Meat Producer in Hot Water Over Animal Abuses

Lawsuits, investigations, recriminations, and a possible loss of its kosher status are the results of a TV expose on a meat processing plant

David Lev,

Meat (illustrative)
Meat (illustrative)
Israel news photo: Flash 90

Lawsuits, investigations, recriminations, and a possible loss of its kosher status was the result of a television investigation program's hidden camera footage at a processing plant belonging to Soglowek. Workers at the veteran Israeli sausage and processed meat production plant were shown mistreating chickens and turkeys, dropping them from tall heights, beheading them when they got stuck in machinery, crowding them into substandard cages that violate laws requiring battery farms to provide space for the birds, and generally treating the animals in a callous and cruel manner.

The shocking images, broadcast on the Kolbotek investigation program, drew immediate responses from legislators, animal rights groups, ordinary citizens, and Chief Ashkenazic Rabbi David Lau, who said that the company's kashrut status would be investigated, in light of the abuses at the plant.

“As a Jew and a human being I was shocked to see the images, which showed workers treating helpless animals in a brutal manner,” Rabbi Lau said. “These actions cannot be allowed to continue. The Torah forbids us from acting in such a manner, and requires us to treat animals in a most careful manner. We will not remain silent in the wake of this scandal.

“Besides the religious and ethical issue, the images imply the likelihood of major kashrut violations,” Rabbi Lau said. “Some of the actions by the workers clearly caused internal injuries to the birds, and these dying animals cannot be considered kosher. We will use all the tools at our disposal to ensure that these producers fear not only lawsuits and legislators, but the Chief Rabbinate as well. I have instructed inspectors to take this matter very seriously, and steps will be taken to ensure that the plant follows Jewish law, to the extent that we will remove the plant's kosher status if necessary.”

Lawsuits and legislation are also a result of the broadcast. On Thursday, attorneys filed a class-action suit against the company in a Tel Aviv court, claiming fraud by Soglowek. The NIS 200 million ($57 million) lawsuit says that had consumers known of the abuses at the plant, many would have without question boycotted the company, “because of concern over animal abuse, as well as for kashrut reasons.” Allowing the abuse was tantamount to fraud, says the lawsuit.

Channel Ten, which broadcast the program Tuesday night, polled shoppers in several supermarkets on Wednesday. Nearly every shopper interviewed said they would stop buying Soglowek products. “I will not buy Soglowek products until they prove they have stopped their abuse, and until the current staff resigns,” said one shopper, in a typical comment. “They should really be sent to jail for this.”

Police are involved in the story as well, after animal rights groups Anonymous and Let the Animals Live filed criminal complaints against Soglowek Wednesday. The groups also demanded that the Agriculture Ministry close the processing plant. Ronen Bar, an Anonymous activist and a producer for Kolbotek, filmed footage of the plant secretly, and said that the footage shown was just a small sample of what goes on at the plant on a daily basis.

In their complaint to police, the groups said that it was Soglowek, not the individual workers, who were responsible for the abuse. “These abuses are clearly company policy, and the company – including its management – must be held responsible.”

Besides the animal rights groups, the head of the Agriculture Ministry's Veterinarian Service, Dr. Nadav Gal-on, demanded that the Ministry remove Soglowek's license to slaughter poultry, and order the production plant closed. Agriculture Minister Amir Peretz has ordered an investigation into Soglowek, and a special panel is set to begin hearing testimony Thursday.

The Knesset Education Committee, chaired by MK Amram Mitzna, said it would conduct its own investigation, and that among the witnesses at his investigation will be Peretz and Agriculture Ministry officials, who will be asked how it was that the situation at the plant was able to go on for so long.

MK Dov Lipman (Yesh Atid) said that he was calling for a boycott of Soglowek products. In a letter to company executives, Lipman accused them of “gross violations of the law, over an extended period, causing unnecessary suffering for animals. I cannot take part in these violations of the law and these sins against the Torah. Until you observe the law – Jewish and secular – and act in a human manner towards animals, I will no longer buy Soglowek products,” he wrote.

In response, Soglowek issued a statement saying that it “expressed sorrow over the situation. We apologize for all of the scenes in the Kolbotek broadcast. These actions do not reflect our company's policy or purpose. These actions were not done purposefully or because of bad intentions. We consider the situation to be a very serious one, and we are taking immediate action to ensure that they do not repeat themselves.

“Immediately after the broadcast we ordered an upgrade to the equipment at the facility, even though it met or exceeded government standards,” the statement said. “We wish to stress that the footage is not connected to the safety of the company's products, which are safe as ever.” Regarding the threat to remove the plant's kashrut status, the company issued a statement that said that the threat was “surprising, since officials of the Rabbinate are at the plant on a constant basis, and have long been aware of the methods used in our production process.”

Soglowek, established in 1937, is one of Israel's largest processors of meat, holding about a third of Israel's market for sliced deli meats and hot dogs, barbecue products and sausages. The company also produces baked goods and vegetarian products.