VEGA News Item

Is Kosher Kinder? - 18/02/2008
“Anyone who knows the halachah realizes that the welfare of animals is a basic tenet of Judaism. Yet intensively – reared chickens are not only declared kosher but are practically the only birds available to the kosher consumer”...

1. “Anyone who knows the halachah realizes that the welfare of animals is a basic tenet of Judaism. Yet intensively – reared chickens are not only declared kosher but are practically the only birds available to the kosher consumer”, says Ruth Joseph in a Feature on Food (Jewish Chronicle, 01 February 2008).

2. Controversy over methods of killing animals for meat have concentrated concepts of welfare to meet the stipulations of Jews and Muslims; however, complacency reigns over extensions of these attitudes to pre-slaughter breeding and rearing, where chronic distress might persist, in contrast to the acute suffering inflicted on an unprepared (that is, by a prior attempt at rendering the victim insentient by a blow to the head, electric shock, or gassing) animal. Although comparisons with pigs could weigh as much as the slaughterer, who – as we know from macabre evidence from North America – would find it difficult to think of a humane way of killing a human prisoner intended for execution. This comparison was useful during the McLibel trial for exposing some of the facts of death in the food chain, for which destiny non-human animals lose out because their flesh is eaten and should be free from drugs and residues of pain-killers or anaesthetics.

3. Myths have therefore proliferated over welfare in the pre-slaughter production of animals intended as livestock for the slaughterer, and not just in religious conditions but also in definitions of organic, free range, and “real” meat, as well as in the production of eggs and milk. Organisations such as the Soil Association and the RSPCA impose some restraints on the viciousness of conditions on animals reared and intended for turning into or yielding food for consumption, and they profess means of controlling, monitoring, and policing such attempts at averting cruelty, albeit with varying success (more on gaining the Soil Association’s mark of approval than the RSPCA’s claims for monitoring). And the scriptures for Jews and Muslims contain texts advising the “good man” on “the care of his beast”, as well maintenance as a natural order that in some way resembles some of the stipulations of the Farm Animal Welfare Council’s Five Freedoms and general “good practice” embodied in codes that apply to all farm animals in this country (but not compulsorily to imported products of animal origin).

4. Although the animals presented for religious methods are supposedly “perfect” and “healthy”, such niceties are often overlooked. Broken-mouthed sheep, and infertile cows may arrive precisely because they are “spent” and mutilations carried out on the farm (such as emasculation and tail docking) do not seem to detract from “perfection” (although beak-trimming to curb aggression in flocks, free range or not, and symptoms of boredom and stereotypy, such as feather-pecking and cannibalism may count for rejections at a later stage; however, animals killed by shechita, say, may not satisfy the Jewish inspectors, but be passed off, undistinguished, into the general market).

5. Recent exposures on TV of broiler production prove that the general population and even animal welfarists need release from myths that Ruth Harrison sought to allay over 40 years ago in her outstanding book called Animal Machines: that eggs come from colonies of hens kept in batteries of cages, that broilers (or oven-readies as they were formerly defined) come from juvenile stock, male and female, kept intensively in hangars or organically/“free range”, for instance). The plight of outdoor flocks, bred unequal to the rigors of life in the wild – and especially to threats of foxes and zoonoses such as campylobacter and now avian flu – may result in higher morbidity and mortality in the “welfare” systems, and their abandonment to crowding for their brief lives under cover and separate from the hazards of the alien environments of “free range”. In evolutionary terms, anyway, they have been torn from their natural habitat of the jungle and tropical tree cover.

6. Ruth Joseph, in her Jewish Chronicle article, has her eyes opened: “veal, long decried as immoral, can also be kosher, as can foie gras – produced by force-feeding geese – and battery eggs”. She asks: “How does intensively-reared chicken square with the Talmudic injunction” (of “compassion”). She receives dubious assurance from Stephen Grossman of Lewco-Pak, a major kosher supplier, who “insists” that his birds “are not intensively reared like the ones featured on TV. They have 25% more space per chicken”. Ruth Joseph explains that he is using a system of monitored Freedom Food labelling that was established by the RSPCA in 1994; it “gives the birds brighter indoor lights, slower growth, straw bales, objects to peck and approximately 50 days from hatching to slaughter”. Ruth adds: “Within the constraints of demand and legislation, this is the best he can manage”.

7. Ruth Joseph cites a statement by Laurence Greenspan, a kosher butcher: “We want to supply kosher organic and free range – a lot of our customers have demanded these birds – but our hands are very much tied”. He explains that “for a large number of his customers cost is a huge factor for Shabbat chicken”.

8. The article in the Jewish Chronicle comments further on “white eggs from battery chickens – bald and featherless due to the constant pecking of their fellows, cramped into stacked crates above each other – remain among those considered kosher because of the ease of “candling”, the process of screening to remove any that show traces of blood spots. (We can comment that in the UK brown eggs are preferred for domestic sales, whereas white eggs are the more popular for such purposes in North America). If Ruth Joseph had taken the trouble to ask her granny or momma – or any granny or mother who has lived and catered for families in our latitudes – hens go off lay in the winter months and indeed in their native climes; enjoying the Farm Animal Welfare Council’s Five Freedoms, they would produce no more than a dozen eggs a year, whereas today’s commercial birds, free range, or not, are forced by tricks of lighting, breeding, and feeding to outputs of 300 eggs in each period of lay. And the hens, most of them “spent” after a single bout of such production, are chased into the pathetic traffic for slaughter for manufactured commodities.

9. Ruth Joseph, a journalist, concludes that “in the past, people have remained blind to the fate of the animals they have consumed”; however, “an awareness of animal welfare seems to be developing, and ultimately it is the consumer who will finally decide the chicken’s fate”; and “maybe in the future our food can be both kosher and caring”. The prognostication on the consumers’ influence on the food market is at the heart of VEGA’s many consultations with DEFRA (and formerly MAFF) and, on a truly farm-to-fork basis, with the Food Standards Agency (FSA), as well as with farmers, manufacturers, and retailers. An Open Meeting in London on the 13th February 2008 of the FSA’s Council, which was webcast (see FSA website), gives some idea of the influence of animal welfare matters across the whole industry. In particular, government and official procurements of food should manifest the FSA as a consumer/customer making just such choices and exerting the desired influence. These Open Meetings are held in Cardiff, Belfast, and Edinburgh, as well as in London, and they offer interactive contributions via the webcast. We recommend all “caring” consumers and advisers to take advantage of these stimulating opportunities.

10. However, Ruth Joseph blinks the most trying challenges, which are over the slaughter (and culling) of animals for food, clothing, footwear, and even fuel in which disquiet extends beyond Jewish (and Muslim) communities, to the general public and to the adequacy of practice, monitoring, and labelling to enable customers to discharge responsible citizens’ choices in the manner Ruth Joseph seeks. Many Jews and Muslims play safe and go veggy for this reason. The Farm Animal Welfare Council has devoted much attention to these matters and made strong recommendations to the Government – but it has not shown a lead by declaring itself a corporate veggie at least until it can assure the whole body of potential customers that the slaughter – or massacre – of millions of animals each year achieves any semblance of what might be rated “humane” killing – which is surely an oxymoron, anyway.

11. Further, we live in a society that demands evidence-based testimony, even when the quality of mercy can be applied with little inconvenience or discomfort to us as “lords of creation”. Recent scientific advances have reinforced earlier methods of assessing stress in animals (including humans) with less and less resort to invasive or intrusive methods of experimentation, aided by our own experiences and observations in fright, flight, fight situations and in signs of distress, “breaking out in a sweat”, vocalizing, pining, and emitting smells in our excretions that can be interpreted as signs of anxiety, fear, or terror – or the desolation of inanition and stereotypy that mark the onset of hopelessness.

12. A bequest from a founder Trustee of VEGA helped in an analysis of various signs of behavior and physiology to determine stresses and injuries that could be rated as cruelty or abuse before and during slaughter, as well as in other traditional farm-to-fork aspects of livestock handling. By this time, we had the advantages of experiences of our livestock monitors and their impressions of the treatment of the animals and their behaviour, just as any conscientious stockman should. We actually had a 50:50 arrangement with the then MAFF to arrange projects with scientists at the School of Veterinary Medicine at Bristol University, one to deal with flaws in the design and stockmanship at livestock markets and the other to follow the development of the immune system of young calves from their birth, through separation from their dams to weaning (by which farmers mean final abandonment of prepared liquid feeds based on reconstituted dried skimmed milk, ie the system used for dairy calves; calves born in beef suckler herds run with their mothers for 6 to 8 months).

13. Unfortunately, the MAFF withdrew from these projects before they started, so VEGA had to soldier on with the researchers, who still managed to produce results and analyses worthy of two papers published in the Veterinary Record, albeit with some reluctance, which we overcame, to publish the named Which?-style appraisals of the dozen or so livestock markets. The study on the calves’ immune systems (a parallel project on ewes and lambs had to be abandoned) relied on measurements of a marker of stress in the calves’ blood, for which the researcher had to obtain a Home Office licence, although the practice is carried out routinely by vets as part of normal farming work.

14. We began to fill in the course of the dairy calf’s first months and the significance of colostrum intake, bonding with its dam, suckling, and the challenges of separation, transport, marketing, and infection that ensued. Anecdotal observations of the animal’s “brightness”, behaviors such as vocalization, and emissions of smells (probably due to feces and urine) added up to a tally that careful human parents would adopt with their babies and the success of suckling and husbandry. We had heard the eerily plaintive “belling” when cows with calves at foot arrive at livestock markets to be separated still within hearing and possibly sight and smell of one another. It is a sound that saddens hardened country people. Although zoologists have analyzed the songs of birds and the “voices” of many domestic animals they don’t seem to have tuned their instruments to the sounds emitted by calves and other livestock in the course of routine practices nor do the analysts of air quality assess the spectrum of smells that attend the progress of the animals from birth to the final chapter of the slaughterhouse.

15. Non-invasive measurements of the excretions and secretions of the fright-fight-flight response and of the stressor hormones and their metabolites could probably replace the need for taking blood. Butchers can detect differences in, say, beef from cattle killed with inadequate calming and rest in the lairage prior to slaughter. Flighty, excitable, or terrified animals are likely to yield DFD (dark, firm, dry) beef. Some pigs, especially those with the halothane gene, may literally die of fright or yield bacon from muscles that haven’t actually turned to water but on cooking yield a snotty-like substance characteristic of PSE (pale, soft, exudative) pigmeat. And we are left to ponder whether consumption of meat and milk flooded with the output of slaughter rage and betrayed motherhood transmits hormonal distress to consumers of flesh and blood.

16. Meat rage is a factor both in terms of animal welfare and the quality attributed to the meat. The stress on animals run in the bull-rings of large towns and worried by fierce dogs may have exhausted the animals so that they were less troublesome to slaughter, but the outbursts of terror and periods of exhaustion and submission spoilt the meat. A recent series of Kill it, Cook it, Eat it offered an impression of slaughtering practice far removed from the hurly burley of the lines by which most commercial kills are carried out in factory style, with the Meat Hygiene Service and meat inspectors making cost plans that “will wipe out small operators, warns trade” (Meat Trades Journal, 15 February 2008). The MHS announced its cost reduction targets at a webcast Open Meeting in London of the FSA’s Board, at which VEGA’s representative was the only speaker of an audience of above 400 to speak out as a champion of the animals. “A sunny afternoon on the eve of St Valentine’s Day spent yet again delving into the entrails of the squalid meat industry” sums up his impression of the occasion.

17. The MHS is instigating “a number of business improvements on efficiency, in preparation for full cost recovery” and “it estimated that costs will realistically be reduced to £75m by 20/11/12, a reduction of £16m (18%).” The Association of Independent Meat Suppliers (AIMS) complained that a small contract plant could still see charges “soar from £10k per annum to £77.5k.” Norman Bagley, director of AIMS, pleaded “that it is now that the true scale of potential horror of full cost recovery is becoming clear. Increases of this scale will drive a coach-and-horses through any government policy of a sustainable industry. If the FSA pursues the route to full cost recovery before we have extracted the last ounce of cost-cutting out of the current bloated system, it will destroy a significant part of the industry at a stroke.” The MHS communications manager, Richard Billinge, promised “to do what we can do to protect the most vulnerable businesses,” but “the fact remains that at the moment the entire meat industry is being subsidized by the taxpayer and it is FSA policy that this should stop”.

18. The scenes in the Kill it, Cook it, Eat it programs were unrepresentative in many aspects, but they reflected a trend to the slaughter of very young animals and the extra care they need. Even there, a mishap in the electrical stunning prior to the cut required a hasty switch and delay while the operative had recourse to the stunner to render the animal unconscious by a blow on the head, rather than by an electric shock. Electric stunning was abandoned thereafter for this small batch of lambs. The failure won’t be lost on Jewish and Muslim slaughters, who boast of a faster despatch, although there are concerns that the period of sentience is protracted. It was emerging during the series that one of the butchers had reluctance to killing and butchering young, callow lambs and calves, and he complained of the wastage. This is a problem with dairy calves, in particular, that recurs to trouble a number of butchers and to spur some animal welfarists into revived ploys to produce commodities such as “welfare friendly rosé veal”.

19. Much of the monotechnology with the use of non-radioactive isotopes, especially of nitrogen, sulphur, and hydrogen, is applying devices developed in archaeology and anthropology and now turned to account in the provenance and authentication of foodstuffs. It is useful, therefore, in the long and patient investigation of what makes organics special, if anything, and this quest involves many tests on comparisons on, say, one commodity and then on one component among many of one commodity. It will take years if any significance will emerge from mass of data and variables. However, a baseline survey of conventional and organic tomatoes, mushrooms, lettuce, and carrots has so far extricated a significant preliminary difference in the content of lycopene in tomatos, with the organics superior to the conventional.

20. This concentration has relegated eligible comparisons of the stresses and strains of methods of slaughter and means of reducing them. We shall not give up in drawing every sign that we can see that shows a reduction in the appalling toll. A surprising anecdote slipped out at a recent scientific meeting: it indicated that the loss at blood-out was less in kosher slaughter than in the halal and conventional procedures. This may indicate increasing concordance of commercial halal practice with applications of stunning immediately before the cut, with Muslim slaughterers being convinced that stunning does just that: it does not kill and if the sticking is carried out deftly the animal does not regain consciousness as life and blood drain inexorably away. These stipulations seem to be accepted for meat killed in the antipodes for markets in the Middle East and Europe, but there are still objectors in the halal trade in the UK. Biochemical comparisons of the different methods have not been done, as far as we know. While the halal sector in the UK has been one of the few aspects of the meat trade to give it dubious pleasure, the kosher trade languishes with many commercial and doctrinal difficulties, but the increasing availability of meat- and dairy-frees gives Jews opportunities to avoid the difficulties with a minimum of fuss and inconvenience.  


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