December 15, 2015
What has been a long running and sometimes-intractable debate between animal welfare groups and the UK’s Jewish and Muslim communities once again came to the fore last month with the introduction of new slaughter regulations in England.
Increasing animal welfare standards
On November 5 the Welfare of Animals at the Times of Killing (WATOK) regulations came into force prompting theBritish Veterinary Association (BVA) to raise concerns with Defra over its failure to include stunning parameters for poultry killed in accordance with religious rites.
The purpose of the new regulations is to increase animal welfare standards by making it a requirement for large slaughterhouses to have an animal welfare officer and the introduction of Certificates of Competence along with new controls covering the close monitoring of stunning methods and how religious slaughter must be carried out.
The Muslim community has welcomed these new rules. ‘The newly introduced EC regulations will improve animal welfare provided they are strictly implemented,’ says Dr Shuja Shafi secretary general of the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB).
‘Stunning alone does not solve animal welfare problems. We need to ensure that religious slaughter is implemented correctly and then it is as good as any other method, if not better, as there is no evidence that religious slaughter when performed correctly causes pain in fact stunning may paralyse the animals so they may be unable to express pain.’
But the BVA disagrees. In particular, it argues, the new rules fail to protect poultry when using electrical water bath stunning because under the religious slaughter rules there are no parameters set as to what voltage should be used.
‘It is difficult to see how effective stunning can be assured for all poultry if parameters are not set when poultry are killed in accordance with religious rites,’ says BVA president Sean Wensley.
‘Slaughtermen, official veterinarians and animal welfare officers in abattoirs are not able to tell the difference between birds that have been effectively stunned and those that are just electro-immobilised, thus compromising the animal welfare standards that these regulations are being put in place to protect.’
Legal challenges to change lethal doses
Both sides of the argument claim that when done correctly their preferred method of slaughter is humane with both groups pointing to their chosen scientific evidence.
But for Muslims, it is not what is up for debate as the animal must be alive at the point of religious slaughter. This is why the new rules over chicken stunning became so contentious. When the WATOK rules were first published it was clear to religious communities that a requirement to increase currents for stunning poultry to potentially lethal doses was unacceptable. So the Halal Authority Board along with the Association of Independent Meat Suppliers and 20 abattoir operators launched a legal challenge to have this changed.
The dispute over religious slaughter has always centred on stunning. Under EU law each member state can allow religious slaughter without prior stunning if it wishes. In July this year, under pressure from animal welfare groups, Denmark introduced a ban on religious slaughter prompting accusations of anti-Semitism and religious intolerance.
It means that different countries have different rules. In Germany licenses are only issued if a religious need is proven while in the Netherlands stunning must take place if the animal has not lost consciousness 40 second after the throat is cut. In France stunning must take place after 90 seconds if still conscious. Non-stunning is already banned in Sweden, Iceland and New Zealand.
The UK position
The UK’s long standing position on religious slaughter is that while the Government prefers all animals to be stunned before slaughter it ‘recognises and respects’ the needs of religious communities so has always maintained the limited exemption.
In the UK the official figure for animals undergoing halal slaughter that are stunned is 80 per cent as some non-fatal stunning methods are acceptable to a number of halal certification bodies. While under Jewish law (Shechita) all stunning is prohibited, for some Muslims the use of the electric head stun, for example, is acceptable while the use of the captive bolt stun is not. The reasoning is that a current can be controlled to ensure it is not fatal whereas a bolt cannot.
There is, however, evidence that the amount of pre-stunned halal slaughter is actually falling. A snapshot of abattoirs taken by the Food Standards Agency (FSA) earlier this year found that 75 percent of cattle were stunned before Halal slaughter, 63 percent of sheep and goats and 84 percent of poultry was pre-stunned. This overall is down on the generally accepted figure of 80 percent.
Which for a vocal number of consumers is a concern and they have been arguing for the right to know that they are eating non-halal slaughtered meat through labelling. They claim this is a particular concern since supermarkets recently revealed that they sell unlabeled Halal meat, typically pre-stunned New Zealand Halal, allowing other cuts from carcasses to be sold in the Middle East.
Types of labeling and potential consequences
A range of bodies including the MCB, the Halal Food Authority and the BVA agree with labeling in principle. TheBritish Retail Consortium has also said its members would be happy to change labeling if there was evidence that consumers had animal welfare concerns around stunning.
But while Muslims may be happy to see labeling, Dr Shafi argues the type of labeling is critical and that to just label something ‘stun’ and ‘non-stun’ could have dire consequences.
‘If the purpose of labeling is to inform about animal welfare then simply labeling as ‘stun’ and ‘non-stun’ will be discriminatory and pejorative and we would reject it,’ points out Dr Shafi.
‘If we want to label meat to inform consumers about the method of killing then the label needs to state whether the animal was stunned by electrocution, by shot in the head or by gassing and asphyxiation because all methods of stunning come with different animal welfare issues and so it will then be up to the consumer to decide.’
There exists a fear within the Muslim community that the wrong type of labeling could lead to discrimination against shops and abattoirs within their communities.
Labeling is an EU issue and there is currently no legal requirement at the EU or UK level to indicate method of slaughter. The UK and Sweden have been lobbying for the introduction of labeling indicating if non-stunning slaughter has been used. An EU consumer consultation published earlier this year, Study on information to consumers on the stunning of animals, has revealed a mixed picture. The report concluded: ‘there is little dissatisfaction with current labelling with regard to meat and meat products and little spontaneous demand for information related to animal welfare at slaughter. However, stakeholders pointed out that this is an important issue for a small number of relatively vocal consumers.’
The introduction of the new animal welfare rules has so far failed to shift opinions. However, with 114 million animals killed annually in the UK using the halal method, while a further 2.1 million are killed under the shechita method, and the value of the halal market estimated at around £2bn and growing, there are good reasons to find a solution to this so far intractable issue.