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Hazon speaker trying to push ‘kosher’ to the next level

by dan pine, staff writer

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Just because that sirloin steak on your plate was certified as kosher, does that make it kosher? Not necessarily, according to Aaron Gross. If the cow suffered in life or in death, the steak is traif, he says.

As founder and CEO of Farm Forward, a nonprofit working to better the lot of factory farm animals, Gross ponders these questions all the time. He has made a career of blending his love of Jewish ethics with concern for animal welfare.

Gross will report on his latest battles when he joins one of the many panels at the four-day Hazon Food Conference at U.C. Davis. His Aug. 19 panel is titled “How the Factory Farm Became Kosher.” Up for discussion among the four panelists will be the state of animal agriculture and new directions in the sustainable kosher meat world.


Since the 2008 immigration raid and bankruptcy of Iowa-based Agriprocessors, once the nation's largest kosher meat packing plant, many in the Jewish community community have pressed for industry reform.

Aaron Gross at the Good Shepherd Poultry Ranch in Lindsborg, Kan.   photo/ben goldsmith
Aaron Gross at the Good Shepherd Poultry Ranch in Lindsborg, Kan. photo/ben goldsmith
As a result, said Gross, who lives in the San Diego area, life is marginally better for industrial farm animals.

Some kosher meat processors have committed to more humane methods of animal care and slaughter. KOL Foods and the Center for Eco-Judaism (a Colorado-based sustainable cattle ranch) are two small yet innovative examples.

On a much larger scale, the Empire Kosher Poultry company has practices that make it a good fit for the Conservative movement’s new Magen Tzedek seal, Rabbi Morris Allen, the program director of Magen Tzedek, said in an interview with JTA.The seal, which will be rolled out this fall, guarantees kashrut as well as high standards for treatment of workers, animals and the environment. Allen, who didn't go so far as to say Empire would actually get the seal, visited the Empire plant in Mifflintown, Pa., several months ago.

In the egg industry, the Humane Society and the United Egg Producers recently joined forces to support federal law that ends abusive practices, such as crowded battery cages.

“I’ve been involved in this work for 15 years, and the last five have been extremely encouraging,” Gross said.

“There has not been in the history of the United States any federal law that regulated how [farm] animals are treated," he added, referring to the law, which addresses how the animals live, not merely how they die. "This is a first of its kind.”

Those changes will be phased in over 12 years.

Gross admits it’s an uphill climb to change entrenched practice. Expanding kashrut to include animal welfare sounds good, but not everyone in the kosher world buys in. “A lot of things that would be shocking to most Jews are permitted by kashrut law,” Gross said.

He cited as an example kosher beef imported from South America to Israel; it comes from animals slaughtered using a process known as “shackle and hoist.” The process was banned by the United States years ago, with the support of the Orthodox Union.

In May 2010, a video investigation exposed the horrors of “shackle and hoist.” The story received play in Israel, outraging consumers, yet the meat still received a hechsher (kosher certification seal).

“I asked them why,” Gross recalled of a conversation he had with kashrut supervisors. “The answer was, it would endanger [meat] supply. In other words, meeting consumer demand is more important than ethical considerations.”

Growing up in a Reform household in Chicago, Gross made social action a cornerstone of his Jewish life, in particular animal welfare. He holds graduate degrees from Harvard Divinity School and U.C. Santa Barbara’s Department of Religious Studies.

He also co-chairs the Animals and Religion Consultation program at the American Academy of Religion, and he collaborated with novelist Jonathan Safran Foer on the bestselling book, “Eating Animals.” Gross also teaches Jewish Studies at the University of San Diego.

“I realized how many issues I was concerned with intersected at food,” he said. “We have [in meat production] the No. 1 cause of global warming and global inequity. The United Nations anticipates that by 2050, the grain that feeds livestock could feed 4 billion people.”

As much as he has criticized certain practices in the kosher meat industry, Gross respects the Jewish way of making eating holy, which includes the welfare of animals. There is something in the way “Judaism developed that makes the community more sensitive to the moral implications of food,” he said.

Though factory farms have made incremental improvements in the way animals are raised and slaughtered, there remains a long way to go, said Gross — who believes chucking the whole meat thing would be a great strategy.

“It’s no secret that vegetarianism is a way to address this issue,” he said. “If you want to eliminate resources given to factory farming, the simplest way to do that is not to eat animal products.”

Acknowledging that’s not going to happen on a mass scale anytime soon, Gross said he will continue to find new ways to make hens happier and cows more contented.

“The United States leads the way,” he said, “and it’s been leading in a pretty destructive way. Factory farming was invented here, then we exported it all over the world. In terms of U.S. influence, when we change, everybody notices it.”

“How the Factory Farm Became Kosher” will take place from 1:45 to 3:15 p.m. Aug. 19 in 124 Wellman Hall, U.C. Davis. Panelists: Elisheva Brenner, Aaron Gross, Naftali Hanau and Robert Joppa. Moderator: Sue Fishkoff. Information:

Related article: Jewish food movement conference set for U.C. Davis


Posted by Anna Hanau
08/12/2011  at  05:18 AM
It doesn't have to be factory farmed

Well, sirloin steaks are never kosher (they come from the back half of the animal).  BUT—Grow and Behold Foods offers delicious, sustainably-raised pastured OU Glatt Kosher steaks of all kinds—
CEO and Founder Naftali Hanau will share the panel with Aaron at the upcoming conference!  Vegetarianism allows you to skip out on being part of the conversation about sustainably, ethically-raised meat; demanding that producers (such as Grow and Behold) work with farmers and slaughterhouses to improve conditions and work in harmony with ecological systems, and being willing to pay for it, means you can have your steak and eat it too.

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Posted by RichardSchwartz
08/12/2011  at  05:42 AM
Kol hakavod to Aaron Gross and hazon

As president of Jewish Vegetarians of North America and author of the book “Judaism and Vegetarianism,” I was very pleased to see this article. I wish Aaron Gross much success in spreading his important message.

Here is the basic case for Jews to be vegetarians.

Meat consumption and the ways in which meat is produced today conflict with Judaism in at least six important areas:

1. While Judaism mandates that people should be very careful about preserving their health and their lives, numerous scientific studies have linked animal-based diets directly to heart disease, stroke, many forms of cancer, and other chronic degenerative diseases.

2. While Judaism forbids tsa’ar ba’alei chayim, inflicting unnecessary pain on animals, most farm animals—including those raised for kosher consumers—are raised on “factory farms” where they live in cramped, confined spaces, and are often drugged, mutilated, and denied fresh air, sunlight, exercise, and any enjoyment of life, before they are slaughtered and eaten.

3. While Judaism teaches that “the earth is the Lord’s” (Psalm 24:1) and that we are to be God’s partners and co-workers in preserving the world, modern intensive livestock agriculture contributes substantially to soil erosion and depletion, air and water pollution, overuse of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, the destruction of tropical rain forests and other habitats, global warming, and other environmental damage.

4 While Judaism mandates bal tashchit, that we are not to waste or unnecessarily destroy anything of value, and that we are not to use more than is needed to accomplish a purpose, animal agriculture requires the wasteful use of grain, land, water, energy, and other resources.

5. While Judaism stresses that we are to assist the poor and share our bread with hungry people, over 70% of the grain grown in the United States is fed to animals destined for slaughter, while an estimated 20 million people worldwide die because of hunger and its effects each year.

6. While Judaism stresses that we must seek and pursue peace and that violence results from unjust conditions, animal-centered diets, by wasting valuable resources, help to perpetuate the widespread hunger and poverty that eventually lead to instability and war.

In view of these important Jewish mandates to preserve human health, attend to the welfare of animals, protect the environment, conserve resources, help feed hungry people, and pursue peace, and since animal-centered diets violate and contradict each of these responsibilities, committed Jews (and others) should sharply reduce or eliminate their consumption of animal products. 

One could say “dayenu” (it would be enough) after any of the arguments above, because each one constitutes by itself a serious conflict between Jewish values and current practice that should impel Jews to seriously consider a plant-based diet. Combined, they make an urgently compelling case for the Jewish community to address these issues.

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Posted by RichardSchwartz
08/12/2011  at  05:47 AM
For more information about Jewish Vegetarianism

For more information on Jewish teachings on vegetarianism please visit, where I have 140 articles and 25 podcasts of my talks and interviews and the complete text of my book “Judaism and Vegetarianism.” Please also visit, where you can see our acclaimed, award-winning documentary “A Sacred Duty: Applying Jewish Values to Help Heal the World.”

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Posted by RichardSchwartz
08/12/2011  at  05:51 AM
a kiddush Hashem?

How about a respectful email dialogue/debate on “Should Jews be Vegetarians?” It would be a kiddush Hashem in increasing awareness of the relevance of Judaism’s eternal teachings on food-related issues.

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Posted by magentzedek
08/12/2011  at  09:03 AM

We, at Magen Tzedek, read your article with interest. To be sure, we are supportive of all efforts to bring more care to animals being slaughtered, a fundamental Jewish value.  Our product—the MAGEN TZEDEK— will include Jewish ethical norms and standards for workers, animals and the earth. We are currently completing the final iteration of our initial auditing standards in cooperation with SAAS. While it
is true that we have spoken with Empire and have great respect for their brand, as we do for many of the kosher food brands,  we are
not currently in any substantive discussions regarding awarding them the Magen Tzedek social justice seal.Since Magen Tzedek will be the most objective and verifiable way for a kosher food producer to demonstrate a true commitment to workers , animals and the earth, we look forward to working with any and all Kosher food producing companies who wish to apply.

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Posted by RichardSchwartz
08/12/2011  at  10:41 AM
Kol hakavod to Magen Tzedek

Magen Tzedek is to be commended for its dedicated efforts to apply Jewish values to current commercial practices.

I respectfully suggest that in their deliberations about possibly giving their seal of approval, they consider that animal-based diets and agriculture are contributing to:

an epidemic of diseases in the Jewish community and others;

widespread hunger, as 70% of the grain in the US is fed to farmed animals;

widespread thirst, as it takes up to 14 times as much water on an animal-based diet than a plant-based diet;

climate change, largely due to methane emitted from cattle as part of their digestive processes;

many environmental threats, including deforestation, desertification, water pollution, and soil erosion

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Posted by Shea
08/12/2011  at  01:08 PM
Beware of Libel

Your article states; “Since the 2008 downfall of Agriprocessors, the Iowa-based, Orthodox-run kosher meat company guilty of labor law and animal abuse violations”

Yet he was acquitted on all charges relating to labor law and he was never convicted of “animal abuse violations”

Unless you can prove otherwise you should retract that statement.

Regardless I don’t see the point of bringing a negative point when you are trying to create a positive point.

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Posted by RabbiElisheva
08/14/2011  at  07:51 AM
Clarification from EcoGlatt

I am the founder/director of the Center for EcoJudaism in Colorado, and also the CEO of EcoGlatt, Inc.  We are producing meat from grass-fed/grass-finished pastured animals and are the only kosher company in the US that is offering meat from the hindquarters.  I want to correct my dear friend Anna’s comment above about sirloin never being kosher.  The back ends, properly prepared according to Jewish law ARE KOSHER.  See the OU reprint of “The Truth about Nikkur Achoraim” on the web.  We are working very hard to produce a product that is halakhically kosher and Kosher with respect to all the ethical values of the Torah. I look forward to sharing our successes and challenges with everyone at the conference.

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Posted by RabbiElisheva
08/14/2011  at  08:04 AM
Replying to Richard Schwartz

Richard, you make great points about the horrible and systemic affects of factory farming.  There is an alternative for those who eat animals—to only eat animals that are raised on pasture land and processed by upright slaughter in the manner that is proven by Dr. Temple Grandin to cause no discernable distress to the animals.  That means paying a bit more for meat, and having a lesser supply, which translates in to learning to eat less meat.  Vegetarian diets, in a day when dairy cattle and egg chickens are treated even worse than beef cattle, and when factory farms produce vegetables in ways that harm the earth and have lower nutritional values, is not necessarily an answer in itself, and certainly does not take a person out of the discussion about food production.

I would love to talk to you more about this.

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Posted by cyberbrook
08/14/2011  at  04:54 PM
The Vegetarian Mitzvah

For our health and spirits, for the animals, for our environment, and for the highest ideals of Judaism, I and many others support

The Vegetarian Mitzvah at

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