What is the Jewish view on factory farms? I am asking from the perspective of Tza'ar Ba'alei Chaim (Chayim) as well as our role as Jews to be moral examples to the world (or le'goyim). Are factory farms "kosher"? If the meat that comes from them only signifies they were slaughtered in a kosher way, how could a rabbi indirectly be approving of the very cruel factory farms? Shouldn't the value of avoiding unnecessary cruelty be one that is maintained across the spectrum of observance? [Administrators note: Similar questions have been answered on JVO in past. See www.jewishvaluesonline.org/question.php?id=47. A search on the site for 'Kosher' or 'Kashrut' will find other questions and responses.]
There is no question that cruelty to animals (Tzaar Baali Hayim) is absolutely a violation of Torah Law (see Oruchot HaTzaddikim-Ways of the Righteous) and we are not permitted to engage in it. However, there are two provisos: 1. what may or may not fall under the definition of Jewish law as being animal cruelty may not be the same as that which an organization such as PETA would consider to be cruel 2. there are in fact provisions in Jewish law that do permit a certain level of animal cruelty under some limited circumstances. An example from Tanakh (the Bible) is the incident where Yehoshua (Joshua) hamstrung the horses of Israel’s enemies so they could not be used any more. In general, there are certain leniencies that apply in the case of the general welfare of people.
Here is the problem of linking animal cruelty to kashrut. The fact of matter is that the Torah does permit us to slaughter and eat animals. Killing is inherently cruel. What right to we have to take a life, any life, just so that we can eat? Still, we do not ascribe to the view of Jains that animal life is exactly on the same level as human life. Furthermore, we have theoretical cases brought down in our codes (Talmud Bavli Tractate Hullin Chapter 1) where in fact cruelty would not invalidate the kashrut of an animal. For example, a person could theoretically continue to slice all day at an animal’s neck and as long as they don’t stop the animal is still considered to be kosher.
Permission for cruelty to animals is not okay, and of course it is the responsibility for a rabbi to speak up against it. But to ban factory farms? Better that we should improve the animal factories so that they are as humane as possible in order to show the goyim (non-Jews) that there is a way to do it without being cruel, even if this does incur additional costs.
I know the above sounds harsh and believe me it doesn’t make me happy to be this blunt on this issue, but I think it would be intellectually dishonest to do otherwise.
The issue you raise – a concern for issues of treating animals humanely in the food-making and delivery process – is precisely the reason that the Conservative Movement, in recent years, has pursued an additional certification for food products. The Magen Tzedek (“Justice Seal”) seeks to address such issues as treatment of workers in the plants and factories, proper legal and ethical adherence, and (in addition, for the meat and dairy industries) adhering to the highest standards of humane treatment of animals – in their raising, feeding, and ultimately even in their slaughter.
It is also important to understand that Magen Tzedek is an additional seal of approval, and does not replace the traditional definitions of kashrut, concerning the laws of shechitah (ritual slaughter). I agree with your premise that, especially in a time when the food industry is organized so that consumers may not have direct knowledge and oversight of every step of the process from farm to table, we as Jews do have an obligation to make ourselves aware of these processes, and to seek out the most humane and just purveyors. That said, I do not agree with those who would claim that eating free-range or organic products should supersede the ancient laws of kashrut. Organic food is not, inherently and automatically, kosher – just as food that is kosher for consumption according to the ancient laws of kashrut is not, inherently and automatically, just or ethical in its origins, labor practices, animal treatment, and the like.
You might ask, “Why were these laws not made explicit as part of the laws of food consumption?” Most probably, this is because in ancient times, there was no such concept as a factory farm or a food “industry.” I am hesitant to say that all farming endeavors nowadays that one might label “factory farms” are absolutely unjust; I suspect that practices vary widely across the industry. That said, in ancient times, most food was easily traced from its origins to its consumption, with few intermediaries from farm to table. The ancient laws of kashrut are designed to make us mindful of the food we consume, and the processes of obtaining and preparing this food. Now that the food industry is much more complex, Magen Tzedek is another, additional form of hashgachah (literally, overseeing and supervision) to help us fulfill a separate set of mitzvot, in addition to the laws of kashrut - namely, the laws of business ethics, the concerns of tzaar baalei chayim, and other issues.
With regard to your question of whether these values should be upheld across the spectrum of Jewish observance and affiliation, I cannot see a reason why any Jew would balk at efforts to help consumers choose mindfully, in keeping with all of these above principles. As a Conservative rabbi, I am perplexed by the reticence or even antagonism of other movements’ leadership with respect to this effort, as it does not undermine or replace the standards of kashrut. Any communal efforts to help Jews fulfill more mitzvot AND model conscientious consumption of food products both inspires Jews to greater observance, and (I hope) influences the food industry to monitor itself more responsibly.
It is a sad reality that most of the meat produced for human consumption in this country comes from large mills whose reputation for causing pain to animals is widespread. That being said, it is certainly the responsibility of Jews – and others, naturally – to act to expose abuses in the American meat production system, and to advocate for a different set of standards for so-called “factory farms.”
The Jewish value of “tzar ba’alei chayim,” or reducing inhumane treatment of animals, is one that is supremely important, but before we promote this value out in “the world,” we also have to ensure that our own Jewish community practices can be in concert with our professed values. Here is what I mean:
You ask whether factory farms are kosher. I am not certain what you mean, or from what standpoint, a farm can be kosher. But I would state that food that is labeled Kosher that is produced in unsanitary factories, and/or products that are created by employees whose working conditions are below exceptional, and/or meat that is slaughtered by techniques that cause pain to animals, should not be called or labeled Kosher. From an Orthodox standpoint, such a food’s components might be Kosher. But from an ethical standpoint, it is not.
In recent years, especially after the scandal at the Rubashkin Kosher meat facility in Postville, Iowa, there has been increased concern about ensuring that food labeled as Kosher be produced by Jewish values throughout the entire production process. In addition to this food being Kosher, it could receive an additional certification called Magen Tzedek. You can see more about this certification at http://www.magentzedek.org/, and here is an excerpt from that website:
“The Magen Tzedek Commission has developed a food certification program that combines the rabbinic tradition of Torah with Jewish values of social justice, assuring consumers and retailers that kosher food products have been produced in keeping with exemplary Jewish ethics in the area of labor concerns, animal welfare, environmental impact, consumer issues and corporate integrity.
“The cornerstone of the program is the Magen Tzedek Standard, a proprietary set of standards that meet or exceed industry best practices for treatment of workers, animals, and the Earth; and delineates the criteria a food manufacturer must meet to achieve certification. Upon successful certification, the Magen Tzedek Commission will award its Shield of Justice seal which can be displayed on food packaging.”
Finally you ask “Shouldn't the value of avoiding unnecessary cruelty be one that is maintained across the spectrum of observance?”
In my opinion, all PEOPLE, not just Jews across our ideological spectrum, should follow more ethical treatment of animals, and especially in the way that meat is produced. It would be better – and this is supported by Torah – that we all were vegetarians: fewer forests would be chopped down for grazing land (and help toward the problem of global climate change); fewer heart ailments and lower cholesterol levels (potentially leading to a longer lifespan); general better overall health; and increased camaraderie across the human spectrum in regard to saving the planet from ourselves.
This won’t happen soon, if ever, but it certainly can be a goal that we should try to attain.
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