In this month of Elul, the period of personal remorse, the season of national repentance, and when sincere moral resolutions for the future are made on both, personal and national levels, I feel compelled to state the following. It is my hope and prayer that it should lead to a marked improvement in the market of kosher food.
Kashrus in America was in the past held under great suspicion. As a child growing up in America, I recall hearing from European-born elders the biting criticism that “everything in America is treif (not kosher), including the cobblestones.” Among the Orthodox visitors to our shores there were those who would refrain from eating meat products although they were certified to be kosher.
Practices of fraudulence and misrepresentation-buying treif at a lower price and selling the same as kosher at a higher price-were typical in those days. History witnessed the physical and emotional suffering of the saintly Chief Rabbi of New York City, Rabbi Yaakov Yosef, Of Blessed Memory, inflicted upon him by the brutal kosher butchers when he attempted to set aright kashrus in that city. This ugly stain in American-Jewish history was duplicated when the Boston kosher butchers brought up specious and fraudulent charges in court against our revered master, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Of Blessed Memory, when he attempted to correct their devious practices. Furthermore, as in the case of my father, kosher inspectors were beaten up by butchers who were caught in this illicit practice.
There is no question that in the early decades of the last century, the kashrus situation in America was indeed chaotic. It is regrettable that in contemporary America we have witnessed cases where un-kosher meat was sold, or attempted to be sold, even under the supervision of national kashrus agencies and organizations.
Kashrus supervision was afterwards seen by a narrow group of rabbis, not as a holy duty for the sake of Heaven, but rather as their sacred turf in personal material aggrandizement.
An eye witness reported that when Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveichik arrived in America, his father Rabbi Moshe took him to the office of the Orthodox rabbinical organization for employment in the area of Kashrus. However, this clique refused to share even with him.
The Shochtim (ritual slaughterers) Union, which now no longer exists, was managed and directed for many years by an unscrupulous, non-observant person. The rabbis not only admitted their fear and powerlessness with respect to that union head even paid serfdom homage to him. And some of the Shochtim, though they may have been properly trained initially, were now no longer reliable or even observant. What was true for the Shochtim Union was equally true for the Mashgichim (kosher supervisors’) Union.
Of course, this situation was indeed contrary to Jewish Law. There is a strict Halachic requirement for a Shochet to be observant, G-D fearing (Yiras Shamim), and knowledgeable of the laws of kosher slaughtering. Yet Shochtim were now only being required through the connivance of both the old Shochtim Union and the meat producing establishments to meet daily quotas of so called (kosher meat) irrespective of the procedural means employed. Errors and shoddy supervision were frequently overlooked. To remain employed one had to be a team player; blowing the whistle was out of the question. Even today, banishment euphemistically referred to as “voluntary retirement,” has been the sentence for a distinguished rabbi who called attention to the unacceptable practices in a notorious slaughter-house.
After serving over 50 years in the field of kashrus supervision, I myself regret to report that the situation is not much better in our own day. During my years of service I can truthfully report that every single meat establishment that I have ever supervised has received at one time or another, some kosher-labeled meat that at once could be recognized as defective and not kosher. Apparently in all these cases the ritual slaughter either deliberately or accidentally failed to examine properly the slaughtered carcasses for internal defects that would render the carcass not kosher. In one case, a well known New Jersey rav-hamachshir (certifying rabbi) had to be warned by his own shochtim that the final shochet examiner in his plant, who was determining whether the animal is kosher or not, was marking non-kosher carcasses as kosher. But no corrective action was taken! This was going on for years and this slaughter house was distributing meat all over the country as kosher. After a number of years and after the closing of that slaughter house, I met the former C.E.O. of that establishment who confided in me that the final examiner was placed in that position by the cooperation of the shochtim union and the slaugher house and he was well compensated.
While there has been a proliferation of national kashrus-endorsing agencies in most recent years that are mostly privately owned, many issues and problems in kashrus remain unsolved. Certifying products as kosher has now become a multi-million dollar business, and not a holy duty and profession for these major agencies. Their coveted logos, having great market appeal, are sold at a high price. Yet the kashrus can not always be guaranteed.
This is especially true when non-kosher products are produced in the same plant or with the same equipment. While a kosher-izing process is formally required before conversion from non-kosher to kosher production, this is often not done or if attempted is not done under proper supervision as required. This results in the labeling of non-kosher items as kosher. In fact, the labeling procedure itself is not done by an official representative of the endorsing agency. It is mostly performed by the manufacturing company which produces other foods in packaging with the coveted kashrus logo. Thus, the very act of final certification comes under company control. The process is entirely self-serving, and results in frequent labeling errors in kashrus.
The kosher consumer is also not aware that many kosher and non-kosher products are produced by companies known as “a private labeling companies” that produce food items for companies certified as kosher, because they can’t or don’t have the equipment to produce large quantities for their needs. These private labeling companies have the labels with the kosher certifying logos but have no kosher supervisors. A kosher logo is not a guarantee of kosher but an indication of payment for use of the logo to be placed on the package.
Furthermore, the OU kashrus agency in its eagerness to recover from the adverse publicity with Rubashkin-Agri in kashrus and humane slaughter goes so far in making glaring inexcusable halachic and non-halachic statements concerning kosher slaughtering in its monthly newsletter, the Daf Hakashrus (January 2005, vol. 13, no. 4, P.9), which is designed to give clear directives to its own field operatives, the OU casually notes that in slaughtering at Rubashkin, that the “second cut into the carotid arteries, though halachically significant, need not be done by a shochet.”
Rabbi Menachem Genack, the chief OU official and author of the Daf article, is here wrong on two counts. First of all, according to the very Yoreh Deah passage referenced by the writer (Yoreh Deah, Ch. 22), the second cut is halachically prohibited. Secondly, the “cut” that Rabbi Genack refers to was a procedure called “dressing” by the U.S.D.A, where the non-Jewish worker cuts into the neck of the animal to widen it in order to insert a hook to grasp the trachea and yank it out. Rabbinical authorities and the U.S.D.A prohibit this procedure and if done, halachically it is not kosher. Nevertheless, it was marked as Chasidish glatt kosher! (YD 23:5) (YD 39:17) (YD 297:4) When “Glatt” Kosher meat came into fashion Rabbi Soloveitchik was asked for his opinion on it. He immediately quipped: “at first we must ascertain as to whether the meat is at all kosher!” (Since some Chasidish glatt kosher comes in three grades, the kosher consumer should be made aware as to which grade of glatt he or she is purchasing. The symbols of these grades are marked on the carcass by the Chasidic slaughterer and are a well-kept secret.) Furthermore, according to the U.S.D.A the animals were “conscious or sensory” when this yanking took place at Rubashkin with the OU supervision.
This problem of shechita came to light when PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) released its video tape of the unethical slaughtering process used on the floors of the Agri Processors (Rubashkin) slaughter-house, and Rubashkin by its own admission, and OU certification allowed these halachically prohibited procedures to take place for over two years while slaughtering an average of 500 cattle a day according to U.S.D.A reports.
Basing itself on the PETA video tape of seven weeks undercover work the U.S.D.A concluded that the animals following the slaughtering procedure at Agri continued “bellowing and thrashing about” in the pit where they were dumped into for an extended time. This served to refute a blanket claim by Rabbi Genack in his Daf (page 9) that the “shechita process was performed swiftly and correctly” and that the animals exiting from the kill box were “clearly unconscious”. Not true. The animals were not unconscious after the shechita process and the schochet did not perform as required by rabbinic and biblical law. Therefore, the meat consequently must be declared as “nevaela” (carrion) and not kosher.
An obvious disconcerting conclusion must now be drawn from any objective review and analysis of the video tape. Not only were there clear legal and ethical violations found in the Agri slaughtering house but there were kashrus violations as well. Under the OU supervision the company was not producing kosher meat, but, rather, prohibited meat according to rabbinical authorities. Prohibited, as used in the kosher laws means non kosher. Now, let us turn for a moment to some of the explanations of the OU spokesmen for the visible animal sensory responses noted on the video tape. Rabbi Yisroel Belsky, OBM, the halachic consultant and decisor for the OU was quoted in one newspaper article (Yaated Ne’eman, November 2, 2007, page 11) as declaring “that animals, even after the trachea has been cut, may sometimes emit sounds when the two ends of the cut artery touch, allowing blood to pass through and reach the brain prolonging consciousness.” Rabbi Belsky, who is certainly neither a veterinarian nor animal physiologist, is thus describing here an anatomical impossibility. What is interesting is that Rabbi Genack in the above mentioned Daf Hakashrus says “that after the animal’s throat and larynx have been cut, it can not vocalize.” The U.S.D.A in its investigation has revealed that there was vocalization and therefore that the animals were not properly slaughtered.
Science has conclusively established universally recognized signs of consciousness- including righting reflexes, head lifting, rhythmic breathing, blinking, and coordinated movement such as walking and standing. All of these were clearly demonstrated by animals in PETA’s footage from AgriProcessors. In addition, science says that shechita (slaughtering) does not equal death of the animal or the animals lack of sensation, confirming the rabbis ruling (TB Chulin 30:A) that during rigamortis (jerking) it is treated like a live animal for all its laws and it does experience pain, and one is “prohibited to add suffering to them.”
Furthermore, Rabbi Belsky, now joined by Rabbi Genack, claims that the animals seen in the PETA tape as conscious and struggling to stand in a pit 30 seconds after shecita are not really conscious. The walking or struggling movements of these animals are interpreted by these two rabbis as mere “reflex actions.” No scientific evidence is adduced to support this preposterous claim. Reflex action does not involve blinking, head righting and attempting to get up or to walk in a dead animal. There is great irony at this time in all these revelations about the deficient, if not questionable OU practices at Agri. The OU has in the past built its reputation presumably unifying and standardizing the entire process of kosher supervision. This has until now been regarded as one of the great achievements of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America.
What is surprising is that when the Rubashkin/Agri matter became public, the expression “yanking of the trachea” was being suppressed and instead the OU and Rabbi Belsky spoke about “second cuts”. Presumably, this was done deliberately to distract the public from the fact that the yanking of the trachea is prohibited and consequently the animal is not kosher. This was a routine procedure at Agri and the meat was marked as kosher. It is a known fact that all the rabbis involved in discussing this prohibited matter throughout the country will not admit that yanking is prohibited, although they all stated that yanking was stopped. Rabbi Genack and other rabbis of the OU stated publicly the yanking of the trachea has stopped, nevertheless these rabbis at the beginning signed a statement that: “excision does not in anyway relate to the kashrus of the animal,” which is not true (YD 39:17). The meat is not kosher even though it was sold for years as kosher throughout the United States, Israel and accepted by most other national kashrus organizations. Rabbi Belsky in a letter to me admitted that the pulling of the trachea creates kashrus problems. Nevertheless, his name appears on the statement with other leading kosher certifiers that pulling or excision does not reflect on the status of the meat.
The statement that Rabbi Genack and the other 12 rabbis signed that states that excision does not relate to the kashrus of the animal is a cover up and a betrayal of the kosher eating community. Furthermore, no Orthodox rabbis responded or protested as to what occurred. The meat was not kosher that was slaughtered at Agri (Y.D. 39:17).
Finally, Kosher certifiers are required to observe all religious laws, not only kosher laws but also business laws (Choshen Mishpat). If a kashrus certifier routinely violates essential religious laws, they can’t be trusted to enforce kashrus laws.
It must have been for a good reason that the great Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, Gaon, Halachic-decider of our generation, our master who ruled in a letter against the OU in their practice of hasagas gevul (encroachment). Most national kashrus supervision agencies practice this prohibited behavior and by rabbinic law are classified as thieves (gozlon – Choshen Mishpat 376:1) and wicked people (rosho – 237:1). One is prohibited to buy, receive or support in any form or manner that transgressor! Should one do so, he would be in violation of Jewish Law, (Choshen Mishpat 369:1).
My impassioned plea and humble prayer are that we all follow in the footsteps of our illustrious teacher and master, Rabbi Josheph B. Soloveitchik, ZTL, not only in lofty intellectual pursuits but also morally, ethically, and honestly, in our behavior especially in dealings with out fellow man. The account which we will ultimately be obliged to give in Heavenly Court will not be in terms of accumulated power or amounts in dollars and cents!
Our rabbis teach us, that all Jews are guarantors for one another (must prevent Jews from transgressing). All Jews are liable and may be punished for the sins of others (Talmud Shavout 39).
I have done my part in my career to prevent Jews from eating non-kosher that has been certified as kosher. Now what is the Jewish public, who are both kosher food supervisors and consumers, going to do?
However, with the PETA videotaping and the subsequent U.S.D.A. findings against Agri-Rubashkin, the OU kashrus supervision standards must now come under greater public scrutiny. At the very least, the observant Jewish public has a right to expect that the OU, as well as the other well known national kashrus supervisory agencies, acknowledge all the errors of the past and report on the corrective actions, and repairs to be undertaken.
At the season of the year, as Jews we as individuals are called upon to confess our sins and do penance. We should similarly expect from our responsible Jewish kashrus organizations when they fail us in their responsibilities in preventing eating food that was ruled as non-kosher. As the Talmud teaches us that for the sins between man and G-d, Yom Kippur atones, however, sins between man and his fellow man Yom Kippur does not atone (Talmud Yuma 25). We await the OU’s public confession of and for its past errors, and its sincere future resolutions of mapping new and clear plans to do better by us.
My best wishes to everyone are for a general and individual,
Kesivah va-Chasimah Tovah, le-Altar le Chayim, le-Altar le-Ge’ulah
Orthodox Kashrus Supervision Services
Rabbi Harry Cohen
(Part 2 will be published on November 30, 2016)