Meat, Your Maker: What's Really Inside an Israeli Steak?

Antibiotics, carcinogenic substances and potentially harmful bacteria – what the meat industry doesn't want you to know about the food on your table.

Netta Ahituv
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Netta Ahituv

A stench potent enough to make your nostrils quiver and a white carpet of creatures in constant motion - welcome to an industrial chicken coop. This is a large, closed structure, artificially lit 20 hours a day. The lighting is intended to alter the natural cycle of the hens' activity and make them eat more. Their lives are of no interest to anyone; the carcasses that these chickens will become are the purpose of this production line. Every decision concerning their fate is examined through the prism of a single criterion: increasing the profit from the sale of their meat.

Every so often, large doors open at the far end of the coop and a new shipment of chicks is unloaded, or a new shipment of older chickens (the average life span of a chicken in an industrial coop is 38 days ) is dispatched to the slaughterhouse. People enter the coop through a small control room, in which equipment ascertains whether the temperature and humidity inside are acceptable to the relentless profitability monster.

The chickens inside do not peck at seeds and whatnot on the ground; they are fed from the openings of pumps, which constantly inject feed. The feed is made of flour ground from various grains, dead fish or fowl and, at a certain stage, also antibiotic growth accelerators. The aim: for the hen to reach a weight of at least two kilograms within 38 days.

A week before the slaughtering the chickens are given feed without drugs and growth accelerators so they will be free of toxins and their meat will pass the lab tests of the Agriculture Ministry. But things do not always flow smoothly in that government body. The most recent meeting of the ministry's steering committee for the examination of chemical traces in animal products (i.e., the panel that determines the maximum permissible level of certain substances in meat, and examines samples ) noted that 2010 was one of the worst years ever in terms of such traces.

The committee pointed out that because of the introduction of a government-wide computerization program in early 2010, "the acquisitions unit was paralyzed for half a year. As a result, we were unable to purchase the simplest and most essential laboratory equipment, such as test tubes, disposable gloves, examination kits, solvents and more. The laboratory was close to being shut down due to a lack of perishable equipment."

The year 2010 was also a bad one in regard to undesirable substances in the coop. The panel's minutes note that another Agriculture Ministry unit, which deals with hygiene in foods of animal origin and so on, found the salmonella virus in 17.1 percent of the samples taken from poultry (chicken and turkey meat) and in 56.4 percent of the water used to rinse off the birds.

These data and other relevant information are of crucial importance to the public but rarely reach it. It is only natural for a large industry - made up of thousands of farms, where livestock and poultry are bred; some 250 plants that manufacture food for animal consumption, plus 50 others that produce chemical preparations; retail food outlets; drugstores; and importers of veterinary items; and all of these represented by experienced spokesmen - to be reluctant to publicize facts that will make consumers buy less meat. Indeed, that would appear to be precisely the reason for the existence of external institutions to oversee the industry and provide information for consumers. One would think, for example, that schools of agriculture and nutrition would furnish their students with information about the food additives injected into meat. But this is not what happens.

Orit Ofir, a clinical dietitian, says that in all her years as a student there was no mention of the antibiotics, bacteria and growth accelerators that are routinely added to meat. "The course in toxicology did not deal with toxins originating in animal source foods," she says.

Another dietitian, who has just obtained a B.Sc. in nutrition (and does not want her name used ), adds: "At no point in nutrition studies did we learn about this research or even about the possibility that things like this are present in meat. Most dietitians will not bother to read long articles and reports about chemical and biological traces, and therefore will have to make do with what nutritionists who work for the industry tell them."

Zohar Zemach Wilson, a consultant specializing in integrative nutrition, emphasizes the cooperation between the industry and the dietitians: "At the leading dietitians' conference in the United States, and at various nutrition conferences in Israel you will find booths of McDonald's and other meat companies. On top of which, people from the food industry teach at the schools of nutrition."

Black list

After bypassing the obstacles to getting answers about what is present in meat besides meat, the list turns out to be headed by antibiotics. In accordance with the motto of maximum product with minimum resources, the livestock and fowl raised on industrial farms spend their short lives in great density (12 chickens per square meter , for example). This causes frequent outbreaks of diseases, such as mad cow disease (which erupted in Israel in 2002 ), foot and mouth (2004 ) or swine flu (2009 ), all of which inflicted huge losses on the meat industry.

To avert epidemics, the animals' feed is laced with antibiotics. According to an article published in The New York Times last April, 80 percent of the antibiotics sold in the United States are earmarked not for the purpose of healing humans, but for the meat, eggs and dairy industries.

There are about 230 million live roosters and chickens in Israel at any given moment (some 200 million a year are slaughtered ) and Israelis consume more than 300,000 tons of poultry meat each year. These figures alone are enough to shed light on the powerful presence of antibiotics in our lives. Commercially bred fish also get hefty doses of antibiotics. In July 2011, remnants of antibiotic substances of the kind added to fish ponds were discovered in local groundwater intended for drinking.

The Times article noted that at least two million people a year fall ill in the United States from infections caused by antibiotic-resistant bacteria and nearly 99,000 of them die of the disease. Last August, The Los Angeles Times devoted an editorial to the subject, after one person died and 79 others became ill from a salmonella bacterium that had developed resistance to antibiotics. Some 16 million kilograms of turkey meat were removed from supermarkets in the wake of the incident.

In Israel, according to Health Ministry estimates, between 1,500 and 2,479 people died in 2011 from infections originating in antibiotic-resistant bacteria (out of 6,176 who were infected ). There is no study that posits a clear-cut connection between meat consumption and these bacteria, though such a link arises from a case that occurred in 2009, when a worker on a pig farm in the north of the country fell and suffered an eye injury. In the hospital it emerged that his eye was infected with bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics. A local weekly quoted the physician who treated the worker as saying that he administered two antibiotics to the man, but the bacteria were "especially resistant." The director of the hospital's infectious diseases unit discovered that the pig farm injects the animals with a wide variety of antibiotics, a process that brought about the resistance.

Officially, no definition of growth accelerators exists in the professional literature; they are described negatively as "medicines not for healing purposes." Under a 1971 supervisory ordinance regarding animal feed, the following antibiotic growth accelerators are registered in Israel: virginiamycin (20 grams per ton ), mexsos (between five and 120 grams per ton ), albomycin (five grams per ton ), zinc bacitracin (between 50 and 100 grams per ton ) and bacitracin (55 grams per ton ).

In recent years the European Union has gradually banned the use of antibiotic agents as feed additives. New Zealand, Thailand and South Korea have also prohibited the use of antibiotics for nonmedical purposes. In the United States and Israel their use is permitted with restrictions related to dosage and timing.

Asked why there is a ban in Europe but not in Israel, a spokesperson for the Agriculture Ministry replied: "The industry in Europe has found a partial solution by means of changing the classification of the growth accelerators that were banned and reclassifying them as veterinary medicines for intestinal inflammation. This brought about the opposite of what the legislators intended: a significant increase in the use of antibiotic agents identical to those that are used in human medicine."

'A change of policy'

Back in 2002, Dr. Yair Perk and Dr. Erez Lubrani, who were in charge of supervising the veterinary biologics in the Agriculture Ministry's veterinary services and animal health unit, wrote a cautionary letter stating, "In order to minimize all illegal activity in the realm of veterinary preparations, avert risk to public health and animal health and restore trust, the veterinary services must decide on a change of policy. In the situation that exists today, supervision of veterinary preparations lacks [enforcement] powers and lacks support from a research body; no indictments are filed, and effectively the oversight activity is totally paralyzed."

In March 2012, a judge in the United States instructed the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to introduce procedures that prohibit the use of antibiotics as an additive in animal feed. The judgment came in the wake of a lawsuit filed by several environmental, health and scientific organizations. The suit quoted a 2009 study that found that the diseases caused by antibiotic-resistant bacteria cost the United States about $20 billion a year. Like in Israel, the maximum permitted levels of antibiotics in animal feeds is also regulated in America, and supervision takes the form of laboratory inspections at different stages of the meat's production. However, these regulations come up against large and powerful bodies, such as the meat industry (which in Israel has a turnover of NIS 6 billion annually ), the pharmaceuticals lobby, the lobby of the agritech industry and the World Trade Organization. In many cases, the result is that moves toward closer inspection and tighter control are blocked.

A spokesperson for the Agriculture Ministry gave this response with respect to use of antibiotic growth accelerators: "The increase in the world's population and the change in the standard of living brought about a shift to intensive agriculture, which is characterized by its large scale and its control over breeding conditions. Among other consequences, this also obliged a widespread use of antibiotics in low dosages as growth accelerators. The use of accelerators in Israel is permitted as long as it follows the specifications and as long as no traces remain in animal products. The subject is under constant examination."

In 2011, Dr. Nadav Galon was appointed director of the Agriculture Ministry's veterinary services. At the time, various personnel in the unit said they hoped the new director would take steps to ban the use of antibiotic growth accelerators. However, that has not happened.

"Everyone will be happy to reduce the use of antibiotics in an intelligent way," Galon says in response. "It is true that some countries have prohibited their use or lessened the amount permitted for use. However, I believe that the true test of safety of the consumer's food is the final product: whether the chicken he eats does or does not have antibiotics exceeding the amount [permitted] in the regulations. Our surveys show that the results are good; in other words that there are almost no deviations."

Water injection

Next on the list of additions to meat after antibiotics is water, which is injected in large quantities into processed meat. Israel is the only country in the world where it is legal to inject water into meat products. This procedure comes under the Meat and Meat Products Law (1994 ), which stipulates that only kosher meat can be imported into the country. All the meat that enters (most of it imported from South America ) arrives frozen and is koshered by means of a salting process. As a result, the meat loses up to 10 percent of its water, and to ensure that the importers do not lose out because of this they are allowed to inject up to 10 percent of water back into the meat.

In a discussion about the supervision of processed meat products in 2000, MK Amnon Cohen (Shas ), then chairman of the Knesset's Public Petitions Committee, made the following disturbing comments: "This is a very important industry ... But it appears that there is some sort of distortion or deception here, when a maximum of 10 percent water is allowed to be injected but in practice very high percentages are injected, sometimes 40-50 percent, including substances that absorb the water. Apparently enforcement is very difficult here, and the penalty is too light, so that in fact the whole issue is wide open."

Irit Gal, representing Soglowek Foods, a veteran meat-products company, attended the discussion. She stated that the firm "tries very hard to meet the regulations. There might be a deviation here and there, because when it comes to meat we must not ignore the kashrut issue." Elaborating on Jewish dietary laws, she said, "The meat [changes] from the moment of the slaughter ... It is different, becomes tough, blackens, the amounts and proportions of water are different and variable, the salt influences this."

But, as MK Cohen's remarks suggest, the amount of water injected into the meat usually exceeds 10 percent and, indeed, does not consist only of water. "Gelatin is injected into the meat, to absorb water. And when tests are performed the water is found to react not as water but as protein," the late Dr. Israel Glass, chair man of the organization of municipal veterinarians, told that same committee.

According to Zemach Wilson, the nutrition consultant, an examination of the constituent elements of processed meat will turn up much more than "just meat." Keren Hod, a clinical dietitian, notes that the more water that is added to meat, the smaller the relative amount of protein it contains, with an accompanying diminishment of quality. Moreover, because of the salt-rich koshering process the meat undergoes, it becomes a high-sodium food.

Says Hod: "Products prepared from processed meat, such as hamburger, kebab, salami and sausages, usually contain a range of additives aimed at instilling flavor and texture into the product, which from the outset contains lower-quality meat. The additives benefit the manufacturers by reducing their costs. The result is a product that might look good but is very far from the real thing.

"The substances involved include fillers (water, vegetable protein ), thickening and stabilizing agents (phosphates, gelatin, cellulose ), leavening agents (sodium bicarbonate, yeast ) and processed starches (monosodium glutamate, spices ). Accordingly, it's worth taking note of the two words 'water added' on packaged meat."

The minutes of the Knesset committee meeting in 2000 offer a gloomy picture with regard to public health. That meeting was a continuation of one held in 1998, after which no progress was made. As MK Cohen noted, "That [earlier] meeting put forward eight subjects that were supposed to be corrected, but nothing was done."

According to Dr. Haim Sadovsky, a naturopath and author of a book about food additives, gelatin is not the only substance that is injected into meat in order to absorb the water. Phosphates are also used for this purpose. In his book he discusses the damage that phosphates can cause people, including heightened activity of the thyroid gland and cancer. Zemach Wilson says that many people suffer from high blood acidity because they consume large quantities of processed meat.

This was also the opinion of the chairman of the Israeli association for food hygiene and public health, Gideon Zippori, in the committee meeting in 2000. "Over and above the fact that this is deception on an astounding scale - it's comparable to someone who buys a Mercedes, gets home and discovers that he's been sold a Volkswagen - in our view, and in the view of wiser people than us, all these additives also possess substantive health implications," he says.

But, as the Soglowek representative noted in the meeting, the deviations are an economic necessity. The injection equipment is very expensive, as are the personnel who work it. Therefore, "it just does not pay to inject 10 percent," she stated.

It is usually owners of fancy restaurants who can afford to buy fresh meat, which has not been bloated with water and other substances. One such establishment is Shaul Evron's Yoezer Wine Bar, in Tel Aviv. "To avoid all the additives of frozen or processed meat, I eat, cook and serve only fresh meat that is slaughtered in Israel," Evron says. For the same reason, the restaurant makes its own sausages and bacon on the premises. Evron says that there are places where he will not eat meat, out of concern for its quality. "I once asked a friend who owns a processed-meat factory what he makes in the factory. His reply was, 'Nothing that you or I eat.'"

In 2004, the Knesset enacted a law, sponsored by MK Lea Nass (Likud ), a biochemist by training, which prohibits injection of water into fresh or frozen meat but permits this in processed meat. The law stipulates that a label must be affixed to differentiate fresh from processed meat. Another clause stated that in the future the health minister would determine the amount of non-water additives that can be injected.

According to the Agriculture Ministry, processed meat is meat that has undergone preservation, water injection, softening or immersion in water; frozen meat is meat that is imported in a frozen state; and fresh meat is produced from animals bred and slaughtered in Israel (although it might be sold frozen ).

The consumer advocate organizations opposed the legislation vehemently, arguing that the average shopper is unable to distinguish between fresh meat and processed meat, and therefore ends up buying water at the price of meat. Dr. Sadovsky also objects strongly to the law: "For four years a committee discussed the subject of the injection of water into meat. They concluded that it was a bad practice from all aspects and in the end passed a law that ignored all their conclusions."

Bad news for carnivores

Antibiotics and water are not the only additives in meat. Also on the menu are other chemicals aimed at extracting the greatest profit from the animals' nasty, brutal and short lives. Until recently, part of that menu was arsenic, which is contained in roxarsone, a substance used to suppress intestinal diseases in poultry and to diminish the fowls' appetite (estimates are that companies thus save three to seven percent of the feed costs ). Arsenic is also used in agricultural pesticides. According to the State Comptroller's Report of 2008, "it can be extremely harmful to health. Exposure to a low dosage over time can cause cancer."

In 2003, a group of 100 American citizens sued a number of poultry breeders and Arkansas-based Tyson Foods, the largest meat producer in the world, for using arsenic in its chicken feed. Arsenic, according to those who brought the suit, spreads in the air and was causing them and their families to contract cancer. The court ruled in their favor and ordered all the defendants to stop the use of arsenic immediately.

Israel has banned the use of arsenic in chicken feed and the sale of poultry fed with arsenic since the 1960s. Nevertheless, from 2004 to 2007, arsenic was listed as one of the components in a poultry feed additive called 3-Nitro 20, which is manufactured in the United States, and another called chofolic, manufactured in China and India. No representatives from the Environmental Protection Ministry were on hand when a committee approved the use of arsenic in 2003. Nor was an expert opinion solicited about the dangers of arsenic entering groundwater or the bodies of animals whose meat is consumed by people.

In July 2006, the veterinary services' steering committee on chemical traces in food, finding that the presence of arsenic on the ground was liable to contaminate groundwater and adversely affect public health, recommended that its use not be renewed (the permit was due to expire at the end of 2006) but to no avail.

"It emerges that the directorate of the Agriculture Ministry and the flora protection service preferred the stand taken by the farmers, who were guided by economic considerations," the committee's report noted. "In this case the law was ignored, as was the professional opinion of the Environmental Protection Ministry and the view of the veterinary services unit, which rejected the continued use of agents containing arsenic.

"Among those present at a discussion in February 2007 in the office of the director general of the Agriculture Ministry, and in other discussions held in the ministry, was a representative of feed companies, which have a vested economic interest in the continued marketing of roxarsone. The representative emphasized the economic benefit accruing to the farmers from the use of the material. The Agriculture Ministry failed to invite anyone from any consumer advocacy organization to these meetings to hear their opinion on the subject."

A spokesperson for the Agriculture Ministry said in response: "All the minutes of the meetings of the committees that discussed the use of arsenic compounds in animal feed state that the use of roxarsone poses no danger to public health or to the animals' health. The decision to stop its usage was made mainly for environmental reasons and from the principle of preventive caution. Therefore, there was no reason for an immediate stoppage of the use of the substance."

Another toxin whose traces can be found in meat is cadmium, a poisonous metal, ongoing exposure to which can damage the kidneys and bones. Cadmium is present in large quantities in agricultural fertilizers and in contaminated water - two sources of sustenance for animals.

According to a report of the steering committee for chemical traces in food, published in 2011, 12.7 percent of the poultry samples checked in 2010 contained cadmium in excess of the permitted level. "There is a serious problem this year [2010] in regard to traces above the maximum permitted level of cadmium in the liver of fattened poultry," the report stated.

The report added that the problem had first arisen six months earlier, when it was decided to appoint a committee to look into the subject, but "that committee still has not been established."

In contrast to arsenic, which is toxic to everyone, the danger posed by cadmium differs in each animal and in every tissue of meat. Accordingly, banning it is a complex issue. For example, the amount of cadmium permitted in the muscle tissue of a chicken is 50 micrograms for every kilogram of meat. However, in the liver of a chicken the permitted amount is 500 micrograms per kilo, and in a turkey it is 1,000 micrograms for every kilo of liver meat. The logic behind these figures is that cadmium tends to accumulate in the liver and kidney tissues more than elsewhere.

According to Keren Hod, the dietitian, there is a connection between meat consumption and the rise in the incidence of cancer among the population. "One of the reasons for this is all the substances that are added to meat," she says.

Dr. Reuven Shlissel, who teaches in the department of food sciences at Tel Hai Academic College in the Galilee, along with others from the food industry, maintains that there is currently a trend toward lowering the amount of chemical additives in meat and toward using more natural and less harmful substances. "The widespread use of chemical substances to accelerate the growth of industrialized animals has diminished in recent years. It is now common to use probiotic agents and parabiotic substances to enhance growth," he observes.

Where's the beef?

Whereas the presence of the antibiotics, the water, the cadmium and - at one time - the arsenic was the result of deliberate usage by farmers, there are also uninvited guests that take up residence in meat. Topping this list are salmonella, listeria bacteria and Escherichia coli (better known as E. coli ) bacteria.

"About 30 percent of the chickens in Israel are infected with salmonella," Shlissel says. "The same goes for the frequency of listeria. In regard to E. coli and coliforms [intestinal bacteria], there is no way to sell meat without these bacteria.

"Basically, the last-named category is not harmful, but it can be used to tell if meat is fresh or old and spoiled. The bacteria are not resistant to thermal treatment, so cooking or grilling the meat eradicates them. The problem stems from cross-contamination, meaning the contamination of working tools in the kitchen - the meat-slicing board, the knife and so on - with bacteria."

How do the bacteria enter the meat? Some bacteria are present before slaughter and others enter afterward, he says. "Meat tends to spoil quickly on hot summer days and to develop disease bacteria. It is important to ensure that the meat is fresh by maintaining a proper temperature throughout all the stages of preparation and when selling to the consumer."

Animals that have not yet been transformed into meat host bacteria because of the mechanisms of resistance they develop. The antibiotics present in the growth accelerators are administered in lower dosages than those used in medical treatment, but over a longer period (weeks or months ). Ironically, then, instead of eradicating the bacteria, the antibiotic growth accelerators actually promote the survival and proliferation of populations of resistant bacteria.

A study published in the International Journal of Public Health in 2010 found that E. coli bacteria are regularly present in the digestive and respiratory systems of chickens, and on their skin and feathers. The reason is that in industrial farms the chickens live in their excrement, so their bodies are covered in fecal bacteria. In other words, eating industrial meat necessarily involves eating traces of excrement.

According to a study conducted in March of this year by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States, the presence of E. coli bacteria in industrial poultry causes urinary-tract infections in human beings.

"Each year, 6-8 million UTIs are diagnosed in the United States, and 130-175 million are diagnosed worldwide," the CDC study noted. "During the past decade, the emergence of drug-resistant E. coli has dramatically increased. As a consequence, the management of UTIs, which was previously straightforward, has become more complicated; the risks for treatment failure are higher, and the cost of UTI treatment is increasing." The paper noted, "In the past, extra-intestinal E. coli infections have been described as sporadic infections caused by bacteria that originate from the host's intestinal tract." However, a matching of "E. coli isolates from 475 humans with UTIs and from cecal contents of 349 slaughtered animals" turned up "genetic similarities" between E. coli "from animals in abattoirs, principally chickens, and UTIs in humans." Thus, E. coli "transmission from food animals could be responsible for human infections, and chickens are the most probable reservoir."

As for salmonella, the CDC estimates that some 48 million Americans (one in every six ) suffer food poisoning from salmonella every year, of whom 128,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 die. Of those hospitalized, 35 percent were poisoned by salmonella and 28 percent die from it. According to data of the Israeli Health Ministry, 1,517 people in this country were diagnosed with salmonellosis in 2009.

It is clear how bacteria enter people who eat animals, but how are the animals themselves infected? Above all, via the food they ingest. Many animals in industrialized farms receive feed that contains grains and animal flour (animals ground into powder ). The latter contains a high level of protein and is cheap to make.

The subject of using this method of feeding comes up anew every time a large-scale animal disease erupts. For example, mad cow disease is thought to have broken out because cattle were fed with flour deriving from diseased animals. In the wake of this, the use of such flours was banned in the case of livestock, but it is still permitted for poultry. Feeding vegetarian animals (chickens, cows, sheep ) ground remnants of the remains of other animals is quite widespread.

The excrement of chickens is sometimes mixed into this flour. The 2008 State Comptroller's Report noted that a single lamb is fed an average of 1.5 to three kilograms of chicken excrement a day, and that all told 173,000 tons of such substance is consumed in Israel every year. The excrement contains everything from traces of medicines to growth accelerators and bacteria. A report by the government-appointed Zeiler committee noted, "The situation cries out for the ordering of inspection for animal feed such as will be suitable for the present time and commensurate with international demands."

"The moment you prevent chickens and cows from eating grass, you cause them serious health damage," Zemach Wilson says. "It creates a lack of balance that is an invitation to bacteria."

This argument is also made in the 2008 documentary film "Food, Inc.," directed by Robert Kenner, about the food industry in the United States. In the film one of the employees of an industrial cattle ranch says that all the cows have harmful stomach bacteria. An experiment in which the cows were taken to pasture and allowed to eat natural grass showed that the bacteria disappeared within three days.

If so, why are livestock given feed that causes them to develop bacteria? The answer, once more, is money. "It is cheaper to give them drugs and animal flour than to let them out to pasture to eat fresh grass," Zemach Wilson explains.

The food animals eat, the conditions in which they are bred and the substances they are injected with are all aimed at increasing the profits from the meat they will become. The slaughterhouses, too, are built to ensure the highest profits, usually at the expense of the animals' pain and suffering.

An abattoir is not an easy place to visit, and most of the testimonies about them come from animal-rights activists. One way to obtain evidence about what goes on in slaughterhouses is by interviewing people who work in them. Another is to get a job in one of them and to use a hidden camera. There are many such films on the Internet, all of them hard to watch.

In 2004, a member of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, the world's biggest animal-rights organization, got a job in a slaughterhouse in Iowa. The slaughterhouse belonged to Agriprocessors, the largest manufacturer of glatt kosher meat in the world. (In 2009, after its most senior corporate officer, Sholom Rubashkin, was sentenced to 27 years in prison for financial fraud, the plant was sold at auction and now operates under the name Agri Star. )

The PETA investigator filmed the slaughter process, uploaded the result onto the Internet and filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Agriculture after seeing the cruel treatment there. He also published notes: "The cow was loaded into a machine that resembles a large metal tube. His head stuck out of the front, then a metal bar clamped under his neck and forced his head upwards and back, cocked in an awkward and painful-looking position. The entire machine rotated, turning the cow upside-down. This process seemed to terrify him - his eyes were wide with fright - I imagine because he had never been in such a helpless position. The cow's exposed neck was scrubbed with a hose and brush, then a rabbi came out of a small room and slit the cow's throat.

"Another worker followed the rabbi and gouged a chunk of flesh out of the cow's neck and then pulled his trachea or esophagus (I'm not sure which one ) outside of his throat so that it hung down. Then the machine reverted the cow into an upright position. The trap door on the side opened up, and the cow was dumped onto the floor, where another worker attached a chain to the animal's ankle so that he could be hoisted into the air and sent down the line.

"Many cows were still alive and conscious when they came out of the tube and were slammed onto the floor. Their heads often hit the concrete with a sickening crack. I watched as one cow landed on his feet and started scrambling around with a shocked look on his face. The workers simply jumped behind their barricade and waited for him to collapse. "A cow stood up after being dumped on the floor and went into the corner. They managed to kill one or two more cows while he lay there moving around trying to stand up. He continually moved his nearly severed head around as his legs were also making an effort to stand." (Source: )

Organic meat versus profit

What can consumers do in the face of the toxins and pollutants that are introduced into the meat they buy and eat? One possibility is to stop eating meat. A second is to switch to organic meat. Here, though, Israelis face a big problem: No organic beef is bred in Israel, only organic poultry.

The reason is that organic beef is not a profitable business. Breeding cattle in this way requires large tracts of land on which the animals can roam freely, on which the vegetation must be organically grown, too. There are few such places in Israel. Another, related reason is the high price of organic grains, which are part of the animals' feed. Plus there is the problem resulting from the fact that only the front part of a cow is considered kosher.

In the case of regular beef, there are people who buy the other parts, but farmers raising beef cattle are skeptical about finding a market for nonkosher organic meat when its price is 20 percent or more higher than regular meat. A few attempts have been made to import organic beef to Israel, but they petered out due to high prices and lack of demand.

Arik Melamed, who raises organic poultry, says that in the past he examined the possibility of organic cattle breeding. However, he abandoned the idea because of the costs - a total of NIS 3 million, he says, even before payment for organic inspection.

"Everywhere in the world, including the countries of the OECD," he says, "it is usual for organic agriculture to have government support, for environmental and health reasons. In Israel, not only are organic farmers not supported, we actually have to pay a great deal more than other farmers. For my four coops I have to pay NIS 20,000 a year to get an official organic label."

An Agriculture Ministry spokesperson said in response: "The ministry's goal is to significantly reduce the use of pesticides. This is a subject of overriding importance in the comprehensive concept of sustainable agriculture. The development of the interface of pest control that is friendly to the environment and to humans is one of the milestones in reducing the use of chemical substances." The reader will notice that the response lacks any specific reference to organic meat farming.

Israelis are thus left with only organic poultry. At present, there are four such brands, only one marketing organic turkey. One is Melamed's Organi Tari (Organic and Fresh ). "I wanted to provide an alternative to conventional poultry, which contains 25 percent garbage," he says, explaining why he moved from high-tech to breeding organic poultry.

"The feed of nonorganic poultry contains a great many recycled substances, such as fish oil, fish powder, meat flour, ground feathers and also poultry excrement," Melamed adds. "And we haven't yet mentioned growth accelerators, antibiotics and the other chemicals." An organically-bred chicken has to eat organic food, none of which has been recycled. Even the oil in the feed has to be organic (not recycled oil from restaurants, as is often the case ).

Another difference lies in the lifespan of the chickens. A regular chicken lives 38 days on average (50 years ago, they lived for 80 days ) before achieving its maximum size and being sent to slaughter. An organic chicken lives 54 days on average. In addition, the living space is a factor: In the conventional poultry industry 12 chickens are squeezed into a square meter, whereas under the organic regulations the maximum allowed is 10 per square meter. There is also another criterion for organic breeding: The coop must be in a relatively isolated place. Because these chickens are not vaccinated, a site is needed where there are few other farm animals in proximity, so that there is less of a danger of being infected by disease.

These differences are translated into higher costs, which explain the price differences between organic and regular poultry. Organic chickens sell for NIS 30 per kilogram, as compared to NIS 17 to NIS 23 per kilo for regular chickens - a difference of 30 percent or more. Some food chains sell regular chickens for NIS 9.90 a kilo in specials. The organic breeders say that the chains lose money on such prices because their aim is to attract customers. According to the breeders, that situation and even the usual low price of conventional poultry inflicts a double loss on them. First, because they are unable to compete with the price, and second because the chains expect to profit on the organic chickens to offset their losses from the regular poultry.

"The supermarket expects to make a profit of 30 percent, before VAT, on my chicken," Melamed says, "and that jumps the price to NIS 37 a kilo, which is significantly high." For this reason, some organic farmers prefer to set up a system of home delivery rather than sell through the supermarket chains.

"Colt 45," courtesy of Rabouan Moussion Gallery, Paris.Credit: Dimitri Tsykalov
Cattle waiting to be slaughtered.
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Arsenic and cadmium are two of the toxins whose traces are sometimes found in meat.Credit: Bloomberg
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Cattle waiting to be slaughtered. Credit: Yaron Kaminsky
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A poultry farm.Credit: Limor Edrey