AFTER PROPOSALS to ban the practice of ritual slaughter in the Netherlands were overturned in 2011, on the grounds of interference with freedom of worship, Dutch ministers are now drafting a decree to allow them to overrule anyone conducting the practice in the country. As the new ban is being prepared, politicians across Europe will be groaning at the thought of dealing with the controversial topic once again.
In the UK, over 40 million cattle, sheep, and pigs are slaughtered annually for food production, along with approximately 900 million poultry. Slaughter involves shackling an animal by its hind legs and hoisting it into the air. The slaughterman then 'sticks' the animal, by cutting the carotid arteries and jugular veins. But before any animal is exsanguinated, or bled to death, European legislation requires that they are 'stunned' into unconsciousness to avoid anxiety, pain and suffering.
Cattle, sheep and pigs are stunned either by the captive bolt, electricity or gassing techniques. The captive bolt method entails firing a metal bolt directly into the animal's brain, to render it permanently unconscious. The electrical technique involves using metal tongs to pass an electric current into the brain and gassing is a straightforward method where pigs and poultry are gassed with mixtures of air and carbon dioxide.
Most of the 6,000 - 7,000 chickens slaughtered every hour are stunned by being hung upside-down on a conveyor belt and dipped in an electrified water bath. Problems arise if some birds miss the bath or if the voltage is insufficient. Consequently, gassing is becoming increasingly prevalent to encourage less handling and stress for the birds.
Ritual slaughter is the practice where communities, mainly Muslim and Jewish, prepare meat from animals that have not been pre-stunned. Around 2.1 million animals are slaughtered annually by the Jewish method, known as Shechita, which involves the exsanguination of the animal by severing its trachea, oesophagus, carotid arteries and jugular veins. Jewish dietary law requires that the animal must have been completely healthy and free of any physical defect and therefore, Shechita forbids pre-stunning because electrical currents or captive bolts can cause tissue damage prior to sticking. To be classed as 'kosher', which means 'clean' in Hebrew, the meat must receive independent rabbinical certification. Furthermore, to be sold on the kosher market, the blood, certain fats and the sciatic nerve in the hind quarter must also be removed. As this process is laborious and expensive, the hind quarter is often completely sold on the general market, meaning that meat slaughtered without pre-stunning can enter the food chain without consumers knowing.
Muslim communities also require that certain conditions must be met for meat to be lawful, or 'Halal'. If they are not, then the meat is considered unlawful or 'Haram'. Halal slaughter has long been subject to controversy, mainly because electrically pre-stunned meat is accepted in some countries if a low-voltage, non-lethal stunning is used. The UK's Food Standards Agency reported in 2012 that more than 80% of animals are stunned before slaughter for Halal meat and the Halal Food Authority (HFA) estimated that around 25% of the entire meat market is Halal. However, with Muslim communities making up just 4.6% of the UK population, these figures have led to investigations which found that Halal meat has been served to unknowing consumers in state schools, hospitals, markets and venues such as Wembley Stadium and the House of Commons canteen.
The crux of the ritual slaughter controversy stems from the fact that, despite pre-stunning being a statutory requirement of EU law, the majority of EU member states, including in the UK, accept a long-standing derogation that allows religious communities to slaughter animals without pre-stunning provided that a number of legal requirements are met. The derogation itself is not EU-wide and some EU member states, such as Austria and Slovakia, allow religious slaughter provided that post-cut stunning is performed. In Finland, sticking and stunning must performed simultaneously and in Latvia and Sweden, slaughter without pre-stunning is banned completely.
Further controversy stems from the fact that no complete record of religious slaughter is kept in Britain. In 2010, the Government even admitted that it was unaware of the number of Halal slaughterhouses. In 2011, the Food Standards Agency did conduct a week long survey of all UK abattoirs and found that 43,772 cattle, 307,512 sheep and goats and 16,101,844 poultry were slaughtered during the week. Just under 7% of cattle (3,041) and 30% of poultry (4,837,473) were not stunned before slaughter. Worryingly, over 50% of sheep and goats were not pre-stunned. The Halal figures were far higher than Shechita as less than 3% of cattle and less than 1% of sheep, goats and poultry were slaughtered by the Shechita method. However, that is still nearly 75,000 animals that bled to death whilst they were conscious.
Put simply, today's regulation of religious slaughter is based on two conflicting points of view. Animal welfare concerns have led lawmakers to prohibit slaughter without pre-stunning on the grounds that it inflicts unnecessary pain. On the other side, concerns about freedom of worship mean that religious communities vociferously, and vocally, oppose any legislation that would scrap their derogation to the law. Unfortunately, tensions are heightened as the religious element of the debate is seized upon by groups with malign interest, such as the BNP.
As the lawmakers, politicians are stuck in the middle. Only the bravest politicians risk speaking out in favour of animal protection, knowing that they will be…slaughtered…by the religious lobby if they do. The Jewish lobby has even gone as far as stating that the ban would be ‘the modern equivalent of the yellow star’ and they have likened it to the holocaust, but for animals. On the other hand, those politicians who appease the religious lobbies risk alienating the huge numbers of voters who place animal welfare in high regard.
One way to address the dispute is to label the method of slaughter on the final product. In 2011, during revisions of Europe-wide food labelling legislation, politicians in the European Parliament sought to introduce food labels that would carry the designation ‘this product comes from an animal slaughtered by the Halal/Shechita method’. But political deadlock threatened to collapse the entire legislative document and the proposals were dropped on the condition that the European Commission would offer a solution in upcoming animal welfare legislation in 2013.
As many politicians have found out the hard way, religious communities and animal welfare activists will never agree on this issue. Changing confrontation to consensus is completely unfeasible but progress will be impossible unless compromise is found. All animals should be properly pre-stunned in order to maintain the highest standards of animal welfare but concurrently, the requirements of religious communities must be recognised and their beliefs must be respected.
To make any progress, politicians must take a step back and realise that the slaughter debate is symptomatic of wider concerns about consumer choice. Consumers have a right to know where their food has come from and if, for any reason, derogation from the standard accepted law is permitted, they should be informed why. Therefore, the first step forward is to properly label meat products so that all consumers, including religious communities and animal welfare activists, can make an informed choice about what they are eating.