaughter is not new. It claims that the incoming President was merely repeating existing policy when interviewed by the newspaper. As is the case with many who argue in favour of a ban, the BVA’s incoming president, and its past president (with whom I spoke), claim that they are motivated purely by a wish to improve animal welfare. Much of the general population says the same — that they only wish to see meat being sourced from humanely slaughtered animals (a concept some might consider oxymoronic). While there is no reason to doubt these motives in most cases, this concern for the welfare of animals may well be based on thin evidence, and a latent or unintended bias against Jews and Muslims. To accuse all proponents of banning shechita of being deliberate anitesemites is obviously wrong, but we must examine closely the possible unconscious or unintended motives for focusing so closely on kosher slaughter practices, when industrialised farming and slaughter methods used by the far larger scale non-kosher meat industry should clearly be a more pressing priority for front page debate in the UK press.
Somewhat feebly, the BVA acknowledges that the percentage of animals slaughtered in the UK according to Jewish law is tiny, but it claims the issue is important enough to prioritise because of the “actual number” of individual animals killed this way. Robin Hargreaves, a spokesman for the BVA and its former President, told me that he is “pleased the debate has been opened to a wider group” thanks to the Times articles. Yet this wider debate might well be based on thin evidence, largely misunderstood or considered in isolation of other important facts and data.
Which method is more ‘humane’?
The scientific community is far from unanimous on the rather peculiar question of what is the nicest way to kill an animal. Undoubtedly, rules and protocols are required to minimize the trauma caused to an animal being raised and killed for our food, but there can be no escaping from the seemingly obvious fact that being killed is unlikely to be a pleasant experience for any creature. Modern food supply methods mean that most of us are not used to seeing animals being reared or killed before we eat them. The ability to mentally separate the meat on our plate from any memory of a living creature is the foundation of many a carnivorous attitude towards continued consumption of meat. When we stop to think about how our meat came to be in our shopping basket, and eventually on our plate, the reality can be off-putting to say the least.
Many of those who find it unpalatable to think about how their meat was sourced will look for ways to assuage their guilt; they do their best to buy meat that conforms to certain standards, so that they can rest assured the animals killed for their own food were treated as kindly as could be hoped for. But in reality, with the prevalence of cheap supermarket meat, and dietary habits which involve eating meat several times a week, many are in fact intentionally suppressing any thought of the cruelty which might have been suffered by the animal whose flesh they come to be eating.
Ask most Europeans where the meat they are eating is from and how it was killed, and they will be unlikely to be able to tell you. The recent horse meat scandal revealed than many did not even know what species they were eating, let alone how it was reared and slaughtered. For those people who are concerned about animal welfare, but have an overriding urge to eat meat anyway, it can help to focus on a perceived cruelty that someone else might be carrying out rather than on their own culpability, and the practice of shechita provides such an opportunity. Detailed descriptions of Jewish slaughter practices sound unpleasant, and thus it is easy for most to take a stand against them rather than investigate too deeply just how inhumane the slaughter technique was that produced their own meat in order to carry out a fair comparison.
Central to the argument made by the BVA in the UK is the notion of ‘stunning’ the animal before slaughtering it. Non-kosher meat is derived from animals killed this way, with a variety of stunning techniques being used. Mr. Hargreaves told me that most stunning carried out in UK slaughter houses is done by means of a “penetrative bolt”; a mechanical bolt is fired into the head of the animal, actually penetrating the animal’s head. Other techniques include gassing the animals (effectively suffocating them), or electrocuting them. The intention is to render the animal insensitive, so that the pain of the cut used to kill it and the subsequent loss of blood will not be felt. Such techniques are expressly forbidden by the rules of shechita, as kosher meat must be from an animal which is in good health. Animals which have been blasted through their heads with a bolt, electrocuted or suffocated obviously cannot easily be defined as in good health.
The BVA wishes to see meat killed without pre-stunning banned, or failing that, labelled clearly so that consumers can decide to boycott it should they wish. This in turn makes kosher meat prohibitively expensive as currently, the parts of the animal slaughtered according to the laws of shechita which are not used for sale as kosher meat are sold on to the non-kosher market, and might therefore find their way into foods bought by non-Jews. The idea of labelling this meat as killed “without stunning” is intended to offer consumers the choice of boycotting it, and would therefore have a knock on effect for the price of kosher meat, which is already prohibitively expensive for some Jews.
Unequal Scrutiny and Double Standards
However, despite sensationalist articles in some British newspapers about meat killed for kosher slaughter finding its way into burgers and other foods eaten by non-Jews, meat from animals slaughtered according to laws of shechita can barely be found in the food eaten by the vast majority of the British population. Around two million cows are killed each year in the UK, of which around 20,000 are killed according to the laws of shechita. This is around 1% of the total number of animals slaughtered. For mostly financial reasons, the expensive preparation of the hind quarters of the cow that would make it suitable for kosher consumption is not carried out. So this portion of the animal as well as any animals discovered to have been unhealthy when examined after the slaughter, are sold to the non-kosher market by the abattoir (not by the shochet or the kosher meat trade itself). It is hard to trace where this meat goes, but as it is considered by many Muslims to be suitable for Halal consumption, much of it is probably sold to the Muslim community. That leaves less than half of one percent of all the meat from animals slaughtered according to the laws of shechita which might then end up in meat used by the general, non-kosher and non halal population.
In discussions with the Jewish community and its representative bodies defending shechita in the UK, I was told that they are not against labelling food. In fact one could argue that the requirements of kashrut actually demand clear food labelling so that Jews are aware of which meat was prepared according to their strict religious laws. Jews have been labelling their meat for longer than most non-Jewish producers. Shechita UK is the organization which lobbies to defend kosher slaughter, and is adamant that labelling must be applied across the board and fairly. They maintain that if meat killed ‘without pre-stunning’ is labelled, so too must be meat killed following electrocution, penetrative bolt stunning or other similar methods. To label only kosher and some halal meat this way, they argue, is a double standard which effects Jews and their practices more than it does any other group of meat producers.
At the heart of this debate lies a great deal of uncertainty and confusion over what truly is the ‘kindest’ way to kill an animal. In 2004, the BVA’s own professional Journal, The Veterinary Record, published a lengthy analysis of the scientific research into shechita and the various methods of pre-stunning. This concluded that shechita itself in fact acts as a form of stunning, rendering the animal insensitive and immediately killing it in one move. Despite being the past president of the BVA and its representative spokesman assigned to discuss these issues with me, Mr. Hargreaves was unaware of this paper published in his own association’s journal, claiming that he has not read the article recently enough to comment on it. He did inform me, however, that the journal is peer reviewed, and is the journal of his association, though its publication is carried out by the British Medical Journal (an equivalent publication for doctors). I invited him to reread it, complete with its damning summary of the research which suggests the potential high levels of pain inflicted by so-called ‘humane’ methods of stunning, and then contact me for further discussion. After more than ten days, I have not heard back from him.
Indeed, this paper published by BVA’s own journal, written by Dr. Stuart Rosen, a cardiologist at the National Heart and Lung Institute, detailed how little research had actually been done on the efficacy of the most commonly used stunning methods. Most studies replicated what they considered to be shechita-like practices, but which were not actual shechita practices. Furthermore, from the research which does exist, including studies into electric shocks administered to humans and the experiences of humans who underwent carbon dioxide narcosis, it is clear that there is no consensus even on whether stunned animals are spared the sensations of pain and distress. When mis-stunned, they certainly do experience pain, as can be witnessed by anyone with access to YouTube and a strong enough nerve to watch the many videos filmed in ordinary slaughterhouses across the UK.
Even when carried out correctly, Dr. Rosen’s paper suggests that the most common pre-stun methods may still be very painful and distressing in their own right. For example, where electric shocks have been used in human medical settings, for example during some psychiatric treatments, anaesthetic is always administered first to prevent pain. Carbon dioxide narcosis, a seemingly non-violent method of stunning, has been shown in human studies cited by Dr. Rosen to result in a “severe and frightening air hunger.” Suffocation is far from humane.
Halachah Dictates Humane Treatment
Various animal rights organisations have documented and videoed cruel practices carried out in industrialised slaughter houses, as well as in kosher slaughter houses. From a non-scientific review of many of these (often secretly filmed) videos, I personally found the kosher slaughter videos from Europe and the UK to be far less distressing to watch than the majority of the non-kosher ones. The precision required in the act of shechita means that great care is taken over each and every animal’s slaughter, something which cannot be said for the larger scale slaughter carried out in many of the other videos. Furthermore, in the UK, shechita is very tightly regulated in a way which Halal slaughter for Muslims is not. Shochetim, who carry out the slaughter, are required to study for at least five years and are examined, in theory and in practice, on the laws of kosher slaughter, animal anatomy and pathology. They then serve an apprenticeship with an experienced shochet before becoming fully qualified. After that, they are examined every year, and have to apply for renewal of their license. Shechita UK, a body which defends kosher practices, says that in the UK non-kosher slaughtermen are not required to undergo such rigorous training or stringent annual assessment.
These debates focus on the laws of kashrut and their effect on the last few seconds of an animal’s life. But what makes a cow kosher starts well before it ends up in the abattoir. In fact, the requirements of kashrut actually demand more humane treatment of animals well before the moment of slaughter. When animals are selected for kosher slaughter, they are selected for having been unblemished by harm or ill health from the start. Therefore by definition, the kosher market gives preference to farms who treat animals well throughout their lives. Commercially, this makes the practice of kosher production of meat far more likely to be humane. The more humane the farm and its treatment of the animals, the more likely it is that the animals will be unblemished, and therefore the more likely that farm is to be selected for sourcing animals for kosher slaughter.
In light of Judaism’s overriding concern for the welfare of animals and their required good health at the moment of slaughter, perhaps non-kosher meat producers would do well to actually adopt some of the laws of kashrut, rather than banning them. Certainly while scientific studies fail to show conclusively that shechita is any crueler or more painful to the animal than non-kosher slaughter, suggestions of banning such an important part of Jewish life must be treated with the utmost suspicion.