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.
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: www.hazon.org.
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