Wednesday, July 25, 2018

"Meet Your Meat" and the Ethics of Animal Consumption

Watching an old episode of Parks and Recreation recently, I came across this short vignette which encapsulates the ethical challenges inherent in today's meat production industry. After inviting his employees to a barbecue, department boss Ron Swanson proceeds to introduce them to the pig that he intends to slaughter for lunch.

Ron says, "In my opinion, not enough people have looked their dinner in the eyes and considered the circle of life. This is your dinner. His name is Tom."

Their reactions are both priceless, and fully understandable. The very thought that they would kill and eat a cute, precocious pig repulses everyone in the crowd. Ron is finally forced to relent when he learns that doing so in public park would violate numerous laws and health codes.

Today, we're just like the people in this video: we of course want to eat the cute and cuddly animal, just as long as we don't see that it was an animal, that it bled, or that it was alive at all. We want our meat in clean, ready to prepare packages, devoid of all possible messiness. And we certainly don't want to think about how the animal was treated before someone, somewhere killed it for us.

I have been struggling with this ethical question lately.

I am by no means a vegetarian. I believe that God gave human beings the right to kill animals for necessary purposes including consumption and clothing. The very Torah scroll read in every synagogue around the world is written on an animal hide. Were it written on plain paper - no matter how fine and high-quality - it would not be kosher.

That being said, that same Torah demands that we take into account the treatment of those animals in life. The commandments prohibiting tza'ar ba'alei chayyim, require us to treat animals humanely, with care for their well-being. (see here, here, or just do a search on Google.) And it also seems clear that modern animal production - factory farming - fails to take the animal's well-being into account, and falls far short of the Torah standards - both for meat and poultry. I'm not basing this on the numerous studies, reports and articles written on the subject over the past many years. Rather, I base my opinion on common sense: have you personally seen the cows regularly used for milk nowadays, with udders so large they can barely stand? What about the massive chicken pens in which chickens are raised in great density? I'm sure that there are many more issues about which we have absolutely no idea - not because we can't know, but because we don't want to. (Did you know that in the United States, there are currently no laws whatsoever that regular the treatment of farm animals? That's pretty amazing to me, and tells me that as a society, we don't want to know. We don't want to think about the fact that the steak we're eating came from an animal, and someone had to raise, feed and kill that animal on our behalf before it arrived in a neat plastic package at the grocery store.)

It's therefore at least a bit gratifying that the Orthodox Union recently announced that it would no longer certify meat slaughtered with a method called "Shackle and Hoist". Essentially, this involved flipping the animal upside-down before it was slaughtered. While this is certainly a positive development, the OU doesn't get all the credit; the State of Israel does. According to the Times of Israel article, the OU issued it's new guidelines,
after Israel decided to ban the import of any meat slaughtered using the method, in which the animal is pulled into the air by its legs and then flipped onto the ground before being slaughtered....Israel’s agriculture department banned the method for imported meat last year and gave slaughterhouses, many of which also produce kosher meat sold to the US, until June 1, 2018, to comply. The Israeli policy said that slaughterhouses had to install rotating pens to turn the animal upside down, which is seen as more humane than using shackle and hoist.
So, animal activists lobbied Israeli bureaucrats to change Israeli food production regulations, which thus gave the OU the cover it needed to change its policy. This teaches us a number of important lessons:
  • First of all, for many years the OU has claimed that it does not legislate on issues related to ethics, and that it only addresses the issue of whether a food is technically kosher. This new letter represents a sharp departure from this longstanding OU policy and opens the door to any number of other ethical issues. How indeed can we claim that food is kosher if the production of that food involved Torah violations? Theoretically, what if the OU learned that an animal producer was literally torturing animals in order to produce a special type of meat (a claim made by critics of goose-stomach-pumping to make fois-gras)? What if the OU discovered that a company it oversees was involved in systematic theft and corruption? Today, the OU can no longer look the other way. 
  • This decision reinforces the centrality of the State of Israel in the Jewish world. Why did the OU wait for Israel to issue its new regulations? Did it feel that "shackle and hoist" is inhumane before Israel changed the regulations? Whatever the case, this should only encourage those involved in animal rights to focus even more strongly on the Israeli front, where there are people who are very receptive to these issues who we now know can make a difference not only in Israel, but in the kosher industry around the world.
  • This new policy addresses only the very last seconds of the life of an animal. It in no way addresses many, many other ethical issues, such as how the animal was born, raised, farmed, fed and brought to slaughter. What is the role of the OU - and the Israeli government - in issues like these?
This entire issue of factory farming has been bothering me for a while now.

On one hand, I'm not a vegetarian, nor do I wish to become one. I eat meat - far less than I used to - but still quite a bit. How can a person (me) who considers Jewish teaching and halachah primary to the way that I live, ignore major halachot, simply because I don't see them before my very eyes - because I choose not to?

I actually agree with Ron Swanson. I think that you shouldn't eat meat if you've never seen one being slaughtered, at least once. In a way, I wish there were a way to go back to the way they did it years ago. You went to the market and bought a chicken, which you took to the shochet to slaughter for you. It was gross. It was labor intensive. It was definitely more expensive. But at least you knew that it was an animal, and wasn't raised on a factory farm in horrifying conditions.

I recently became aware of a brand of meat in Israel called Hai Bari - which claims that it is "the first and only food label in Israel that guarantees consumers that their meat and dairy products come from farms who implement the highest animal welfare standards." (This isn't what it seems either. It's actually a response of Golan farmers to the Israeli government opening the market to the import of foreign cattle. They decided that if they can't compete on price - which they can't - they can at least try to corner the "ethical" market, which is fine by me.)

Changing factory farming is a very tall order. Like the rest of the crowd in the "Parks and Rec" video clip, most people really don't want to "Meat their meat." They don't want to know.

But I, and others like me, do want to know - not the name of the chicken that I'm eating, but at least that it was raised humanely and ethically. And I'm willing to pay more for the privilege, even if that means eating less meat and chicken to do it. I'm sure that I'm not alone.

I'd like to see the OU, the government of Israel, and even the animal rights movement  join forces in finding and encouraging new ways to create ethical meat and poultry production. This would give the kosher-eating public the sense that the food their eating isn't just kosher technically, but ethically as well.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Avoiding the Question, Or "Why David Kestenbaum's Sadness Makes Me Sad"

I feel sad for David Kestenbaum.

No, I don't know Mr. Kestenbaum, who is a producer-reporter for This American Life (although he used to be a particle physicist), a popular podcast that I sometimes listen to. But I'm sad, because he's sad (or at least he was - apparently, this is a repeat episode from a year ago).

Why is Kestenbaum sad? What's got him down as he brushes his teeth in the morning and goes about his day? A perplexing question called "Fermi's Paradox". Kestenbaum explains (I'm quoting from the transcript of the show, which is a conversation between TAL host Ira Glass and Kestenbaum that I've edited for brevity):
David Kestenbaum
So the story goes that this is 1950. Fermi's visiting Los Alamos, and they're sitting around at lunch. It's Fermi and a handful of other physicists and they start talking about extraterrestrials.

Ira Glass
One of the scientists who was there remembers that they talked about some New Yorker cartoon, which had flying saucers and cheerful aliens stealing our trash cans. They joked about it.

David Kestenbaum
And then out of nowhere, Fermi says something like, so where are they?

Ira Glass

David Kestenbaum
The aliens.

Ira Glass
And did people know what he meant?

David Kestenbaum
Yeah, somehow everybody knew exactly what he meant. The idea was basically that, like, the galaxy is this huge place, right? Hundreds of billions of stars. It's been around for billions of years. If you believe that intelligent life is something that just arises given enough time, where is everybody? Like, there have been billions of years, where civilizations could have developed and become way more advanced than we are and traveled from star to star, sent signals or something. Where are they? If that's right, where are they?

Ira Glass
This question became known as the Fermi Paradox, which goes like this. If it's so likely that intelligent life exists elsewhere, where is it? Why hasn't anybody shown up? And of course, the simple answer to that would be, well, nobody else exists.

David Kestenbaum
And I had never thought-- it made me think, maybe we're alone. I really thought that for the first time. Yeah, it made me really sad. I had never thought about it seriously before. I had always assumed that life was everywhere. But he's making a really serious point here. He's raising a tough question. The specific thought I was having was that this would mean that there's nobody out there who knows more than we do, like, about science, about-- there are no better songs. There are no better books. This is it, you know?

Ira Glass
So for months now, when David's brushing his teeth or doing nothing in particular, it'll hit him again. Maybe we're alone in the universe. Like this morning, on the train. Like, what we know is it. What we are is it.
The thing is, no one he talks to can really understand why it makes Kestenbaum so sad. They laugh off the question. What difference does it really make if we're all that there really is? Why does this question upset Kestenbaum so much? He never really explains what bother him, and other cannot really appreciate his angst.

I think that I understand what bothered him. But to me, what's sad about the whole story isn't that Kestenbaum is sad. The most upsetting aspect is the fact that he won't allow himself to ask the deeper question, and when he does, he rejects it out of hand.


To address his question, Kestenbaum turns to Melissa Franklin, his physics professor from Harvard, who he thinks will at least understand the question. After humoring him for a bit, Franklin starts to ask him some serious questions.
What exactly do you mean by being alone? Let's properly define the question here. You're talking about no intelligent life or no life at all? What if there's one crappy plant on another planet? How would you feel about that? What if advanced life like us is just a mathematical improbability, a total fluke?
Professor Franklin concluded, "And then you would say, OK, if that's the case, I have to believe in God. So that's what you're saying."

You would think that as a physicist - an empirical person trying to understand scientific truth, Kestenbaum would react seriously to this question. He would consider it and its implications, and actually wonder whether this was what's really bothering him. But no. He responds with a sad, actually pathetic argument.
David Kestenbaum
How many physicists do you know who believe in God?

Melissa Franklin
That's his answer? He's been pondering a question for months, literally walking around in a funk from a question, and as soon as a serious thinker proposes that what's really bothering him is a much deeper question of faith and creation, rather than addressing the question seriously, he scoffs at it.

His answer isn't even an answer, and is actually irrelevant to the question. What difference does it make how many physicists believe in God? Maybe they're all under the spell of some cult. What about those six? Are they crazy? Have they lost their mind. Is that how science works? You take a poll of commonly held beliefs, and ignore the actual facts entirely?

Moreover, what if they Professor Franklin only knows six god-believing physicists because that's the circle of colleagues she has created for herself? According to a HuffPost article I just found (pretty easily), a recent Pew Research Center survey, "found that the percentage of scientists that believe in some form of a deity or power was higher than you may think — 51 percent."

Kestenbaum's response immediately made me think of the very first of C.S. Lewis' Screwtape Letters, which is a brilliant treatise about human nature and the cause of sin. In his letter, he explains how the devil (i.e. the yetzer hara) works very hard not by arguing with us about the facts. Quite the opposite. His most effective strategy is avoiding argument.

That's exactly what Kestenbaum does. Confronted with an argument, he avoids and deflects. Rather than try and address a difficult and challenging question, he responds by scoffing at the possibility that he might actually believe in God. After all, he's a physicist! And they don't believe in God, do they?

In fact David, many of them do. And while you once were a physicist, you're not really a physicist anymore. You're a journalist. And in the NPR world that you inhabit, they really don't believe in God, and really would ridicule you if you in fact did.

The fact that you cannot in fact see this makes me quite sad.