In his recent blog post the honorable Rabbi David Rosen, a man I greatly admire, asks a provocative question, “Is any meat today kosher?” While never fully addressing the question posed in the article’s title he answers by advocating for Jews to eat more plants and fewer animal products. He also encourages Rabbinic figures to speak out about the abuses of the factory farm system and to advocate for plant-based diets. The Rabbi’s description of factory farming is disturbing, accurate, and astute. What Rabbi Rosen fails to do is present a path to resist the cruelty of factory farming while continuing to eat meat—and it is on this point that I wish to respectfully challenge him.
Rabbi Rosen and I agree that there can be no doubt about the cruel and immoral nature of the factory farm system. Through my own experiences growing up on an Israeli factory farm, working as a shochet (kosher slaughterer) in an industrial beef plant in the midwest, and now working as an animal welfare advocate at the Jewish Initiative For Animals (JIFA), I have come to know the factory farmed industry first hand. My colleagues and I at JIFA are all staunchly opposed to factory farming regardless of the kosher status of the meat it produces, which is not an issue we feel qualified to comment upon.
That said, I question why the only alternative to factory farming that Rabbi Rosen embraces is a move towards plant-based diets. The easiest way to avoid factory farming while keeping kosher may be to choose plant-based, but it is not the only way.
For example, the Rabbi failed to mention a once-common kosher meat product that just became available again for the first time in over 50 years, American Poultry Association (APA)-certified heritage chicken. In his post the Rabbi correctly states that “Chickens in today’s factory farms grow three times as fast as they did fifty years ago as a result of selective breeding programs and the use of antibiotics” and that “This leads to crippling bone disorders and spinal defects causing acute pain and difficulty in moving.” This cruel and commonplace practice of breeding chickens and turkeys to grow at an abnormal rate is of great concern to us at JIFA and addressing this problem was our first priority when founding the organization a little over a year ago.
Since then, we’ve worked with two kosher meat distributors, KOL Foods and Grow and Behold, to help bring to market the first commercial run of certified heritage and certified kosher chicken in decades. These APA certified heritage breed birds are raised under robust animal welfare standards and come from genetic lines that can be traced back to before the advent of factory farming. They grow at a healthy and natural rate, reaching a normal slaughter weight of 5 pounds after a minimum of 112 days of growth. This is in contrast to the industrial Cornish Cross chicken, which typically takes only 42 days to get the same weight and, as a result, suffers from unnecessary and painful problems with skeletal development, organ function, obesity, and more.
There are also other higher welfare products that the Rabbi failed to mention. For example, KOL Foods deserves special recognition for being the only national purveyor of domestically farmed 100% grass-fed kosher beef. Grass-fed cattle take longer to raise but are able to live healthy and natural lives, totally removed from the factory farmed system. The fact that KOL is the only distributor of this product shows that this is a sector of the industry that needs more caring kosher consumers on its side.
Perhaps Rabbi Rosen’s most controversial statement is that“responsible rabbinic leadership should be advocating a plant based diet as much as possible, as the most kosher diet available for most people today.” I fear that this suggestion forgets the realities of the worldwide Jewish community. Many of us, myself included, feel that animal products make up an important part of our diets and is crucial for our health. To propose that Rabbinic authorities advocate for a plant based diet as the only alternative to factory farming and not mentioning any higher welfare options leaves the vast majority of the kosher-keeping population feeling as if they have little to do but continue purchasing factory farmed products.
I also believe that Rabbi Rosen doesn’t go nearly far enough in advocating for institutional-level change in buying practices. If the membership of a Jewish institution finds factory farming to be cruel and immoral then their concerns can be turned into action by applying those concerns to an institutional food policy that takes these serious matters into account. This is why the Jewish Initiative for Animals has made it a top priority to work with Jewish institutions to create ethical food buying policies that address animal welfare.
If you keep kosher and are concerned about the conditions described in the Rabbi’s article than there are many concrete steps you can take to fight factory farming. Here are a few suggestions:
- Eat fewer animals, or none at all.
- If you buy chicken, buy certified heritage kosher chicken.
- If you buy beef, buy 100% Grass-fed Kosher Beef.
- Join the movement to eat certified higher welfare eggs, or try an egg alternative.
- If in Israel you can purchase Hai Bari certified products.
- But more than all the things mentioned above, the way to supersize your impact on the kosher meat industry is to work with your local Jewish institution to create a simple and effective food buying policy that takes animal welfare into account.
Advocating for plant-based diets as the only alternative to the factory farm system is not the way to most successfully fight its extreme cruelty. Even the great Rabbi Avraham Isaac Kook, mentioned at the end of Rabbi Rosen’s article, was known to eat some meat on Shabbat and holidays. If that great Rabbi, who advocated for a vegetarian diet, couldn’t make a full transition we certainly cannot expect the millions of everyday Jews throughout the world to become vegan overnight.
I believe that we can all play a vital role in the fight against factory farming. I invite Rabbi Rosen to join me and the diverse group of caring individuals that make up the Jewish Initiative For Animals in widening the tent and offering a path for each and every individual that wishes to make this world a more humane place for all of God’s creations.