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How Frum Is Your Food?
How frum is your food? Does it have a good hechsher? Does it have the best hechsher? What exactly are the kashrus organizations certifying?
While researching the Chicken Wars and other topics for the Feast of Exotic Curiosities, I discovered some pretty disturbing things about the poultry industry. For example, contemporary broiler chickens have been selectively bred to grow as fat and as fast as possible on as little food as possible, so that they can be slaughtered at around seven weeks of age. But this is not how God/nature designed chickens to develop; it does not allow their bodies to develop properly. If humans grew as fat as fast as a modern chicken, a 6.6 pound human baby would, in two months, reach a weight of 660 pounds! With chickens, the problems of such extreme growth include skeletal malformation and dysfunction, skin and eye lesions, and congestive heart conditions. It's not a matter of giving them more space to roam; in any case, it is too painful for them to walk. It's the very type of artificial chicken that's the problem.
Chickens that are raised as egg-layers suffer a different set of problems. Male chicks, which are useless, are culled; while some practices decried as ghastly are actually painless (such as putting them in a specialized high-speed grinding machine), others, such as suffocation, are certainly problematic. The females have their beaks cut off so that they do not attack each other in the crowded conditions under which they are raised, a surgery which is likely to cause acute and chronic pain.
Now, some of the problems with factory farming may indeed cause actual halachic problems with the kashrus of the creature, such as rendering it a treifah (mortally unwell). But, for the purposes of this post, let us assume that there are no actual technical kashrus problems. But what about the halachos of tzaar baalei chaim?
There are countless laws in the Torah which teach us sensitivity to animals, including in the laws of kashrut. On the other hand, there is a principle that tzaar baalei chaim is permitted in the case of benefit to man. But does the economic benefit of cheaper chickens count as sufficient reason to cause them great pain? While some halachic authorities are of the view that economic benefit does indeed justify causing pain to animals, others are of the opinion that minor benefits and financial benefits do not warrant causing severe pain to animals.
So, what do you do with a situation which according to some halachic authorities is permissible albeit unfortunate, while according to some halachic authorities it is problematic? Well, what usually happens is that the consumer is presented with a choice. For example, when it comes to arba minim, there are a range of different options available. Some are only kosher according to some opinions, and are cheaper. Others are more mehudar and more expensive. In contemporary Orthodox and especially charedi society, there is an emphasis on fulfilling halachah according to all opinions, and doing so in the most mehudar way, even if it costs more money.
Seeing that many people are fastidious to meticulously fulfill halachah according to all opinions, such punctiliousness should surely also apply to the laws of tzaar baalei chayim. That is to say, since there are opinions which state that the financial benefits such as those enabled through factory farming do not justify the suffering thereby caused to animals, those who are meticulous to follow all opinions should refrain from consuming animals farmed in such a manner.
Furthermore, even if there is no technical infringement of the laws of tzaar baalei chaim, can anyone really argue that it is perfectly fine? Rav Melamed discusses the topic of hens that are starved in order to then make them enter a new cycle of laying eggs. He quotes none other than Rav Yitzchak Weiss - of Manchester and then of the Edah Charedis - who says that even though there is no technical problem of tzaar baalei chaim here, someone who wants to conduct himself via middas chassidus will refrain from this. Do people who are careful to eat Badatz Eidah Charedis today ever demonstrate care about such things?
So, you have authorities ruling that there is an actual problem of tzaar baalei chaim and you have authorities saying that middas chassidus would be to refrain from such a thing. And it's fairly clear that even if there is no contravention of the letter of the law of kashrus, there is certainly contravention of the spirit of the law. My own mentor, Rav Aryeh Carmell ztz"l, had the following to say:
"It seems doubtful… whether the Torah would sanction “factory farming,” which treats animals as machines, with apparent insensitivity to their natural needs and instincts." Rabbi Aryeh Carmell, Masterplan (Jerusalem: Feldheim Publishers/ Jerusalem Academy Publications 1991) p. 69
At this stage, I don't think that it's viable to say that it is forbidden to eat factory farmed chickens. I ate one today myself. But how is that virtually nobody cares about having a different option available? How is it that while you can find frum communities being careful to observe all kinds of stringencies, even those with a very shaky basis, and even those which are expensive, and yet there is no mehadrin option for chicken in terms of tzaar baalei chaim? In future posts, I plan to discuss some efforts that have been made in this direction - some of which are commendable, and others of which are problematic. But certainly, any God-fearing Jew who prides him/herself on trembling before the word of God, should ask him/herself whether it wouldn't be worth spending a little more on eating food that hasn't involved great suffering to God's creations.