Canadian Food Inspection Agency building in Ottawa. (The Canadian Press/Sean Kilpatrick)

Canadian Restrictions on Kosher Slaughter of Animals Don’t Make Good Optics

You’d be hard pressed to find anyone who will defend animal suffering as a value in itself. But few of us are animal rights absolutists—that is, who believe animals have the right not to be killed for human sustenance. Most of us are, rather, animal welfarists, who want animals to lead stress-free lives, however short, with as painless a death as possible.

Animal welfare and animal rights occasionally coincide on issues like fox hunting, fur-trapping (once a status symbol, used fur coats can be had for peanuts; wearing fur is as taboo as public smoking) and, a century ago, the commercial trade in bird feathers to adorn women’s hats. We owe the public demand for free-range chickens and grass-raised cattle to these tireless animal advocates, and more power to them.
What constitutes a “good death” for animals—for regulatory purposes in Canada—falls under the aegis of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), charged with “safeguarding food, animals and plants,” which includes oversight of Canadian slaughter processing. According to Jewish law on animal slaughter—“shechita” in Hebrew—cattle must be killed by a trained “shochet” with a razor-sharp blade in a rapid, continuous motion across the throat that severs the blood supply to the brain, instantly rendering the animal unconscious.
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The CFIA does not have the power to effect a ban on shechita, as its practice is protected in Canadian law. Instead, it has been imposing restrictions that are crippling the industry.

Since June of 2023, the CFIA has been insisting that cows be pre-stunned with a bolt gun before killing to ensure it is “insensible” when hoisted. But Jewish law does not permit pre-stunning; the animal must be intact and healthy at the time of slaughter. If the shochet is forced to perform a series of checks between each shechita to ensure the animal’s insensibility, as CFIA requests, it could take minutes rather than seconds between killings. At scale, such delays are economically untenable. Kosher meat production in Canada has already slowed so much that importation has become necessary, an untenable situation.

On March 8, the Toronto-based Kashruth Council of Canada and Canada’s two largest kosher meat producers, Shefa Meats and Mehadrin Meats, launched a lawsuit against the CFIA. The plaintiffs argue that their charter freedom of religious practice is infringed by the new regulations. A statement, issued by the plaintiffs in collaboration with the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), says they have “produced several reports from experts demonstrating that following shechita, animals rapidly transition to immediate and irreversible insensibility, and as a result do not experience any pain.”
Neither the meat companies nor CIJA have suggested that the CFIA mandate was guided by anti-Semitism. But, given the currently tense climate for Jews in the West, mapped on to the history of shechita bans in other times and climes, a certain anxiety about motivation isn’t entirely unjustified.

As Rabbi Eric Grossman, headmaster of a Montreal parochial school, observes in a recent Times of Israel post, the first law the Nazis enacted in every country they conquered prior to the Holocaust was a ban on shechita on what would soon prove to be the all-too-ironic grounds that shechita was a manifestation of Jews’ cruel nature. Grossman also notes an irony closer to home: Seal harvesting requires that harvesters “shoot or strike animals on the top of the cranium, with either a firearm or a hakapik or club.” None of these methods guarantees instant death or even insensibility.
Double standards tend to make Jews nervous, and on this file one is spoiled for choice. For example, although there is not a single country in Europe that bans hunting, another domain in which human error causes untold animal anguish, kosher slaughter is banned in Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Estonia, Norway, and Slovenia. In 2011, the Netherlands imposed a ban that was reversed in 2012 on grounds of freedom of worship. Poland also banned shechita in 2013, over the objection of the Polish council of Catholic bishops that “Jewish religious communities and believers of Islam are entitled to preserve and implement their fundamental rights to freedom of religion and worship.” The Supreme Court of Poland overturned the ban in 2014.

Last month, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled that Belgium was free to ban kosher slaughter (the ban will apply in Flanders and Wallonia, but not Brussels). While the court acknowledged that the European Convention on Human Rights Convention’s “Freedom of thought, conscience, and religion” clause, Article 9, “did not contain an explicit reference to the protection of animal welfare in the exhaustive list of legitimate aims that might justify an interference with the freedom to manifest one’s religion,” the court rather tortuously linked Jewish ritual slaughter to Article 9’s interest in “the protection of public morals.”
Public morals? There’s a phrase to send shivers down the Jewish spine. In response to that historically triggering justification, European Jewish Congress president Dr. Ariel Muzicant said: “Restrictions on fundamental aspects of Jewish religious freedom of expression, coupled with a background of massive increases in antisemitic attacks on Jewish communities, lead us to seriously consider whether Jews have a future in Europe.”
The ECHR ruling included the right to ban halal slaughter, which is analogous in most respects to “shechita.” However, while both employ the single slash with a sharp knife across the animal’s throat, sharia law does not insist on consciousness at the moment of slaughter. A Guardian reportage reckoned, for example, that “contrary to what many assume, most animals killed by halal methods are stunned before slaughter. The [Food Standards Agency] estimates suggest that 88 percent of animals in the UK killed by halal methods were stunned beforehand in a way that many Muslims find religiously acceptable.” Flexibility on the issue in Muslim communities would explain why it is only shechita that is bearing a burden imposed by the pre-stunning mandate in Canada.
One cannot say the mandate was motivated by anti-Semitism. But one can certainly say that the optics of a CFIA ruling, which just happens to bring grief to the one community in Canada that is presently under hate-fuelled siege of an unprecedented virulence, are not good. Not good at all.

Instead of burning the midnight oil on the relative suffering caused by shechita or pre-stunning in the last 15 seconds of an animal’s life, would the CFIA’s time not be more profitably spent on rulings to mitigate the repulsive, demonstrable suffering endured by so many animals throughout their entire lifetimes in execrable living conditions and livestock transport, areas of animal welfare that have not been updated in decades?