This article by Gregory Johnson first appeared in the March 2006 ResourcesForLife.com newsletter.
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A Vegetarian Visits a Kosher Slaughter House
by Gregory Johnson
I first became a vegetarian in the early 1980s. I chose to be vegetarian because of the suffering that animals go through when they are exploited by the food production industry. Another factor influencing my decision was the knowledge that plant based foods – such as fruits, vegetables and grains – typically require less processing during harvest and storage than animal based foods. It has been proven that land is more productively utilized when producing plant based foods rather than used for grazing or food that will be given to animals destined for human consumption. Vegetarianism also appealed to me because of the health benefit of avoiding the growth hormones, antibiotics, and toxins sometimes found in meat and dairy products as well as the animal fat that contributes to heart disease. I became increasingly convinced of the health benefits of vegetarianism as I saw them manifested in my life.
There is a lot of social pressure to eat meat and dairy products, especially in Iowa. Some Iowans have told me that it isn’t possible for a person to live a healthy life without meat. They have expressed concern about my ability to survive without meat. There was a time in my late 20s and early 30s when I gave into the pressure to eat meat and dairy. During that time, I gained about 110 pounds. When I reached almost 300 pounds I may have risked losing my life. Blood tests revealed that my liver was strained because of my unhealthy diet and obesity. Yet, my proportionate weight gain and poor health condition was actually quite typical for those eating a Midwest American diet. This is why obesity in America is so prevalent in the news today. My experience was very much like that of Morgan Spurlock in the documentary “Super Size Me.” More about the film is available here: http://www.supersizeme.com/
I became convinced that to survive, I must wean myself of meat and dairy products. Now, on a mostly vegan diet, I managed to lose the 110 pounds, and my weight is back down to healthy levels. I’m actually healthier than many people I know who are 10 to 20 years younger than me. According to the Real Age website, my “Real Age” is now at 27 years old. It’s not surprising that healthy living effectively reverses the aging process. You can check your Real Age online here: http://www.realage.com
Today I am not so naive to believe people who tell me that being a vegetarian can kill you. I know of one Iowa community where children are raised on only vegetarian organic food. They continue on a vegetarian diet throughout their adult lives and live perfectly healthy, productive, and long lives. They don’t have the diseases that meat eaters suffer and die from. In fact, they live healthier lives than most meat-eating people I know. Their lives are a testimony similar to the one documented in the first chapter of the book of Daniel. It is documented that Daniel and his vegetarian friends “looked healthier and better nourished than any of the young men” who were not vegetarians. Also, Daniel demonstrated a clarity of mind that astounded the non-vegetarians of his day. Those who believe that the Bible offers some historical relevance and ethereal insight would point out that humans were not originally instructed to eat meat, but instead were told to eat vegetables, grains, grasses, and fruits. Only in a fallen state did people begin killing animals for food.
The more I have learned about vegetarianism over the years, the more enthusiastic I have become about adhering to a vegetarian diet. My enthusiasm has been bolstered by the vitality and health benefits I gain from vegetarian living. For about 20 years I have done my best to be an advocate for vegetarian living. I’ve also chosen to not wear or use any leather-based clothes, products, or consumer goods. In recent years I’ve pursued a vegan diet – abstaining from eggs, milk, and any heavily dairy based products. I also make an effort to avoid products that are tested on animals.
Having grown up from childhood with an innate love for animals, I was taught to treat animals with compassion and kindness. As a young person, it was easy to see how animals have the same sensitivities, family instincts, and interactions as humans. So, being kind to them made sense to me.
Up until this past weekend, my primary exposure to the killing of animals for food production had been in a video called “Diet for a New America” that features John Robbins. The video presents a comprehensive and well-documented case for the above mentioned benefits of vegetarian living and it displays evidence of the negative impact that the meat and dairy industry have on the individual, on society, and on the earth. The video is available for checkout from the Resources for Life library. More about the video and John Robbins can be found online here: http://www.foodrevolution.org/
I trust that my introduction to this writing has sufficiently demonstrated my commitment to living and promoting a vegetarian life as well as promoting compassion to animals. One can simply look at the main page of my website to see a depiction of my world-view regarding animals and the future I hope we are heading into (a future prophesied by Isaiah): a child resting a gentle arm on a cow (not killing it and eating it). The image on my website is an 1896 etching by William Strutt entitled Peace.
I am thoroughly committed to fostering a future of vegetarianism and compassion toward animals on this planet. I make every effort to ensure that my words and actions produce the greatest outcome to achieve that end.
Recently I was invited by some Orthodox Jewish friends to attend a tour of a kosher meat packing plant – AgriProcessors Inc., in Postville, Iowa. This plant made national news in 2004 when members of the organization PETA began covertly working as employees at the plant in an effort secretly videotape the slaughtering of animals there. When the news story broke, someone sent me a link to the PETA site and I viewed the video footage at that time. I was troubled by what I saw.
This past Sunday (26 March 2006) I toured the entire AgriProcessors meat packing plant. I saw every uncensored inch of the production facility from the killing floor all the way to the shrink-wrapping and boxing of meat with dry ice for overseas shipping. It was clear to me that no attempt was made to show our small group anything other than business as usual. In fact, no special accommodations would be possible. Much of the plant is run by machines and conveyor belts. It runs on a tight production schedule – 24 hours a day.
Today I went to the PETA website and reviewed the video footage again – since a year had passed from the first time I had seen it. A year later, PETA still features a prominent link to the video on their home page. In watching the PETA video, I realized that four days ago, during the tour, I stood in the very same room where the PETA video was taken – the killing floor for cattle.
The PETA video sparked a worldwide controversy and engaged the attention of millions. Based on the video footage, hundreds of experts from Israel and around the world made public statements against AgriProcessors. The experts included USDA slaughter consultants, Talmud scholars, Rabbis from around the world including Israel’s Chief Rabbinate, the Iowa Secretary of Agriculture, and numerous specialists in Jewish Kosher laws.
The condemnation of AgriProcessors seems like an open and shut case. There is video footage. There are witnesses. There is expert testimony.
Yet something has troubled me about the PETA campaign since the first time I saw the video even up to this very day. Now, having visited the plant, and having had a few days to reflect on what I saw, I am even more troubled by the PETA campaign.
On the surface, the PETA campaign seems to be a simple protest against animals being killed by slitting their throats. However, if this is true, then why hasn’t PETA condemned Muslim meat packing plants?
Dhabiha slaughtering is the Muslim equivalent to Jewish Kosher (Shechitah) slaughtering. This method, according to Islamic law, produces Halaal (permissible) meat. The method is so similar to the Jewish Kosher process that the Qur’an explicitly states it is permissible for Muslims to eat Jewish Kosher meats. Click here for more about Halaal.
In Jewish or Muslim traditions, the process of killing the animal is to quickly slit its throat with a very sharp knife and immediately let the animal be drained of blood by hanging it upside down.
The fact is that PETA is officially on public record as stating that, “Kosher (or Halaal) slaughter is less cruel than other slaughter methods in the United States.” See this link for the complete statement: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kosher
Why do PETA and others assert that Kosher slaughter is the most humane method of slaughter? The website jewfaq.org explains: “The kosher method of slaughter, known as shechitah, is designed primarily to remove blood from the animal, because blood is not kosher. However, it has always been understood to be the most humane form of killing: a swift stroke through the neck with a very sharp knife, simultaneously severing the carotid arteries and causing an immediate loss of blood pressure to the brain that rapidly causes insensitivity, insensibility, unconsciousness and then death. It is not a pretty death: an enormous amount of blood spurts out of the animal like water from a firehose when the stroke is made. And yet, that very blood loss that makes the process so messy is precisely what makes it relatively painless, cutting off blood to the brain.” The complete article is found here: http://www.jewfaq.org/peta.htm
For this reason, Federal law 7 U.S.C. § 1902(b) makes specific reference to Kosher slaughter as the most humane method for killing an animal, “whereby the animal suffers loss of consciousness by anemia of the brain caused by the simultaneous and instantaneous severance of the carotid arteries with a sharp instrument.”
If PETA believes the real problem with slaughtering is not to be found with Muslims and Jews, then why go to such lengths to infiltrate and defame a Jewish Kosher packing plant?
I have thoroughly reviewed the PETA campaign materials (see Go-Veg links below). The PETA campaign largely focuses on the argument that AgriProcessors engages in practices that violate kosher laws regarding the slaughter of animals. The campaign insinuates that PETA would approve of the AgriProcessors facility if it would satisfy kosher laws. This, of course, is absurd. It is a blatant lie. The PETA organization does not encourage meat eating regardless of how animals are raised and killed.
As I reviewed the details of the campaign, I began to ask myself questions. Since when do non-Jews take such a strong interest in kosher laws? These PETA people are not Orthodox Jews. So, why would they so strongly criticize a kosher packing plant for what they believe to be violations of kosher practice? If non-kosher slaughter is more inhumane, then why not report on non-kosher slaughter?
Actually PETA was not the first organization to use images of kosher slaughter to stir up public sentiments. Approximately 50 years ago, images of kosher slaughter were among the first images that the Nazis used in an attempt to turn public opinion against the Jews.
According to PETA’s website, their team spent seven weeks at the meat packing plant. That’s over 70,000 minutes. Yet their “worst of” video lasts only several minutes. The “long” video which was used by hundreds of people worldwide to condemn the facility lasts about 10 minutes.
At one point during my tour of the facility, I was standing on the killing floor at a distance of about 4 feet. I witnessed a large number of cattle being killed – one at a time. However, unlike the PETA video, these cows didn’t walk around after they were killed. I suppose if I had waited around, I might have been able to witness such a sight. Although, I might have needed to wait for about seven weeks before I would see something like that. It is a rare phenomenon like that of seeing a “chicken running around with its head cut off.”
The cows I saw being killed appeared to be killed instantaneously. The procedure I saw used was almost identical to that pictured in the PETA video – except that electric cattle prods were not used. The PETA video implies that the use of electric cattle prods is unusual. It is important to note that livestock handlers typically use cattle prods. They are not an item relegated to the black market. A Google search on cattle prods turns up approximately 87,000 results: http://tinyurl.com/jqk2h
The procedure I witnessed was basically the same as that in the PETA video, but the cattle were almost instantly killed. I can only assume that the PETA video portrays what were unusual circumstances. A machine is used to restrain the cow and turn it upside down (the same machine as in the video). The machine results in the process being the same time and time again. However, the video is edited in a way that makes one believe that what they are witnessing is something that occurs over and over again 24 hours a day with each slaughtered animal.
One criticism the PETA campaign makes is with regard to turning the animal upside down with the head in a lowered position below the body. The PETA campaign suggests it would be better to cut the animal’s throat while the animal is standing. However, if the animal were standing, the blood would not quickly drain out. Therefore, its death and suffering would be prolonged. By having the animal turned upside down, the blood is forced toward the largest arteries in the animal’s body so that when its throat is cut, the blood (and life force) rapidly leaves the animal’s body. If one is going to conduct kosher slaughter, this would likely be the most humane way to do it.
Another claim of the PETA campaign was that the animals consistently suffered and took a long time to die. From what I witnessed, the animals did not take a long time to die. They were dead in a matter of seconds. Factories and production facilities of all kinds are very efficient. Ethics and animal welfare aside, it would not be in the best interest of business efficiency and profitability to have the production facility slowed down while animals suffer. It is in the best interest of the facility to have animals quickly and instantly killed. This is what I saw. It met kosher and Federal standards that require a quick death and it also met the demands of a production line that must keep moving at a rapid rate. Nobody had time to wait around watching animals suffer.
Upon seeing the PETA video footage, Iowa’s Secretary of Agriculture, Patty Judge, stated that she was “disturbed” by kosher slaughter practices. This is probably the conclusion that many came to regarding the Jewish Kosher practice. This seems to be the primary aim of the PETA campaign – to turn public opinion against kosher slaughter. If this is the case, PETA is placing a higher priority on anti-Semitism than it does on animal welfare.
After Iowa’s Secretary of Agriculture visited the plant and saw the procedure first hand, she stated, “This was the first time I had an opportunity to see kosher slaughter [in person] … Slaughter is never pleasant, but it was humane, quick, and I have no problem with the way those animals were being treated … The rabbis slaughtering the chickens were much more gentle than my grandmother was on our farm when I was a child.”
PETA’s effort at protective colorization by cozying up to kosher authorities and meat packing plant inspectors seems a bit out of place, feigned, and artificial to me.
Something else that bothers me about PETA’s campaign is their use of secret surveillance. We liberals are arguing that President Bush should be impeached for authorizing the surveillance of U.S. citizens and suspected terrorists. The PETA video is a clear example of a violation of privacy. Such practices should not be condoned. How can liberals engage in practices that they would have a president impeached for?
In July of 2004 (newsletter article #3), I criticized Michael Moore’s film 911 as being an example of inaccurate and counterproductive journalistic satire.
In December 2004 (newsletter article #8) I criticized the Animal Liberation Front for their illegal break-in of a local research facility. I argued that their actions (like those of terrorist groups) were counter productive. You can read the complete article about animal rights here.
I believe the PETA campaign against AgriProcessors is another example of activism gone bad. In fact, their campaign significantly undermines the cause of animal welfare by suggesting that there might be a more cheerful and acceptable way to kill and eat animals. Imagine having a lawyer who argues in your defense, but then ultimately decides that it’s okay to slit your throat and serve you up for dinner as long as you don’t suffer too much in the process. This seems to be what PETA is asserting.
A more effective campaign would be to show AgriProcessors and other businesses how they can transition to a production of more sustainable plant-based, organically-grown, high-protein, kosher food products and make a profit – with very little byproduct environmental waste. Everyone wins.
If you are interested in promoting animal welfare, here are a few simple suggestions:
- Don’t break into facilities.
- Don’t sneak cameras into facilities.
- Don’t pretend to be someone you aren’t.
- Don’t break the law.
- Don’t be a fanatic.
- Have some meat-eating friends and let them see how happy and healthy you are without eating meat.
- Be tolerant of people who aren’t exactly like you.
- Recognize that some people (indeed many people) will not change in their lifetime and that social change happens over many years.
- Don’t publicly humiliate and shame people.
- Don’t criticize what someone is doing unless you have a complete and viable alternative to offer them.
- Don’t try to become an overnight authority (and critic) about someone else’s religious practices.
- If you are a vegetarian and/or an animal rights activist, consider writing to PETA and requesting that they remove the outdated and misleading video from their website. Ask them to publish a public apology denouncing secret surveillance and urge PETA to stop taking actions that are counterproductive to the animal rights movement and the promotion of vegetarianism.
A guide to positive, effective, and legal activism can be found here: http://www.resourcesforlife.com/groups/activist/guide.htm
With regard to vegetarianism, over time, I believe people will realize that it probably isn’t the healthiest thing to let one’s stomach become the grave for a decaying animal. However, that is a realization they will need to arrive at on their own.
Frankly, I am saddened by all aspects of the meat industry. I don’t intend to pick on any single meat packing plant or single out any particular religious or racial group – as PETA has done in their campaign. I choose to promote vegetarianism rather than fight the meat industry. This is more effective – just as promoting world peace is more effective that “fighting a war on terror.” Animal rights activists must be compassionate toward people in their efforts to promote compassion toward animals.
Because of my pacifist, positive, and proactive approach to all forms of activism, I will probably be criticized by animal rights advocates as the equivalent of a Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr. of the animal rights movement. Yet, given the success of these pacifists, perhaps that is not such a bad thing. So, I will continue to be genuinely loving and kind to my meat-eating friends in hopes that I might encourage some of them to consider a vegetarian life.
Information Resources. Below are some additional resources related to this article.
- Diet for a New America (DVD)
- Federal Code
- Go-Veg Web Page About AgriProcessors
- Iowa Secretary of Agriculture
- Jewish Fact Website
- Jewish Kosher Slaughtering Practices
- Muslim Halaal Slaughtering Practices
- NPR Report
- PETA Campaign Against AgriProcessors
- Supersize Me Website
- Supersize Me Preview-Trailer
- Supersize Me Amazon Page
2008 Postville Raid. “On May 12, 2008, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (a division of the Department of Homeland Security), the Justice Department, along with other agencies, without warning, descended upon Agriprocessors Inc., a kosher slaughterhouse and meatpacking plant in Postville.” [More…]
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Document History. This document was first published in March 2006, and remains in basically it’s original form. On 8 April 2010 at 11:20 AM, the title was expanded to include key words to make it easier to find.
Photo Credit. During a visit to India in 2008, Gregory Johnson shown in the photo at the top of this page giving prasad (blessed food) to one of the local cows that roam freely in neighborhood streets.