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Some calves kick. Some calves low. Some rear up on their hindquarters and try to escape. But when they meet the rabbi's blade, they all die the same.
Spurred on by the electric prick of a cattle prod, each animal in turn bucks and heels its way along a dung-encrusted incline to Gateway Beef Cooperative's red-walled restraining pen. The calf's 1,200 pounds are maneuvered into position. The rear door shuts, and the pen's floor rises, lifting the calf off its hooves. A powerful harness then rumbles to life. Its coarse jaws clamp down on the calf's head, pulling it upward. The lowing stops. The calf's gaze is forced skyward, its neck exposed, a pulsing, docile arc.
Raised on small farms throughout Missouri and Illinois, this calf and its brethren have been brought here to Granite City, Illinois, to be transformed into some of the best beef available in the United States. Gateway Beef, a small plant cooperatively owned by 58 ranchers and one kosher grocer in New York, deals exclusively in Angus cattle, a sort of aristocracy of the ruminant world. The plant specializes in top-quality beef, and a full 60 percent of its product is graded "prime" by the U.S. Department of Agriculture -- the highest grade the USDA awards.
As part of an exclusive deal with Brach's Glatt Kosher Supermarket in Queens and Long Island, New York, Gateway kills kosher. So as the calf is slowly incapacitated, a yellow-aproned rabbi sharpens his knife for the slaughter. It's serious business, and so much as a nick on the rabbi's chalaf would render the meat unkosher. "No nicks, no rough edges, no nothing," says supervising rabbi Zev Safranovitz, watching his colleague hone the blade. To prove his point, Safranovitz calls the other rabbi over. The butcher plucks a whisker from his beard. "It cuts the hair," he says, slicing the air with the side of his palm. Taking his chalaf, the rabbi pulls the loose whisker over the edge of the blade, splitting it lengthwise.
After hosing down the animal's neck, the rabbi washes the blade and runs the back of his thumbnail along the knife's edge in a final check. He approaches the calf, and with a single upward thrust slices its throat, severing the jugular vein and carotid artery. All the while, the calf remains silent. Its eyes roll back. Its tongue goes limp. Through the burst of blood, the animal's face registers no expression. Within seconds the mechanical harness releases the head and neck, but the calf is already dead.
"The animals do not feel nothing," observes Safranovitz, a small, frail man who has walked with a cane ever since doctors removed his fibula and used it to replace his cancer-ridden jaw. "It's more humane than shooting an animal. This thing is still alive, and they're skinning it! I mean the non-kosher. After a bullet in the head, the animal is not moving but there's still life there. You can tell by looking at the eyes. Scientifically, I don't think there's any backup for what I'm saying. But you can tell. Any person can."
Meanwhile, a slaughterhouse worker has attached a shackle to one of the calf's rear legs. He hoists the carcass toward a butchering area, where another worker removes its head. Blood drains onto the cement floor. After hydraulic shears lop off the hooves, a massive rolling pin wraps itself in the hide, pulling it whole from the flesh. Safranovitz patrols the kill floor as his chalaf-wielding colleague inspects the animal's head for any sign of illness. Once the head has passed inspection, the rabbi carves away the cheeks, tongue and sweetbreads, placing them on a metal rack and discarding the head. A third rabbi plunges a hand deep into the carcass and removes the lungs. He uses an air hose to inflate the organ and check for signs of past pneumonia, which would render the meat unkosher. The carcass is then split lengthwise and relieved of root ganglia and spinal cord. Finally the two sides of beef are washed down and moved to a cooling room, where the meat hangs in two rows.
On the right goes the kosher beef, bound for Brach's. The rest will go to some of the nation's tonier restaurants -- Peter Lugar's in New York, perhaps, or Smith & Wollensky in Chicago.
But unfortunately for Gateway, none of it is headed for Japan.
Last year, Gateway's owners say, the co-op struck a deal with a Japanese food distributor that stood to up the slaughterhouse's production by 50 percent or more. And the Japanese buyers were willing to pay a pretty penny for the company's Angus beef -- up to $5 more per pound than Gateway could get on the American market for some cuts.
But Japan abruptly sealed its borders to U.S. beef late last year, after the USDA announced it had discovered a case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) -- or mad cow disease -- near Yakima, Washington. Japan has tested all of its slaughtered cattle for the disease ever since it discovered mad cows in its domestic population in September 2001. The country now demands that the U.S. government certify that the same has been done for any Japan-bound exports. But thus far the USDA has refused, depriving companies like Gateway of a piece of the $854 million Japanese beef market.