Talking Turkey: Questions for Roger Studley

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What do you get when you cross Friday night with with more than 350 ethically-aware, foodie Jews?  Shabbat dinner at Hazon’s Food Conference!  The harder question is, what do you feed them?

Bay Area resident, Roger Studley, is currently working to create a kosher, free-range/humanely-slaughtered meat business on the West Coast.  In the meantime, he is busy coordinating the schecting and preparation of nearly 20 heritage turkeys, which – if all goes as planned – will be served to conference participants  on Shabbat.  As far as I know (and as far as my little bit of researching/asking around has revealed), this is the first time a Jewish conference has ever sourced its own kosher meat directly from a local farmer – aside from Hazon’s food conference last year, of course!

The Jew & The Carrot got in touch with Roger to find out how planning was going, and hear his opinion on Agriprocessors, the Jewish vegetarian debate, and his vision for the future of kosher food.

Read the interview below the jump and join the fun by registering for Hazon’s Food Conference here.

How did you become interested in bringing local, humanely raised kosher meat to Bay Area residents?

My interest in local, humanely raised kosher meat has evolved over several years, as my “food consciousness”, along with that of many other people, has gradually been raised. Jewish law requires that meat be kosher. But most meat available in this country, kosher and otherwise, involves serious ethical and nutritional compromises.

With few exceptions, someone who keeps kosher and eats meat has to settle for meat from animals that are injected with hormones, given large amount of antibiotics, not fed their natural food, and raised, for much or all of their lives, in squalor and confinement. This is a terrible compromise to have to make in order to keep kosher. I want meat that is kosher and ethically produced. I want Jews not to have to compromise in order to eat kosher meat.

You recently left your job at the University of California to pursue this work full-time. Was there an “a-ha” moment, when you realized this was the path you wanted to follow?

I worked for the UC system for eight years as a policy analyst. My focus was undergraduate admissions policy — issues of college access, such as affirmative action — and for a long time I loved the work. But eventually I wanted to move on. At the same time, UC was facing a budgetary crisis and pressure to trim its administration. They offered severance to anyone willing to leave, and for me the offer was too good to refuse. So I didn’t.

I actually had three exciting ideas for what to do next. I could finish my long-dormant dissertation in economics; I could pursue my plans to start a Jewish non-profit; Or I could start a business to produce ethical, sustainable, kosher meat. I thought I would tackle the dissertation first, since it would be nice to have that behind me, but the meat business took on a life of its own. I had the opportunity to open a west coast branch of KOL Foods (an east coast provider of kosher, organic-raised, local meat); I was asked to procure local, pasture-raised, kosher meat for the Hazon Food Conference; and many people are interested in this kind of meat. The idea spoke to me and the timing was right, so I decided to dive in.

Who asked you to help with the Food Conference?  How did you get involved?

The person chairing the food committee for the conference wanted some help obtaining sustainable kosher meat, and I had a keen interest in this very thing. It was a shidduch.

The shechita was my idea. Kosher poultry is difficult to do on a small scale because, without an expensive machine, the birds have to be plucked by hand, which is time-consuming. But since hundreds of people, including at least one shochet, will be in town for the conference, I figured why not invite a couple dozen volunteers to a farm the day before the conference and shecht, pluck, clean, and kasher the birds ourselves? During last year’s Food Conference, as a demonstration, Hazon shechted three goats [and served some of the meat at Friday night dinner]. This year’s shechita, though occurring in advance of the actual conference, will produce enough meat for a Shabbat dinner for 400-500 people.

How is the process of coordinating everything going so far?

Great. We’ve got a shochet, an educator, a farm, turkeys, and volunteers. Some details still need to be ironed out, but I’m very optimistic about the project. I was worried at first, because the season for pasture-raised chickens is over, but I found an amazing farm whose beautiful heritage turkeys solved my problem.

How many animals (pounds of meat) do you plan to shecht for the event?

Right now, we’re planning on about 150 pounds of meat, maybe a little less. This translates into perhaps 15-20 turkeys.

Some Jews – most notably groups like the Jewish Vegetarians of North America and Veggie Jews – believe that the Torah mandates that vegetarianism and that any meat consumption, ethical or not, is unethical for Jews. What are your views on that mindset?

According to the Torah, humanity was originally given a vegetarian diet, and eating meat became explicitly permitted only after the Flood. Many Jewish vegetarians, I believe, acknowledge this. Their argument is not that the Torah forbids eating meat, but rather that the initially specified diet suggests that vegetarianism is a Jewish ideal. They may be right. Eating meat certainly raises ethical issues, for Jews and non-Jews alike: why should we kill animals, or cause them any suffering, when we can sustain ourselves without eating meat? This is a valid question, and I respect the choice of those who respond to it by being vegetarian.

My own view is that the issue is more complicated. For one thing, other animals eat meat, and we don’t consider this wrong. For another, meat, especially pasture-raised meat, is quite healthy for humans, so it would seem a natural thing to eat. Also, we have a symbiotic relationship with domesticated animals that arguably serves them as well as it serves us: in return for their meat, we raise them, care for them, and assist their propagation. At the species level, some animals may well be better off because of this relationship. Perhaps most importantly, however, I have witnessed shechita, and it simply didn’t seem wrong. I expected to have ethical doubts, but I found that taking responsibility for the death of the animal made me feel much less conflicted about, and more reverent and appreciative of, the meat I was eating.

What is unethical, Jewishly and otherwise, is to disregard the welfare of the animals that we raise and kill for meat. Judaism requires humane treatment of animals, and, in my opinion, the abysmal treatment that many animals endure in modern factory farming is antithetical to Jewish law. On these points, I am in complete agreement with Jewish vegetarians. We might not see eye to eye on everything, but we are definitely allies in the effort to raise awareness about the ethical shortcomings of factory farming.

Do you think that last May’s raid on the Agriprocessors meat plant will have any long-lasting impact on the kosher community (meat consumption and otherwise)? If so, what impact do you think it might have?

The Agriproccessors raid revealed terrible practices performed in the name of Judaism. Conditions at the plant were shameful, but I am proud of those in the Jewish community who are acting to prevent the situation from continuing or recurring. I have no idea what the ultimate extent of the changes will be, but I hope they are meaningful and profound.

If you could pick three words to describe your vision for what kashrut could/should look like in the American Jewish Community, what would they be?

Kashrut is the set of dietary laws to which observant Jews adhere. But if we care only about kashrut, we risk ignoring other laws — such as the prohibition against tza’ar ba’alei chayim (causing unnecessary suffering to living things) — and blinding ourselves to ethical considerations. My vision is a Jewish community that, in addition to observing kashrut, acts with kavod towards the animals we eat, considers the sustainability of our actions, and takes responsibility for the impact of our food choices.

Kavod. (The Hebrew word for honor and respect.) We need to honor the animals whose lives we take for our own sustenance. We can do this by letting them live the way they were meant to live: foraging on pasture, roaming unconfined, eating their natural food, and interacting with other animals, all in clean and healthy conditions. If we treat animals cruelly, as if they were nothing but insentient protein factories, we dishonor them and diminish ourselves. If instead we treat them with kavod, we acknowledge them as divine creations and experience our own compassion and humanity.

Sustainability. As Michael Pollan writes, conventional meat production is based largely on fossil fuels. Cattle are shipped long distances to “confined animal feeding operations” where they are unnaturally fattened on grain grown with fertilizers made from natural gas and pesticides made from petroleum (and subsidized by tax dollars). Removing cattle — and their waste — from farms also depletes the fertility of crop soil and causes huge pollution problems on the feedlots. These are not sustainable practices. Pasture-based farming, on the other hand, is based on solar energy. The sun nourishes the grass, which feeds the animals, which fertilize the soil. As Pollan notes, animals on pasture can harvest their own feed and dispose of their own waste, all without fossil fuel. Pasture-based farming is as sustainable as it gets.

Responsibility. Food choices have consequences. If we ignore these consequences, we cause animals to suffer, contribute to climate change and to our dependence on fossil fuels, and wind up with meat that is significantly less healthy. If instead we take responsibility for our food choices, we can promote animal welfare and environmental stewardship and wind up with better meat. Conventional meat is cheaper in dollars, but we pay for it with ethical compromises. Taking responsibility means paying the higher cost for meat from animals raised humanely and sustainably. It also means eating less meat, which the higher price would reinforce, and which would create additional environmental and health benefits.

Related Posts
The Meat of the Argument: Do Jews Need to Be Vegetarians?
Shwarmonic Convergence (comic)
Schecting a Goat at the Hazon Food Conference
Can a Jewish Food Conference be Lox Free?

Photo credit: Edible Portland

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33 Responses to “Talking Turkey: Questions for Roger Studley”

  1. Rachel Barenblat Says:

    Hey, Roger! Nice to see your voice here. I seem to remember talking about Hazon (and the schechting of the goats) at a lovely long Shabbat lunch in Yerushalayim this summer… I’m so glad to see you’re moving forward with this work!

  2. Josh Miller Says:

    Well said and amen! Kudos to Hazon for bringing this conversation to this public forum, and kol hakavod to Roger and his efforts to bring kosher, free-range, humanely-slaughtered meat to the West Coast. Roger, you remind us all that one person, with a good idea and enough dedication has the potential to truly make a difference in their community.

  3. Elizheva Hurvich Says:

    Hey Studley-Dogg! You rock– I love that this project took you into it’s fold. I love that you’re our West Coast Spokesman, so to speak. Count me in as a pre-conference plucker. Send some details.
    Love,
    Your fan,
    E

  4. Lev Says:

    Way to represent the evolving concerns and perspectives on kashrut! I think Roger’s got a great idea going, and with the bankruptcy/collapse of Rubashkin’s there will be more of a market to help sustain these reforms.

    I’m sure many in the Bay Area and beyond would love to have access to locally grown, organic, sustainable kosher meat. Roger’s holding the industry to a higher standard. Keep it up!

  5. Richard Schwartz Says:

    Kol hakavod to Hazon for your attempts to address the moral issues related to our diets and to Roger Studley for his efforts to produce meat without the worst conditions of factory farming. However, as president of Jewish Vegetarians of North America, I am concerned that such efforts will divert attention from the facts that the current mass production and consumption of meat and other animal products are: (1) contributing to an epidemic of chronic, degenerative diseases that are afflicting many Jews and others, (2) contributing significantly to global warming and other environmental threats that are leading the world to an unprecedented catastrophe, and (3) seriously violate basic Jewish teachings on preserving human health, treating animals with compassion, protecting the environment, conserving natural resources, helping hungry people and seeking and pursuing peace.

    We will be happy to engage in a respectful dialogue/debate on “Should Jews be Vegetarians?” I hope Hazon will facilitate such an event via email so that it can be a kiddush Hashem in educating Jews and others re Jewish values on this issue.

    For more information, please visit our web site (JewishVeg.com) and the web site where I have over 130 related articles (JewishVeg.com/schwartz) and please see our documentary A SACRED DUTY: APPLYING JEWISH VALUES TO HELP HEAL THE WORLD at ASacredDuty.com.

  6. Tabitha (Eat Well Guide) Says:

    This is great! I intern for the Eat Well Guide–Thanks for recommending us on your blog (back in August)! Speaking of local turkey, did you know that Eat Well has teamed up with the Consumers Union, nonprofit publisher of Consumer Reports, to issue a Local, Organic Thanksgiving Challenge? We’re inviting people to take a spin on the Eat Well Guide to find local food and cook at least one local (preferably organic) dish for Thanksgiving, and share recipes at the CU site. Read more about it at the Green Fork. [http://blog.eatwellguide.org/2008/11/take-the-local-organic-thanksgiving-challenge/]

  7. Michael Croland Says:

    I agree with Roger that the argument for Jewish vegetarianism says that “vegetarianism is a Jewish ideal,” not that it’s mandated by the Torah (as the interview question reads).

    I don’t know that much about plucking birds by hand for shechita vs. doing it by machine. Roger, can you please elaborate on what’s involved in all this and why? How painful is it for the birds to have their feathers plucked out, and how long does the process take? Is it possible that the feather-plucking makes kosher slaughter less humane in this one particular regard?

  8. Michael Croland Says:

    Also, since Roger knows his stuff and seems to be going about this with good intentions, I can’t help but be curious about a few other points:

    * Where did the birds come from before Roger and his operation raised them? Were they treated in a manner Roger can vouch for as consistent with his standards for the humane treatment of animals?
    * I’ve read some disturbing things about turkey breeding in large-scale turkey operations (see http://tinyurl.com/ymbatv). Are the breeding conditions that created the turkeys whose meat will be served at the Food Conference similar to those in Jim Mason’s firsthand account? (i.e., Were these birds the offspring of natural mating? Did they spend any time with their mothers?)

    Thanks!

  9. Michael Croland Says:

    Sorry for the multiple comments.

    I realize that my questions about the feather-plucking are off, as the birds are dead by the time the general feather-plucking (i.e., what would be done by a machine) happens. What I was thinking of was the plucking of feathers in the neck area, prior to shechita, so that the knife has a clear path to make a cut. Clarification about all this would obviously be helpful. :) Thank you!

  10. Rabbi's Wife Says:

    Michael-
    I can answer your questions about Shketia and turkeys somewhat. Only SOME have the habit of removing feathers from the neck area before cutting. Sephardim never do. Chabad always does. As far as pain, it’s the equivalent to having some of your hairs pulled out. Uncomfortable, but they also come out naturally and birds will even pull them out themselves during preening, etc. (I grew up on a farm with turkeys, so I have a good idea about them.)
    As for their living environment, if the turkeys are from a strain used commercially, they are very stupid animals. I lived in Washington State, and we had to herd ours under cover every time it rained because the birds were in danger of drowning. They look up to see what is hitting them on the head and the water gets caught in their gullet. They will also trample their own young, so the chicks are removed for their own safety. Heritage birds may be smarter, and wild turkeys are smart and cunning as the devil himself (as my grandfather used to say). I only had experience with commercial birds in a small (less than 50) flock.
    Hope this helps.

  11. Roger Studley Says:

    Michael –
    Thanks for your posts. “Rabbi’s Wife” answered your plucking question, but I’ll add a comment on the breeding and care of the birds. The turkeys we have for the Hazon Food Conference are not the Broad Breasted Whites that are used in industrial poultry farming. Rather, they are “heritage breeds” — Spanish Blacks, Bourbon Reds, and Narragansetts — which are much heartier animals. All breeding occurred naturally, and most of the poults were hatched out and raised by their mothers. (A few mothers weren’t nesting successfully, so the farmer hatched out their eggs and raised them in her house, and then in protected coops, until they could free range.) Our farmer takes very good care of her animals and is committed to raising them humanely. She definitely treats them with kavod.

  12. Michael Croland Says:

    Rabbi’s Wife, thank you for explaining more about the plucking. You mentioned that the plucking is a “habit” that Chabad does but Sephardim don’t do. What is the reason for this habit? Also, you used the word “Shketia”; did you mean shechita, and if not, what does that mean?

    I would presume that the “uncomfortable” sensation birds feel when someone plucks their feathers is not comparable to what they feel when they preen themselves or when feathers fall out naturally.

    When considering tza’ar ba’alei chayim, animal welfare, compassion, etc., the question is not whether turkeys are intelligent. (In the words of philosopher Jeremy Bentham, “The question is not, Can they reason? nor Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?”) Then again, turkeys aren’t as dumb as you suggest. OSU poultry scientist Tom Savage says, “I’ve always viewed turkeys as smart animals with personality and character, and keen awareness of their surroundings.” He’s studied the reaction of turkeys to rain, which you mentioned, and pointed out that the animals’ misunderstood behavior isn’t a sign of stupidity at all; see http://tinyurl.com/6dm8oz.

    Roger, thanks so much for your response and explanations.

  13. Michael Croland Says:

    It looks like the link in my previous comment didn’t work because it wasn’t separated from the period. The correct link is:

    http://tinyurl.com/6dm8oz

  14. David Radwin Says:

    Roger and Leah,

    Thank you for this informative and important discussion.

    Without taking anything away, I think it is important to acknowledge that there were already known ethical problems with Agriprocessors a few years ago, long before the federal government got involved. The story was covered by the NY Times, NPR (http://www.npr.org/templates/s.....Id=4236845 ), and other media but still apparently did not get a lot of attention in Jewish community. I, for one, would have had no idea about the allegations or the fact that the “David’s” brand beef I bought at Trader Joes was from Agriprocessors had I not happened to attend a discussion of kashrut one afternoon.

    In 2004, the group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals obtained some undercover video of Agriprocessors employees slaughtering beef in a cruel and most un-kosher manner. I hasten to add that PETA is not exactly sympathetic to Jewish causes–they once ran ads comparing eating meat to the Shoah (Holocaust)–but seeing is believing, and in this case they did the Jewish community a service despite certain otherwise loathsome and vile practices.

    You can see the video online, but I warn you that it is quite disturbing and graphic:

    http://www.goveg.com/feat/AgriProcessors/video.asp

    Assuming the footage is bona fide–and it appears to be, even if it may be impossible to independently verify–this video would be prima facie evidence for boycotting Agriprocessors’ products. To my knowledge Agriprocessors never denied the veracity of the video.

    Sadly, the OU continued to certify Agriprocessors beef as kosher (http://www.ou.org/other/5765/shechita65.htm ), and the firm continued business until the recent federal raids and subsequent bankruptcy stopped production.

    Of course it is important to respond to the real human suffering caused by Agriprocessors, but the baseline ethical treatment of the animals was not fulfilled, either.

  15. Rabbi's Wife Says:

    Michael-
    Thank you for the link. I have written to Dr. Savage to let him know we did lose birds to rain, whatever the reason for their staring at the sky, bu we didn’t have commercial pens, ours were more free range. And, while I realize their intelligence is not the issue, compared to the other animals I dealt with (Horses, Cows, Dogs, Cats, Chickens, and Goats) Turkeys have the lowest ability to learn and reason based on similar stimuli. Again, just my limited experience.
    If you have a relaxed bird, pulling feathers of the type found on the neck is not so bad. The Chabad practice is probably not done in this way, as relaxed animals are not often found in slaughterhouses, but if one holds by the chumra of removing the feathers, it could be done on a small scale with little distress to the bird.
    The plucking of feathers before shechita is a chumra of some, particularly Chabad, but it is simply that, a chumra. Kosher slaughter can be done without it, and has been for thousands of years.

  16. Roberta Schiff Says:

    As a Jewish vegan, I have come to believe that eating the flesh or any other animal product is not compatible with Jewish values.
    Animals hand raised and less inhumanely slaughtered is not a solution to the hideous factory farming and slaughter that happens today. Rather it is expensive and elitist and could provide expensive flesh to a very few people. We ought to be concerned with stopping animal cruelty and solving world hunger.
    Yes, some animals eat other animals, but they are designed and built to do so. A short, smooth digestive tract and very strong HCL, also teeth meant for cutting and tearing. We humans can digest meat, at a cost of heart disease, cancer and other conditions, but our long and convoluted digestive system is meant to break down plant proteins in a series of steps.
    The photo of the turkey at the top of the article – did you react to it? The image of animals as a promotion for eating them has become so usual that probably not. Take a closer look next time you see a picture of an animal that a human has used to say “raise me, kill me then eat me.”

  17. Roger Studley Says:

    The shechita made front page news in the San Francisco Chronicle on Sat, Dec 27. Here’s the link:
    http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/.....14VF7N.DTL

  18. David Radwin Says:

    For the record, in response to Michael Croland’s concerns, I witnessed a few shechitot at the aforementioned turkey shechita and the shochet did NOT pluck any feathers from living turkeys.

  19. Tom Fullerton Says:

    Roger,
    This is a very interesting endeavor.
    Please contact me so I can learn more about it.
    Tom F.
    El Paso via Gainesville

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