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Thursday, February 21, 2008
Conscious carving

This is part of our Feb/Mar 2008 issue.

A new movement is hoping to make kosher slaughterhouses live up to ethical standards. But not everyone is drunk with a carnivore's delight.

Early on a Friday morning this past December, 70 Jews gathered in a frost-covered field in rural Connecticut. Some of them huddled in small groups, talking in hushed tones and blowing on their frozen fingers. Others stood at a distance, quiet with thought. They were all there for one reason -- to witness three goats being slaughtered for meat, in accordance with Jewish law.

No, these people were not part of some underground Jewish cult. They were attendees of a food conference hosted by the New York-based non-profit, Hazon (which, for full disclosure, is my employer). The purpose of the ritual slaughtering, was to "enable people to have a more direct understanding of where kosher meat comes from," said Hazon's Executive Director, Nigel Savage. In this case, it would be the same meat that many of the participants would eat that night for dinner.

Hazon is not alone in their desire to close the gap between farm and table. Over the past decade, many Americans have become frustrated with the industrialized food system. Simultaneously, a slew of food-related books and films have made their way to the best-sellers list. (Think Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan, Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser, and Supersize Me by Morgan Spurlock.) As a result, the demand for organic and local foods from alternative sources like farmers' markets, and Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs has grown significantly.

Most recently, eco-minded foodies are turning their attention to meat. They eschew the shrink-wrapped stuff in the grocer's freezer, and instead seek out "ethical meat" — a loaded phrase which can refer to any of the following modifiers (though not necessarily all at the same time): "organic" or "grass-fed," "local," "antibiotic-free," "free-range" or "cage free," or "humanely-slaughtered."

Not surprisingly, many Jewish people have embraced this growing trend. Even less surprisingly, it has also sparked debate and divisiveness within the tribe. It turns out that when it comes to food, ethics, and kosher laws, Jews are ready to hop into the ring.

In one corner sits the behemoth of the kosher meat industry. The recent and highly-publicized multiple allegations of health, animal cruelty, and workers' rights violations against the nation's largest kosher slaughterhouse, Iowa-based Agriprocessors, Inc. blindsided those consumers who assumed that kosher meat is inherently safer and more humane than non-kosher meat.

But are the slaughterhouses solely to blame? Americans, including Jews, eat an astounding amount of meat -- an average of 200 pounds per person in 2005 according to the USDA. Getting those cows and chickens conveniently into consumers' hands has required the meat industry to become just that: industrialized. Unfortunately, while kosher meat makes up a fraction of the total meat consumed in America, it is still likely to come from a large-scale slaughtering plant like Agriprocessors.

Additionally, while the kosher laws dictate how an animal is killed, they say nothing about how it should be raised. So, a cow bred in a cramped feedlot can still be stamped kosher if it was properly slaughtered. From the perspective of the industry, it seems that ethical concerns and the kosher laws mix about as well as milk and meat.

In the second corner are the reformers (as in "reforming the kosher industry," not "Union of Reform Judaism summer camp"). They are the growing group who want their meat kosher but don't want the negative ethical side dish that comes with it.
Rabbi Morris Allen in Minnesota is one of those people. Alarmed by the Agriprocessors controversy, Allen created a certification system called Hekhsher Tzedek (roughly translated as "righteous kosher approval"). This system examines not only if food is kosher in the traditional sense, but also whether it upholds workers' rights, environmental, and health and safety principles.

"If we don't connect [kashrut] to the world and the values we hold, then we fail to take kashrut at its core level," Rabbi Allen says. Hekhsher Tzedek was recently endorsed by the Conservative Rabbinical Assembly, but the jury is still out on whether it will ultimately influence the larger kosher industry.

Other individuals are taking a different route by bringing the meat directly to consumers, while circumventing the industry all together. Devora Kimelman-Block of Washington, DC started an initiative called Kosher Organic Local Foods (or "KOL" Foods -- a play on Whole Foods). By pairing up nearby farmers and a willing shochet (kosher slaughterer), mashgiach (kosher supervisor) and butcher, Kimelman-Block is able to offer beef, chicken, and lamb to members of 14 nearby synagogues, from Reform to Orthodox.

"As soon as I have the meat available, I can sell it," she explains. Additionally, Kimelman-Block received so many phone calls from interested people in other cities that she is expanding as a consultant to help them get similar projects off the ground.

New York City-based actor Simon Feil started a similar venture called Kosher Conscience, which delivered locally-sourced kosher turkeys to Manhattan residents last Thanksgiving. As an observant Jew and self-described, "vigorous carnivore," Feil believes that kosher consumers, "have a responsibility to ensure that the meat [they] eat is obtained in as humane a way as possible." Feil is planning to offer chicken this spring and beef by next fall.

But not everyone is getting on board with the ethical slaughtering bandwagon. Take, for example, the Jewish Vegetarians of North America. JVNA operates on the assumption that eating meat is unethical, unnecessary, and inconsistent with the Jewish value of tsar baalei chayyim -- preventing the pain of living creatures. They denounce the meat industry as barbaric, but also reject any attempt other than vegetarianism to improve it.

Longtime JVNA supporter Dr. Roberta Kalechofsky wrote, "Why does Simon Feil believe that when ordinary Jewish citizens ... slaughter their own turkeys, it will teach them reverence for life [when] the old system of kosher meat failed in these goals?"

So, who should win this ethical kosher food fight? And more importantly, what should we eat? Do we continue the status quo of eating meat without consideration of ethics? Work to reform the kosher industry? Or protest against it by refusing to eat meat altogether? The classic and decidedly Jewish answer is, "well, bubbleh, it's complicated."

--Text by Leah Koenig / Photo by Lise Gagne

This is part of our Feb/Mar 2008 issue.
posted by Benyamin | 4:33 PM | Link | |
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