February 23, 2020

Innovations in the U.S. Meat Industry: Were Animals Created for Humans?

Sows forced to reproduce beyond the natural-rate, roll over and crush their squealing piglets in a cold, metal pen. Ewes made to give birth in open fields and in larger numbers then they can bear. Overburdened and tired, their unattended young are felled by neglect, pneumonia, and coyote. Their weak bodies, empty of food and love, are unceremoniously thrown in an expansive hole called the “dead pit.”

It’s enough to make one’s stomach churn. Animals are forced to overproduce babies and now our country is turning a blind eye to their plight, enabling new procedures to be performed on animals to further the sales and influence of the meat industry. A recent story in the New York Times reported, “Scientists are using surgery and breeding techniques to re-engineer the farm animal to fit the needs of the 21st-century meat industry. The potential benefits are huge: animals that produce more offspring, yield more meat and cost less to raise.”

It is not only corporate factory farms that are pushing the boundaries. The same New York Times report states that “Since Congress founded it 50 years ago to consolidate the United States Department of Agriculture’s research on farm animals, the center has worked to make lamb chops bigger, pork loins less fatty, steaks easier to chew.” But a new study has exposed that these endeavors have led to tremendous “illness, pain, and premature death” for these animals.

The question must be asked: Is care being taken to minimize pain and death of these farm animals raised to die?

James Keen, a scientist and veterinarian who has worked for the taxpayer-funded U.S. Meat Animal Research Center for twenty-four years, said: “They pay tons of attention to increasing animal production, and just a pebble-sized concern to animal welfare.” But all of this is fine since animals were created for the needs and pleasures of humans, right?

Judaism teaches that while humans may be at the pinnacle for responsibility and dignity, they are not the zenith in regards to Creation’s purpose. Manipulating the bodies of sentient creatures to increase corporate profits and satiate human pleasure is morally bankrupt and untenable.  Rabbi Joseph ben Abraham Gikatilla wrote in his medieval opus Sha’are Orah, that unless one is sensitive to the moral complexities surrounding the killing of animals, one is forbidden to eat meat. The rabbis of the Talmud were also explicit that “An ignoramus is forbidden to eat meat,” (Pesachim 49b). How many understand the moral complexities of the meat industry today? How many refrain?

For example Robert A. Downey, executive director of the Capital Humane Society, has said that, “Experimental surgery is being performed in some (not all) cases by untrained, unskilled and unsupervised staff. This has resulted in the suffering of animals and in some cases the subsequent death of animals.”

How can we stand up against massive agribusiness conglomerates, federal and state governments, and those who consume meat without the willingness to understand its gruesome origins?

There is a thought in Jewish philosophy that animals are not to be merely used as servants to the whims of humankind.  Maimonides explained:

Now if the spheres exist for the sake of man, all the more is this the case for all the species of animals and of plants. However, if this opinion is carefully examined, as opinions ought to be carefully examined by intelligent men, the flaw becomes clear… [T]he correct view according to the beliefs of the Law – a view that corresponds likewise to the speculative views – is as follows: It should not be believed that all the beings exist for the sake of the existence of man. On the contrary, all the other beings too have been intended for their own sakes and not for the sake of something else (Guide for the Perplexed, 3:13).

 Looking to today, I should note that I know many people who are spiritually attuned, but have no guilt when chomping into a hamburger, critically intellectual folks who feel no remorse about enjoying a veal chop. Indeed, there are even major social justice leaders who don’t feel an ounce of embarrassment in their support of the dairy, egg or meat industries while they dedicate their lives to fighting for the vulnerable. Of course, every human being is complex and unique, so I can’t speak to what is going to through the hearts and heads, even the souls, of these knowledgeable folks. Nor would I presume to.

They could be very aware of the atrocities present in the industry, yet something doesn’t click. There is no greater divide that I know of than that between people who know what is happening and people who’d rather not think about the implications of thinking about the issue too deeply (perhaps they are offended by the conversation?). I have been perplexed, as clearly something is going on in the human psyche, something more than just folks being entrenched in habit, loving their particular food, and being morally obstinate; change doesn’t seem to be consistently found.

So then, is collective change even possible?

If we cannot convince the majority of meat eaters to slow down their consumption, vis-à-vis their support for these industries, then we must try to enact legislation, or introduce some sort of legal condition that would help spare the animals additional misery. But this too is an extremely complicated issue. Without this legally recognized “personhood” it becomes very difficult to legally support non-human animals. Even clever and intelligent beings like chimps have been denied a sort of personhood status. If one abuses an animal, that person cannot be sued since in order to sue one must have legal standing. Without the protection of law, some have attempted to sue based upon contorted arguments that they have suffered by watching the animal suffer. While I feel that attaching personhood to non-humans is a bit of a stretch – what would the logical conclusions of such a position be ? – there is no doubt in my mind that there needs to be more stringent legal protections in place for animals.

Looking at the horrific smuggled footage of the factory farm treatment of animals is enough to make one’s stomach and heart drop. It seems with every innovation to bring more succulent steak or more lean chicken to the table, we lose the human dimension to understanding our own food. The possibility of our collective souls becoming a kind of “dead pit” frightens me. We must take stock in the values we wish to consecrate in our own lives. If that means millions of farm animals suffer to just end up as a McNugget, or a Whopper, for example, then I think, I believe, we can do much better as a society. Treating animals as animals, not as product, will go so far to uplift us morally, raising our own consciousness towards suffering creatures of every stripe and feather. The forces of opposition are great, but the factory farming train must be slowed down and we must take every little victory one at a time.


Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute and the author of seven books on Jewish ethics.  Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America.”