This post was written and published for the original okskosher.com in 2008.
Over the past couple of years, there have been several controversies regarding the Agriprocessors meat packing plant which sells kosher meat under the brand names of Rubashkin’s and Aaron’s Best. These controversies began with a video recorded by a hidden camera placed by the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and have ranged from accusations of animal cruelty, mistreatment of workers, violations of Federal antitrust legislation by engaging in market segmentation, bribing government inspectors, and the list continues. Yet, despite all of the discussion of wrongdoing, little attention has been paid to actual problems in the kosher status of the animals.
Upon the release of the PETA video, the Orthodox Union, the primary supervising agency for the Agriprocessors plant released a statement that while the video is disturbing and the practices shown on the video are not standard in kosher slaughterhouses, nothing that appears in the video contradicts halacha (Jewish law). That statement seems to ignore that the video shows a procedure that many halachic poskim (legal deciders) specifically prohibited.
The video clearly shows an employee other than the shochet (slaughterer) grabbing the trachea of the animal and yanking it further out. This procedure has been of concern to halachic deciders for centuries and well before increased modern sensitivities to animal cruelty and has in fact been ruled by several halachic authorities to be forbidden and if performed would actually render the animal not kosher. Furthermore, the video also shows the animal being dropped out of pen onto the floor which creates other halachically questionable situations. Both of these issues relate to the possible presence of sirchos (adhesions) on the lungs of the animal which would need to be inspected by a competent bodek (inspector) later. Should these sirchos fall off, it would be impossible to properly check the animal and hence the animal would not be glatt, if not outright treif (not kosher).
I will now attempt to present each of these two issues in greater depth. The first procedure — the pulling of the trachea was first specifically addressed in halachic literature by Rabbi David ben Solomon Ibn Avi Zimra (Radbaz) (1479-1573).
The Radbaz is quoted in the Pri Chadash saying “There is a practice in some places … One seizes the windpipe and yanks it upward with force, and so to the sides and one must do it in a manner that no adhesions are detached in this movement. And this can only be done in a place where they have this practice.”
The concern is echoed in the Simla Chadasha and the Mateh Ephraim. The Simla Chadasha writes: “One should be careful not to leave [the animal] with a non-Jew [in the period] between the ritual slaughtering and [internal] examination without a [Jew] keeping an eye, for perhaps the non-Jew will insert his hand and will detach the adhesions. However, if the non-Jew is accustomed to this [detaching the adhesions manually], [this] animal is in all likelihood prohibited [=non-kosher] even after-the-fact, since it is as if one abolishes the institution of [internal] examination. (The Damesek Eliezer says one should even be concerned with a Jewish butcher if there is even the slightest suspicion about him.)
The most explicit source, however, is the Shaar HaMayim. His basis is the Rashba, who forbids leaving an animal with a non-Jew where it is possible for the non- Jew to insert his hands through the neck and reach the lungs (Teshuvot HaRashba 1:258 and quoted in Beit Yosef Yoreh Deah 39). The Rashba does include that were this done, there is room to allow the meat since perhaps the non-Jew did not actually insert his hand and even if he did, perhaps he did not remove any adhesions. (This is what is known in halacha as a case of two unknown possibilities called a sfek sfeka).
Regarding our procedure, however, the Shaar Hamayim writes: Don’t respond to me with the Radbaz who mentions a non-Jew pulling the trachea with force and if there were an adhesion it would fall off, since in that case the non-Jew did not insert a knife around the trachea as is done today (and as is seen on the PETA video) and the knife could reach the lungs and the butchers have told us that at times with this procedure pieces of the lung have fallen to the ground. Thus, the Radbaz himself would also not have allowed this procedure. And, we have such a giant as the Rashba who showed his awareness of the lenient opinion and opened for us a way to be stringent, who would lower their head and allow (such a procedure)?
The Shaar HaMayim ends saying that should such a procedure be done, the slaughterer or ritual inspector should deliberately cause a blemish in the animal that would render the animal not kosher (to make sure it is not fed to kosher consumers.)
The second concern of adhesions falling off stems from dropping the animal out of a pen (traditionally shechita is done on the ground). The Siftei Kohen, a commentator on the Shulkhan Arükh known as the Shach writes that one should not even shake an animal (or shake the lungs as was once done in a process called “nanuim”) since we do not know how to properly shake without adhesions falling off (Shach 39:31). Any reasonable person can assume that there is a greater likelihood of adhesions falling off from being dropped from a pen and hitting the ground hard than mere shaking.
Specifically regarding the trachea pull used at the Agriprocessors plant and seen in the PETA video, it is in fact likely that adhesions do fall off. That fact is substantiated not only by our Jewish legal experts, but also by experts in the livestock industry. Dr. Temple Grandin, Assosciate Professor of Livestock Handling and Behavior at Colorado State University wrote to me in a letter that “if the trachea is pulled with sufficient force, it is likely that some of the adhesions may be pulled apart.” With that being the case, according to the Simla Chadasha quoted above, it is as if Agriprocessors has done away with the institution of an internal examination and their meat should be rendered non- kosher.
Given these concerns, other kosher certifying agencies have stated that such procedures would never be allowed in plants under their supervision. These include Rabbi Ezra Raful of the Israeli Chief Rabbinate and Rabbi Avrohom Pollak of the Star-K in Baltimore.
Nevertheless, in spite of a procedure that is not used in any other kosher slaughterhouse and is clearly suspect from the perspective of Jewish law, several Rabbonim have signed onto a letter stating that “We wish to make clear that nothing in any such post-shechita “second cut” or excision in any way undermines the validity of the shechita itself or the kosher status of the slaughtered animal’s meat. These Rabbis included the OU’s Rabbis Yisroel Belsky and Menachem Genack, Rabbi Chaim Kohn, from KAJ, and Rabbi Gedalia Dov Schwartz from the CRC, and Rabbi Menachem Meir Weissmandl, Rabbinic Head of the Nitra Beth Din of Monsey, among others. (I personally have sent certified receipt letters to some of these Rabbis asking them to confirm their signature on the statement. To date, none of them have replied.) The statement is obviously a very strange statement in light of the sources quoted above.
The kosher consumer is owed answers to some very serious questions from these Rabbonim and specifically from the Orthodox Union. These questions include:
1. How do they explain the Simla Chadasha, the Mateh Ephraim and the Kaf Hachayim and all other sources that prohibit pulling the trachea when they state that in no way does such a procedure invalidate the kosher status of the slaughtered animal?
2. Why was a questionable procedure that is not practiced anywhere else allowed to be practiced at Agriprocessors under the watchful supervision of the OU?
3. Did Agriprocessors ask the OU supervisors permission before performing this procedure?
4. If so, on what basis was it initially allowed? (At an event at the West Side Institutional Synagogue in Manhattan on November 15, 2006, attorney Nat Lewin. stated that a Rabbi from the OU visited the plant and approved these procedures. If that is true, who was the Rabbi and again the question remains on what basis was this procedure allowed?)
Without providing fair answers to these very legitimate questions, the OU leaves a dark shadow of doubt over the kashrut status of animals coming out of the Agriprocessors plant and to the integrity of the OU’s quality of supervision overall.