NEW YORK (JTA) – An undercover video shot last month at the Agriprocessors kosher meatpacking plant has raised new questions about the company’s slaughter practices and cost it the support of one of the country’s leading experts on animal welfare.
Dr. Temple Grandin, an animal scientist who has served as consultant to scores of slaughterhouses across the country, said the practice shown in the video – in which two workers make “gouging,” saw-like cuts into the necks of animals immediately after the ritual cut performed by a rabbi – is inhumane.
Grandin said she hasn’t seen that type of second cut at any of the 30 or so kosher slaughterhouses she has visited, nor did she see it when she toured the Agriprocessors plant in Postville, Iowa, in 2006 and declared it satisfactory. The practice also was not in evidence in a video released by a Long Island Jewish newspaper of a visit to Postville by 25 Orthodox rabbis on July 31; after visiting, the clergymen said the plant adhered to the highest standards of kosher practice.
The new video, shot Aug. 13 by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, known as PETA, has led Grandin to conclude that slaughterhouse visits are useless in determining whether animals are being treated properly. She has called for Agriprocessors to install round-the-clock video cameras on the kill floor that can be independently audited by a third party over the Internet.
“There’s no point,” Grandin said of the visits. “I’ve been in business 35 years, and I’m getting sick and tired of: They act good when you’re there and they don’t act good when your back is turned. They did the same thing for the rabbis they would do for me – put on a show.”
Agriprocessors did not respond to Grandin’s comments, but the company released a statement Sept. 5 after the PETA video was first reported by The New York Times.
“Agriprocessors fully complies with federal humane slaughter laws as is monitored by inspectors of the United States Department of Agriculture,” the statement said. “All kosher slaughter procedures are under the exclusive direction of the supervising agencies and rabbis who certify the kosher status of the animals, as is provided by law.”
Grandin’s criticism comes as Agriprocessors is working hard to revive its image following a massive federal immigration raid in Postville on May 12 that led to the arrests of nearly 400 illegal workers.
Unlike other critics of Agriprocessors, which the company has sought to dismiss as “radical” or “fringe” groups pursuing narrow agendas, Grandin is a nationally renowned figure whose judgments were previously touted when they were favorable to the company.
After PETA released a similar undercover video shot in 2004, pressure mounted on Agriprocessors to have Grandin come and inspect its procedures, which she did two years later. Grandin concluded that the company had improved its procedures since the first video was shot, a fact publicized in news releases by both Agriprocessors and one of its supervising agencies, the Orthodox Union.
“Temple is really important,” Rabbi Menachem Genack, the O.U.’s head of kosher supervision, told JTA. “She’s universally accepted. I think she’s a very honest person. Generally, Temple is someone who is accepted as an arbiter in terms of these issues of animal welfare. She doesn’t have an agenda against shechita [ritual slaughter] in any way.”
Grandin’s latest remarks strike at one of the central public relations vehicles the company has employed in its struggle to restore its flagging reputation: tours of the plant. The largest of these was the rabbinic visit on July 31, paid for by Agriprocessors and organized by the National Council of Young Israel, an Orthodox synagogue group. After a three-hour tour, the rabbis concluded that the company’s image as a chronic rule-breaker was inconsistent with reality.
“The current situation at the Agriprocessors plant is diametrically opposed to the rumors and innuendos that we had heard before we got here,” Rabbi Pesach Lerner, the council’s executive vice president, said following the visit. “We saw a state-of-the-art plant, a tremendous emphasis on safety and excellent standards of kashrut. While we have no personal knowledge of what may or may not have happened in the past, the Agriprocessors plant that we saw today is far different than what has been reported.”
Lerner declined to respond to Grandin’s comments. But Genack told JTA that the Orthodox Union had opted not to participate in the July trip for fear of being used as Grandin had – as a tool to buttress the company’s image.
“It was meant to give confidence on the public relations side,” Genack said of the rabbinic visit. “We didn’t want the O.U. to be either critic or apologist for Rubashkin. With all these issues remaining still unresolved, we didn’t attend because wanted to be objective and separate from the story itself.”
Two O.U. rabbis accompanied the rabbis on their tour, but Genack said they were there solely to illustrate the plant’s kosher supervision and he had specifically requested they not be identified as members of the delegation.
After filming the controversial method on Aug. 13, PETA, which makes no secret of its opposition to all forms of animal slaughter, turned the footage over to the U.S. Department of Agriculture and pressed for an investigation. According to the department, a so-called “second cut” is permissible only under direct rabbinic supervision.
Spokesperson Amanda Eamich told JTA that the department cited the company for a second cut violation subsequent to Aug. 13, but said the violation was “not egregious” and that the company was presently in compliance.
Agriprocessors has accused PETA of illegal conduct in producing the video, including breaking and entering, trespassing, industrial espionage and misrepresentation as an employee. PETA says the company is only trying to deflect attention from its own misconduct.
“Our investigations are entirely lawful,” said Hannah Schein, a PETA investigations specialist. “Agriprocessors’ conduct is not.”