The UK’s ongoing controversy over Halal has once again reignited with the revelation that several of the UK’s biggest supermarkets and fast-food chains in the UK have been using halal and kosher meat without labeling it as such — but what exactly is halal and kosher, and why is it so controversial?
What are Halal and Kosher Meat?
Put in very simple terms, halal and kosher meats are those meats that come from animals that have been killed according to the tenets outlined by the Muslim and Jewish faiths respectively. Both religions require particular methods of slaughter so as to make the meat that is then produced “clean” and therefore edible to people of these faiths.
The ritual slaughter procedures behind creating Halal and Kosher meat are different but have a number of similarities that, for our purposes — and indeed for Muslims who are allowed to eat Kosher, means we can talk about them in roughly similar terms with a few key exceptions which we’ll note as they become relevant.
In both cases, prior to ritual slaughter, the animal must be healthy and emphasis is placed on ensuring that the animal should have lived a relatively painless, good life. We could argue here that no animal that is slaughtered has had a good or full life, but that is an argument that, for now, we’ll leave to one side.
Regardless, both halal and kosher require particular practices to be followed. In both cases, those who slaughter animals so that the meat can be halal or kosher must be specially trained in order to carry out these ritual practices. Prior to killing, the name of God must be said in order to make the sacrifice halal. Therefore a prayer is said before the slaughter. Again, even just prior to the animal’s death, it must be healthy and this can mean, for instance, that the animal may be given water or a meal and must be checked so that it is not showing signs of any distress.
In both instances, the actual kill is achieved via a swift, deep incision made to the neck with a large, sharp and clean knife. This is supposed to cut the jugular vein and arteries cleanly (no short knife so as to avoid gouging) while leaving the spinal column intact. The animal will then bleed to death within a short space of time.
Many adherents of these ritual practices contend that the animals lose consciousness very quickly and that ultimately it is more humane than the killings carried out in other abattoirs which use electric shocking, lethal metal bolts, or gassing animals, among several methods depending on the region and what animal is being slaughtered.
The rub here is that, under traditional practices, the rules for halal and kosher meat mean the animal must be uninjured at the time of slaughter. This means most stun practices that are used in the wider slaughter industry are therefore disqualified.
What is the Key Difference Between Halal and Kosher Practices?
The procedures for producing halal and kosher meat are very similar. Yet there is one important difference. While for halal the animal need only be uninjured, meat that is designed to be kosher must come from an animal that is both uninjured and conscious at the time of its throat being cut. We’ll talk about why this matters more below, but this is where the controversy comes from because, even though adherents claim that religious slaughter is in fact at least as humane as wider slaughter practices, that fact is heavily disputed.
The Derogation of the Law Surrounding Halal and Kosher
When taken in a broad view, and compared to the rest of the world, Europe has articulated some firm practices for killing animals for food that are designed to ensure that slaughter animals undergo as little stress and pain as possible.
However, as Europe’s courts and lawmakers often have, certain provisions have been made to accommodate religious views and therefore make exceptions for ritual slaughter. The EU therefore allows individual countries to make their own laws regarding ritual slaughter, privileging it as a right to express religious belief. Some countries have tightened restrictions on halal and kosher, while other countries like Denmark have completely banned the practices within the country, meaning that halal and kosher meat must be imported.
In the UK, the religious exceptions remain though and currently there is no restriction on ritual slaughter. Despite this, the majority of the meat in the UK is from pre-stunned sources and this is where things get tricky.
Muslim scholars have actually been quite firm that it is not necessary to shun pre-stunning in the production of these sacrosanct meats because electrical stunning or so-called “mushroom stunning,” from which an animal recovers quickly if it is not then killed, doesn’t injure the animal and therefore is acceptable. That said, there is a strong minority of adherents to Islam that continue to believe all stunning practices are unacceptable. As we noted above, there is no such leeway for kosher meat, and although some liberal Jewish scholars contend that pre-stunning may in fact be acceptable, they remain in the minority.
That this fact hasn’t been mentioned broadly and the focus has centered on halal tells us that, undeniably, there is a strong thread of ignorance that lends itself well to Islamaphobia and racism. That doesn’t necessarily mean all criticism of the practices of halal and kosher themselves is unwarranted, however, because, also undeniably, a proportion of adherents to both religions do want to keep their religious privilege to not have to stun animals even when it would be acceptable.
When it Comes to Halal and Kosher, What Numbers are we Talking About?
In total, one estimate suggests that up to 90% of all animals used for halal meat in the UK are pre-stunned while other more conservative estimates, such as those issued by the Food Standards Agency, have suggested around 80% are stunned. These numbers don’t necessarily transfer to the United States, but figures show that a majority of the meat being sold in the States is still pre-stunned in some way. Back in the UK, and even with that admittedly high percentage of pre-stunned animals, that still leaves a significant proportion of adherents to ritual slaughter that believe that pre-stunning is unacceptable. It’s thought that there are 12 halal slaughterhouses in the UK that still do not pre-stun.
The figure for kosher meat is less easily found, and that’s undeniably due in part to a disproportionate focus on halal, but the total for the numbers of animals that are slaughtered in the UK every year without pre-stunning is estimated by Compassion in World Farming to be around 1.4 million sheep and goats, 32 million chickens and around 70,000 cattle. Even if we accept that this figure is a small fraction of the total number of animals killed in the UK, it’s by no means a small number if those animals are enduring heightened suffering.
Critics contend that supermarkets in the UK, and potentially in other countries, have been using halal (and to a lesser extent kosher) meat in products that are not labeled as such. They argue, then, that this is unfair because not everyone condones religious slaughter or wants to eat religious slaughter meat.
Others take an animal welfare stand, saying that religious slaughter is cruel and inhumane and therefore want the practice banned in its entirety. A number of animal welfare groups, in addition to the head of the British Veterinary Association, have also backed a full ban on religious slaughter.
As to the contention that religious slaughter is more or less humane than pre-stunning, there have been investigations into whether this is true — yet, curiously, as many on the right have jumped on the bandwagon to condemn halal, and many on the left have come to halal and kosher’s defense, this fact has so far been largely absent from this debate.
In our next post on this topic, we’ll take a look at that research and whether this points the way to any clearer thoughts on whether halal and kosher is inhumane or a viable alternative to wider slaughter practices.