Food Scientist Discusses Religious Slaughter of Animals

On Thursday, November 12, Professor Emeritus of Food Science at Cornell University Joseph M. Regenstein gave a presentation titled “Controversies over the Religious Slaughter of Animals” in Lawrence Hall. The lecture was sponsored by Colgate’s Lampert Institute of Civic and Global Affairs. Regenstein drew on his experience in the field of food science to craft a thoughtful analysis of religious and gastronomical issues in a way that was accessible to students. In his talk, Regenstein cautioned the audience against perceiving the debate about religious animal slaughter as a “black vs. white” issue, and made the case for learning to tolerate and understand these religious practices.

Many cultures around the world have slaughtered animals for religious purposes for thousands of years. Some of the most well-known practices include the Jewish kosher tradition and the Muslim halal tradition. Religious slaughter has become controversial in recent decades due to a variety of cultural and political pressures. Despite the controversy surrounding the issue, Regenstein argued that religious slaughter techniques are often less cruel for the animal than conventional methods. According to Regenstein, religious slaughter is less mechanized, done with the use of a razor-sharp knife that is less painful for the animal and undertaken by someone who is genuinely sympathetic toward the animal.  

“When done right, religious slaughter may be better [for the animal],” Regenstein said.

Regenstein then elaborated on current religious and political tensions in Europe and how these translate into policies that he believes are misguided. According to Regenstein, both sides of Europe’s political spectrum fail to understand and tolerate the religious slaughter of animals.  The right is committed to nationalism, white cultural identity and Christian heritage, and therefore is less accepting of kosher and halal traditions. Meanwhile, the left is committed to Enlightenment ideals and the virtues of rational thinking. Regenstein believes that these progressive ideals are often used to justify prejudice, especially against communities that kill animals without using “modern” methods. Both sides of the European political spectrum, argues Regenstein, are wrong. Regenstein expressed frustration over the laws and policies governing animal slaughter in Europe, noting that many were passed with clear anti-semitic intentions.

In his opinion, many European policy makers turn a blind eye to independent, academically rigorous scientific analysis in favor of a state-sanctioned worldview. Regenstein criticized European policymakers for their failure to evaluate the subject in a scientifically accurate way.  Additionally, he discussed how many animal rights activists still oppose “unstunned” slaughter, even though it is not necessarily worse than “stunned” slaughter. Particularly in Europe, there is a lack of understanding about those who do not stun the animal before killing it, as is done in kosher and halal traditions.  

Regenstein argued that the United States is more flexible, transparent and tolerant than Europe.  He praised the work of American animal scientist Temple Grandin, who has been instrumental in studying ethical and humane animal behavior. Her work has provided the scientific community with valuable information and her findings have been applied to ensure safe practices in American slaughterhouses. Regenstein noted that the openness of U.S. culture has allowed honest scientific debate about the subject of religious slaughter.

The presentation about a controversial topic was not without controversy of its own. Regenstein argued that many animal rights activists aren’t truly knowledgeable about animal behavior, and that activists often jump to conclusions that lack scientific data and academic support. Regenstein made a claim that chickens who live in cages are actually quite content, while their free-range counterparts are anxious, as they live in fear of predators. Sophomore Angelica Greco was skeptical.

“I don’t understand how chickens can live a decent life in a factory farm when they are kept in cages and are covered in their own [feces],” Greco said.  

Another student in attendance, sophomore Rachel Weinstein, praised certain elements of Regenstein’s talk while questioning others.

“He raised interesting points about the culture of scientific acceptance, but I felt as though some of his arguments were not well-connected, particularly his emotional arguments,” Weinstein said.

The next event in the Lampert Series will be a lecture titled “Dietary Dogma: Have Beliefs About Nutrition Become Religious?” by Dr. Alan Levinovitz of James Madison University. The discussion will take place on Wednesday,

December 2.