The government is facing renewed calls to curb the slaughtering of animals that have not first been rendered unconscious – a debate that pits religious sensitivities against the convictions of animal welfare campaigners.
Senior Conservative backbencher Greg Knight has told MPs that the practice of slaughtering cattle, lambs and chickens in this way is “rife”.
The law demands that animals be stunned before they are killed – by electrocution, gassing, or shooting retractable rods into their brains – but there are exemptions for animals to be killed according to Jewish and Muslim traditions, without stunning them first. In the Commons on Thursday, Mr Knight described these exemptions as “unacceptable”.
This is the culmination of a series of interventions from the Conservative backbenches in recent weeks, adopting progressively more hardline stances on the subject.
The previous week, Conservative MP for Ealing Central and Acton Angie Bray claimed that “more than 25% of meat sold in our shops comes from animals that have not been stunned before slaughter”. As this amount “exceeds easily the needs of our communities with special religious requirements”, she suggested that some abattoirs were using the exemptions for kosher and halal meat as an excuse to cut costs. “New measures” might be needed to enforce the law properly, she said.
And last month, Tory MP for Shipley Philip Davies launched a bid to change the law to ensure that halal and kosher meat on sale in shops and eateries was labelled as such. “My sole reason for introducing the bill is to give consumers more information, so that they can exercise their freedom of choice,” the former Asda employee told MPs. Mr Davies said his objective was to ensure that consumers knew “how the meat has been killed”.
Kosher meat is not processed in the UK from animals stunned prior to slaughter. But EU research from 2006 indicated that 75% of cattle, 93% of sheep and 100% of chickens slaughtered in the UK for halal meat were stunned prior to their deaths. Figures produced by the Food Standards Agency (FSA) in 2011 give a similar picture: 84%, 81% and 88%, respectively. Meanwhile, Denmark and New Zealand have both legislated to ensure that all animals killed for halal meat are stunned first.
So labelling meat as halal will not fully achieve Mr Davies’ objective, since consumers will be unaware whether the animal had been stunned or not.
MPs were quick to point out flaws in Mr Davies’s bill, before voting to consign it to the legislative scrap heap by a majority of just three. “If it said that all chickens had to be labelled in a certain way if the birds had been battery hens, or if he had proposed that meat had to be labelled in a certain way if the animals had been kept in dreadful conditions before being killed… I would at least regard him as consistent,” Sir Gerald Kaufman said.
The veteran Labour MP accepted that Mr Davies had not the “tiniest anti-Semitic feeling in him”, yet he had come forward with a bill that “picked on two small minorities”.
It’s no doubt true that Davies harbours little hostility towards the Jewish community. However, the same could be said of Geert Wilders, yet that didn’t prevent the PVV supporting anti-halal legislation in the Dutch parliament, which like Davies’ bill affected shechita too. In both cases the legislation was aimed at Muslims, but the Jewish community suffered collateral damage. If anyone is prepared to argue that Philip Davies doesn’t have the “tiniest Islamophobic feeling in him” I wish them luck.
As for Angie Bray, she raised the question of her constituents “unknowingly eating meat from animals that might not have been pre-stunned during slaughter” in the House of Commons last year, only to be told by James Paice, minister of state at Defra, that “the vast majority of meat slaughtered under halal conditions is pre-stunned, so the issue is not quite as straightforward as some people believe”. This didn’t prevent Bray returning to the issue this month with her claim that over 25% of meat sold in Britain “comes from animals that have not been stunned before slaughter”, citing as her source “a new report by a former president of the British Veterinary Association”.
In fact the 25% figure was from an opinion piece by Professor Bill Reilly in the Veterinary Record. It was based on an estimate by the Halal Food Authority and referred to all halal meat sold in the UK, pre-stunned and unstunned. Rather than check out the original article, Bray (or her researcher) evidently preferred to rely on a garbled account in the Daily Telegraph, which wrongly reported that “a quarter of all meat on the British market is now killed according to the non-stun Halal principle”.
Only a few days before Bray made her intervention, the Food Standards Agency published the results of its 2011 survey of animal welfare in British slaughterhouses which contained the figures quoted in the BBC report above, namely that 84% of cattle, 81% of sheep and goats and 88% of poultry killed in halal abattoirs were stunned before slaughter. By contrast, none of the animals killed by the shechita method were stunned before their throats were cut. Yet Greg Knight MP’s press release calling for “humane animal slaughter” refers only to halal and makes no mention of shechita.
The FSA found that overall 97% of cattle, 90% of sheep and goats and 96% of poultry were stunned before slaughter. In other words, far from being “rife”, as Greg Knight asserts, slaughter without pre-stunning affects only a small minority of all animals killed in UK abattoirs.
None of this is to preempt a discussion about whether stunning before slaughter results in less suffering for the animal being killed, which is itself questionable, or indeed whether MPs supposedly concerned about animal cruelty might be better occupied addressing the appalling practices to be found in non-halal UK abattoirs.
The point is that Tory MPs like Bray and Knight have launched their attack on halal slaughter in the name of animal welfare without bothering to acquaint themselves with the basic facts of the case. In short, they are couple of ignorant bigots out to win popular support by jumping on the latest anti-Muslim bandwagon.