HALAL meat is once again a hot topic in the news, with fresh reports from many national newspapers that unlabelled halal is entering the general food chain and that customers are unwittingly eating meat some of which would not have been stunned before slaughter which currently doesn’t have to be labelled as such.
Halal simply means “lawful” or “permitted” in Arabic, and in this context refers to meat that has been slaughtered in methods that comply with Islamic law. This means it must be killed by a sharp blade cutting the animal’s jugular vein so that death is caused by bleeding out and that a prayer must be said as the animal is killed.
I am going to set out my position early in this article to avoid confusion. In an ideal world I would like to see all livestock in this country stunned before slaughter so it suffers the least amount of pain possible. Failing this, I would like to see proper labelling and traceability so consumers are able to make an informed choice on both religious and animal welfare grounds when buying food.
However, you would be forgiven for thinking from the recent reports that halal is the only non-stun slaughter technique permitted in this country. What people often forget is the shechita method of slaughter for the Jewish community is similar and, like halal, is exempt from some of our animal welfare at the time of slaughter regulations. Another fact that is often overlooked is that the majority of halal meat slaughtered under the Halal method in this country is stunned so it is insensible to pain – as it is in conventional slaughter. For example, about 90 per cent of lamb and 88 per cent of chickens slaughtered under halal are stunned before slaughter and so the likelihood and duration of pain at the time of slaughter is likely to be less.
However, that still leaves a large number of animals that are not being stunned before slaughter, especially when you consider that none of the beef currently slaughtered under halal in this country is pre-stunned. It is estimated that 3% of cattle, 10% of sheep and goats and 4% of poultry that are slaughtered in Great Britain are not pre-stunned with one estimate showing 114 million animals are killed annually in the UK using the Halal method and a further 2.1 million under Shechita. This is number and the value of the Halal market is estimated to be between £1 and £2 billion.
Our laws on slaughter are contained in Council Regulation (EC) No 1099/2009 on the Protection of Animals at the Time of Killing. The Regulations allows Member States to apply a derogation to permit slaughter without stunning for religious and traditional purposes.
This is an important point. By law animals have to be stunned before slaughter to ensure they suffer as little pain as possible and these laws were informed by scientific and veterinary evidence. Halal and Schechita methods of slaughter are not exempted from these scientifically established regulations because they meet some sort of animal welfare standard but simply for religious or cultural reasons. Whether religious belief outweighs animal welfare considerations is a highly emotive debate but one worth having in a calm and transparent way.
It is also clear that the purpose of this derogation to permit slaughter without stunning for religious and traditional purposes is for food destined for the consumption by the specific religious communities according to whose beliefs the animals have been slaughtered. It therefore stands to reason that this produce should not be entering the food-chain unlabelled and that the market share of non-stunned meat should broadly reflect the demographics of these communities. This, however, is not the case. For example, 4% of Britons are Muslim and yet the Halal industry and could represent anything up to 25% of the UK meat market. This is clearly a failing within existing legislation and needs to be addressed – something that many in these religious communities recognise and wish to address.
There are no easy solutions to what is a very legally and culturally complicated set of circumstances. However, I believe that there must be a credible solution. That is why I am conducting an inquiry into livestock slaughtered without pre-stunning at Chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Beef and Lamb. We are also holding three evidence sessions in May and June where we will be taking evidence from veterinary and supply side experts. This will be with the ultimate aim of writing a report that will be submitted to the Government.
We will be exploring what is the most humane way to slaughter animals for meat and why alternative methods are used and to seek to find a way of meeting the needs of communities whilst also ensuring high welfare.