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USDA Investigating Kosher Meat Plant

Advocacy Group's Grisly Video Sparked Outcry

By Alan Cooperman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 31, 2004; Page A03

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has told federal meat inspectors that they should immediately shut down any slaughterhouse where they observe acts of cruelty similar to those surreptitiously videotaped by an animal rights group at a kosher meat plant in Iowa.

The videotape by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which shows a steer struggling to its feet and walking into a corner after its throat has been cut and its trachea and esophagus are dangling out, has caused a furor among Jewish organizations and rabbis around the world.

AgriProcessors Inc. sells meat to kosher markets and meat counters like this one in Evanston, Ill. The company's method of slaughtering is being questioned. (Peter Slevin -- The Washington Post)

Some are angry at PETA, accusing the animal rights group of reviving the Nazi libel that Jewish ritual slaughter involves torture of animals. But other Jewish groups have condemned the AgriProcessors Inc. plant in Postville, Iowa, saying it appears to have violated the spirit, if not the letter, of the rules for kosher butchering, which require a swift cut with a razor-sharp knife by a person trained to put down a large animal in seconds, with minimal suffering.

PETA says one of its members got a job at the Iowa plant and used a hidden camera to record five hours of operations on the "kill floor" over a seven-week period this summer. Based on its video footage, it filed a complaint with the USDA on Nov. 29 and has urged Iowa authorities to prosecute the plant's managers for animal cruelty.

Bruce Friedrich, a spokesman for PETA, said it advocates vegetarianism and is "not a fan of killing animals, period." But he said PETA acknowledges that "done correctly, kosher slaughter is no less humane, and probably is better, than the conventional method" in commercial slaughterhouses, which fire an air gun or metal bolt into the animal's brain.

"We're not objecting to kosher slaughter in general," Friedrich said. "We're objecting to the sloppy, unethical methods used at this particular plant, which many experts on slaughterhouse standards say is the worst cruelty they have ever seen."

Nathan Lewin, a Washington lawyer who represents AgriProcessors, said the plant is continuously monitored by USDA inspectors and kosher certifying organizations, none of which has found anything wrong. PETA's campaign, he said, "is really an attack on shechita," or kosher slaughter.

"I'm not suggesting this is part of an anti-Semitic wave. But I do I think it's an attempt to get rid of kosher slaughter, maybe as a first step to getting rid of all slaughter," Lewin said.

PETA's allegations have reverberated internationally because the Postville plant is the largest glatt kosher meat producer in the United States and the only one authorized by Israel's Orthodox rabbinate to export beef to Israel -- though, at present, Israel does not accept any U.S. beef because of concerns about mad cow disease. Glatt, the Yiddish word for smooth, is the highest standard of cleanliness.

Federal and state officials, noting the sensitivity of regulating religious rituals, have responded cautiously. The USDA sent four investigators to the Postville plant Dec. 2, two days after PETA made the videotape public. Their inquiry remains open and has neither exonerated the plant nor concluded that it broke federal laws on humane handling of livestock, USDA spokesman Matt Baun said.

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