The blog Am Echad posts a letter from Rabbi Perry Rank, the head of the Rabbinical Assembly, about the relationship between shekhite [kosher slaughter] and tsar-baley-khayim [(avoiding) cruelty to animals], written in response to the controversy surrounding the Agriprocessors slaughterhouse in Postville, Iowa, which provides meat sold under the brands Rubashkin and Aaron's Best. (Of course, why would the RA letter be published on the RA's Web site? That might lead to public discussion and debate, and we wouldn't want that!)
The connection between slaughter and avoiding cruelty is not a simple one, as our rabbi, Laurence Sebert of Town and Village Synagogue, pointed out yesterday in a derashah. Shekhite per se does not involve (as far as I'm aware) explicitly humanitarian judgments, but rather a combination of diagnostic criteria (so to speak), to ensure that the animal is whole of limb and not at death's door, and mechanical criteria, i.e. with what equipment and process the slaughter is to be performed. Some would say that the definition of shekhite and related kashrus [kosher status] should be expanded so as to include tsar-baley-khayim as a criterion. This, I think, would be a mistake for a number of reasons. In short, I think that this would lessen the usefulness of both categories rather than strengthen the committment to tsar-baley-khayim on the part of kashrus organizations and overseers. (Another reason for not conflating the two categories is that it does not seem to be clear whether tsar-baley-khayim is doyrayse, of Torah law, or derabonen, Rabbinic law -- though I haven't studied the issue yet myself; however, from the Talmud it seems to be the former)
The OU, which responded to the original controversy, has now confirmed that Rubashkin meat is kosher. That is, the violations of tsar-baley-khayim at the plant in question were not deemed sufficient to place the kashrus of the shekhite under suspicion; see Simcha's post which I linked to above.
I agree with Simcha that this is a public-policy issue and not strictly a kashrus issue. But I strongly disagree that we can now say "problem solved." Just the opposite. The letter from the RA refers to a responsum from the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards published in 2000 (on-line thanks to Avi of Am Echad; also available in the 1991-2000 compendium of those responsa). Though the original teshuvah dealt with shackling and hoisting, an inhumane method of slaughter-associated animal handling now thankfully abandoned by most kosher slaughterhouses, the responsum notes in passing that certain sorts of animal pens are presumed to be inhumane, or, in the words of the Rankin letter, "inconsistent with our understanding of what it means to humanely treat an animal." There are humane alternatives, including what are called the Grandin pen and the ASPCA pen. (For more on this issue than you might ever have wanted to know, see this article by Dr. Temple Grandin.) It is one of the inhumane pens (called the Facomia pen) which is used by Agriprocessors, and will still be used even after this controversy (since the OU does not see any problem at the moment with the use of this pen itself).
I think the RA needs to go one step further than the OU. Conservative Jews need to be makhmir on tsar-baley-khayim -- or, in English: we need to be stringent in ensuring that animals to be slaughtered are treated humanely. Both the 2000 responsum and Rabbi Rank's letter place the onus on the slaughterhouses themselves. The teshuvah reads: "We rule that shackling and hoisting should be stopped." (Notice the absent clause. Who in particular is directed to do the stopping?) Similarly, the letter from Rabbi Rank urges "all those involved in shehitah to invest in and install those technologies that assure that the animal’s life is terminated speedily and with the humanity that Jewish law demands."
But this is not enough. As our rabbi pointed out, the issue will only be solved with consumer pressure, with strong and consistent behavior from individual buyers of kosher meat. They, that is, we, should tell our butchers, caterers, and groceries that we should not buy meat that is slaughtered in an inhumane fashion. Where do we start -- with what companies? Perhaps Rubashkin, if they use an inhumane pen.
In any case, the onus should be placed on the individual. For that reason, the RA should issue a psak, a legal judgment, forbidding (not recommending against, not suggesting, not hectoring, but forbidding) Conservative Jews to eat meat slaughtered in inhumane fashion, whether or not the meat is kosher. Such a psak would not conflate tsar-baley-khayim and shekhite, but would emphasize the importance of each. (What the halachic mechanism would be -- that I'm not sure about. Perhaps a takone, a rabbinic edict, or perhaps no explicit mechanism need be given, according to the way the CJLS works. There would also need to be a clear statement of the kashrus ramifications of such a psak: ideally, consumption of such meat from this time forward would be forbidden, but the meat eaten previously would not be rendered non-kosher retroactively; i.e. one would not have to kasher one's utensils.) Such an issur, act of prohibition, would be a powerful act in the service of the humane treatment of animals and (of lesser but still significant importance) the public face of Conservative rabbinics.
I plan on writing to Rabbi Rank to raise this issue; if any readers have any further suggestions on moving this proposal forward, I would welcome them.
P.S.: Another good source, in Hebrew, for discussions of shekhite is the long responsum by the Seridei Eish on stunning animals before slaughter, which he allowed. (It turns out, according to sources I've spoken to in the Conservative Movement, that Hebrew National uses the most humane methods of slaughter, since they stun the animals after shekhite.)
P.P.S.: Other sources (compiled some time ago by Dr. Josh Backon) relevant to tsar-baley-khayim:
Based on a biblical verse (Exodus 23:5), the Talmud (Shabbat 128b; Bava Metzia 32b) prohibits cruelty to animals and this prohibition was codified by the Rambam (Hilchot Rotzeach 13:1) [although it's not so clear that that's what he's codifying: ZShB] and the Shulchan Aruch (Choshen Mishpat 272:9). However, the Rema (Even HaEzer 5:14) indicates that if there is any human need, the prohibition is overturned (see also:Biur haGRA there s"k 40, and the Noda B'Yehuda Mahadura Tinyana Yoreh Deah 10 as brought in the Pitchei Tshuva YD 28 s"k 10). See also: Shvut Yaakov III 71, Chelkat Yaakov I 30, Sridei Eish III 7, Chiddushei Chatam Sofer on Messechet Shabbat 154b, Binyan Tzion 108, Tzitz Eliezer XIV 68,and the Trumat haDeshen Psakim uKtavim 105.Update: Avi of Am Echad comes through again (at this point I have to assume he's a Conservative rabbi, or a close relative or personal friend of one) with two CJLS responsa on stunning/bolting after slaughter.