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What’s in Kaczynski’s kosher beef?

  • November 24, 2020

Poland’s ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party has pulled back, for now, on a bill banning exports of kosher and halal meat, part of a raft of legislation aimed to reduce animal cruelty. But the party’s cat-loving leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski reportedly plans to return to parliament with even more restrictive legislation.

“We are in never-never land at the moment,” Chief Rabbi of Poland Michael Schudrich, told DW. “The bill has not been stopped, but has been de facto suspended by the Senate. It’s a compromise solution, but it could come back at any time,” he says.

A picture of Michael Schudrich in the Warsaw synagogue

Rabbi Schudrich says some companies producing kosher beef in Poland are already looking at relocating

Agriculture Minister Grzegorz Puda told reporters the bill would not be sent to the president — who is against the ban — but that a new bill would be drafted and submitted to parliament. The original bill stipulated that the ban would come into effect in 2022, although the opposition-controlled Senate introduced an amendment postponing its implementation to 2025.

The original bill stipulated that religious communities would still be able to slaughter meat without prior stunning, as long as the meat was not for export. For Poland’s small Jewish community this would protect the legality of their religious method of slaughtering permitted animals and poultry for food, known as shechitah. But it would shut down an export industry that has become a major source of kosher beef for much of western Europe and Israel.

Halal slaughtering at a abbatoir in Bordeaux in France preparing meat for the Muslim festival Eid al Adha

The practice of shechitah is the only method of producing kosher meat and poultry allowed by Jewish law

However counter-intuitive it seems — even after Kaczynski’s miscalculation of the negative reaction to tightening Poland’s abortion law — the PiS leader appears to think curbing cruelty to animals will win him liberal votes in 2023. Even in the unlikely case it does, it is already losing him the trust of farmers, a key source of support for the party, and threatens to create chaos for a significant meat-producing sector as Poland braces for a coronavirus-induced economic slowdown, the first for almost three decades. The National Council of Agricultural Chambers, for example, criticized the government for focusing on ritual slaughter while doing little to combat the outbreaks of swine fever since 2019 that have damaged the country’s pig farmers.

A sizable sector 

Poland is a major exporter of halal meat to the Islamic world and one of Europe’s main exporters of kosher meat to Israel, despite only about 20,000 Jews and a similar number of Muslims living in the country.

Israel in fact wants more Polish kosher beef, which insiders say is of a higher quality than from other producers. Without cattle of its own Israel relies mostly on South America and Poland for its supply. According to data from Ius Animalia Foundation for Animal Protection, orders from Israel alone amounted to almost 400 million zlotys (€90 million, $105 million)) in 2019.

Poland is also valued as a technological innovator. It was, for example, the first in Europe to be able to export chilled, rather than frozen, beef to Israel and that relatively cheaper than western European producers. 

Poland’s National Council of Agricultural Chambers estimates that religion-compliant beef is worth €1.5 billion ($1.7 billion) to the country’s economy, accounting for 5% of Poland’s total exports of agri-food products. In 2017, shipments of 70,000 tons were made, mainly to Israel and Turkey, agriculture ministry data show. Industry officials claim that ritually slaughtered meat accounts for 10% of poultry exports (80,000 tons a year) and 30% of beef exports (about 100,000 tons).

Halal signs seen at a butcher shop in Paris

Sizable markets for Polish kosher meat are also France and the UK, which have large Jewish and Muslim communities

The bulk of Poland’s kosher and halal slaughterhouses produce meat for export. Ritual slaughter in Poland is performed by about 80 firm at 15 cattle and 12 poultry abattoirs, which between them employ 4,000 people, according to the Polish Meat Union (ZPM). Industry insiders say the lucrative trade may have to move to other countries in Europe which also have a tradition of kosher production, with Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and Ukraine topping the list.

“But why would Polish exporters want to move to another country?” asks Rabbi Schudrich. Abattoir equipment is expensive — a cage for ritual slaughter costs about 250,000 zlotys — while kosher meat preparation requires a dedicated production line, separate premises and cold rooms.

EU law

Agriculture minister Puda has argued the new bill would be adjusted to EU laws, which he said banned ritual slaughter. But Rabbi Menachem Margolin, the head of the Brussels-based European Jewish Association (EJA), told DW that European laws actually allow for slaughtering animals without stunning for religious reasons. “This move would breach EU trade rules,” he says.

The EU law was originally proposed by Belgium’s right-wing Flemish nationalists in 2019 and a test case on slaughtering without stunning is being reviewed by the European Court of Justice (ECJ)), which is expected to make its final decision by the end of the year.

Prick us, we bleed 

Margolin says the export ban for Polish kosher meat would impact a large part of Jewish communities in Europe. “Jews across Europe are insulted by this and would be even less secure about living in Europe,” he says. Poland’s religious minorities have also disparaged claims the state would offer compensation to businesses that suffer from the ban.

“I think it is reasonable to say this is not the right time to close down a major industry and that will give us opportunities to defend it and to protect the integrity of shechitah,” Schudrich says.

The ZPM also argues that the proposed curbs on ritual slaughter would worsen conditions for the farm animals they were intended to benefit. “Limiting religious slaughter will worsen the fate of animals, because animals that cannot be slaughtered in Poland will have to travel hundreds of kilometers in order to be killed outside the country,” the organization said in a statement.

Adam Szyc, owner of the Sklep Koszerny (the Kosher Store), in central Warsaw, told DW the method for killing the animals is in fact more humane in the kosher way.

PiS’s pound of flesh

The EJA believes that the animal welfare law has “discriminatory undertones,” not least in the language used to garner support for it. It was presented, says Margolin, as a law that “all good people” would support. “This immediately categorizes Jews who might oppose this law as ‘bad people’ evoking memories of scary times for our communities,” he argues.

Adam Traczyk of the German Council on Foreign Relations thinks Kaczynski’s strategy to present himself as an animal lover “failed miserably.”

“The only thing it did was create an additional quarrel within the ruling coalition which led many commentators to the conclusion that Kaczynski has lost his political intuition,” Traczyk told DW.

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