Many people are quick to criticize kosher slaughter and whist there are certain welfare concerns involved in shechita there are also very tangible welfare benefits. This whole discussion is quite complex and is not something I can cover in one post, so as it is Poultry Month, I am going to focus this piece on issues concerning poultry. Often when this conversation comes up, people seem to focus their attention on cow slaughter, which is the most difficult form of shechita to perform effectively. It is very much possible to achieve, but is often fraught with problems, especially outside the United States. When it comes to poultry, however, most non-kosher production plants have serious welfare issues. Comparatively, the methods used for kosher slaughter are arguably more ethical, reliable and consistent.
The PETA video below, though horrific to watch, is extremely valuable in helping to explain some of the issues that arise during conventional slaughter of birds. It shows how chickens killed by ‘electric water bath stunning systems’ in the United States are routinely electrocuted, painfully cut and then boiled alive each and every day. Such actions would get a mammal slaughterhouse shut down in seconds, but since birds used for food enjoy no legal protections in the United States, these horrific practices are allowed to continue. This effectively means that millions of chickens are boiled alive every year. While practices in European poultry plants are better, electric water bath stunning remains the most common form of killing there too, despite the many serious welfare issues and concerns is raises. *
In comparison to these ‘automated’ methods, during shechita every animal is killed by hand, with great skill and much care. During slaughter, chickens are held using a traditional method that renders them extremely docile and even causes some birds to lose consciousness before the cut. They are then swiftly killed using a perfectly sharp and smooth knife, which scientific studies have shown, nearly or completely eliminate physical sensation from the cut.* This last statement is not agreed upon by everyone, but from the research I've done, the scientists who lobby against shechita show no legitimate proof for their claims on this matter. Kosher slaughter can, however, raise other issues, although these are not of greatly significant concern in poultry so I will leave them for another post.
Despite all of the concerns, Jewish laws, customs and industry practices have contributed to the creation of an effective form of poultry slaughter, which can be relied upon to have high welfare standards throughout the world. Does this mean that it's perfect and has no room for improvement? Pretty much any form of slaughter, and every facility in the world, can improve in one way or another. But on its own merit, and certainly compared to what else is out there, the shechita of poultry stands as a great example of high welfare slaughter to the world.
This in no way means that all non kosher slaughter methods are bad. Rather, the biggest problem with modern-day killing of poultry, is, as mentioned before, the highly unreliable water bath stunning system. The first good alternative that people usually discuss (mentioned in the above PETA video), is controlled atmospheric killing (CAK). This method uses gas to put the birds to sleep and according to many top animal welfare researchers, including kosher champion Temple Grandin, is quite effective and humane.* The main problem with this type of slaughter, however, is that it only works on hybridized chickens and turkeys. Because heritage birds and other species such as ducks and geese all have much stronger lungs and organs, they react violently to the gas.
Another promising new technology is the TopKip VOLTA. This system, featured in the video above, supplies the precise level of voltage required to stun each chicken, by continuously measuring the amount of electricity needed to do so for each individual bird. It has won several humane poultry awards and seems to be another promising alternative for fast-paced automatic slaughter. Although I don't think it would be effective for non-industrialized birds either, as they tend vary in size much more than generic ‘supermarket’ poultry.
Despite the many upsides of both CAK and TopKip, my biggest concern with these systems remains how highly mechanized they are. In the laws of shechita it is specifically stated that use of machines is not allowed and that one can only make a kosher cut with coach gavra, human power. I believe that leaving our killing to machines, while cost effective and even seemingly "humane" at times, is ultimately callus and lacking in decency and respect.
There are some seemingly effective means of non-mechanized non-kosher poultry slaughter that are in small scale use today. These methods can effectively promote a more humane and personal approach to ending an animal’s life. The most widespread of these is the stunning knife. When used each animal is stunned by hand by way of an electric knife and then bled out by way of a cut made with that same instrument. If administered correctly this system seems reliable and can work well on a healthy and diverse range of poultry. Like any other method it also has its downsides but overall it seems to be a balanced and effective approach.
Humane slaughter is a complex and multifaceted topic that is distinctly separate from the welfare issues of how an animal is raised. I don't believe that killing animals will ever be painless or completely free of suffering, but in order to continuously improve the way we do it, we must both increase regulations and stoke innovation. But Most of all, those interested in animal welfare need to consider how the animals they eat are killed. That doesn't mean everybody has to do it themselves, but it does mean learning about slaughter. It might also mean that in the future, communities will come together to buy stakes in slaughter facilities, so that high welfare meat production can be ensured. In the meantime, when it comes to eating poultry, one can rest assured that kosher slaughter is a high welfare system that can be relied upon virtually anywhere throughout the world.
About the blog:
Welcome to The Kosher Omnivore's Quest! My old blog on kosher slaughter, kosher meat, and animal welfare. For new content check out my new website, The Kosher Cut™. There you'll find: blog posts about shechita and related topics, educational slaughter presentations, kosher slaughter training, and a selection of high quality professional kosher slaughter equipment.