February 13, 2015, by adam
A cut too far? The ritual slaughter debate in Britain
The World Food Summit, in 1996, agreed a definition of food security that included the requirement that food met the food preferences of communities. Indeed, it is evident that food preferences reflect aspects of culture including religious identity. Where food preferences include the consumption of animals, debates about animal welfare also arise which can come into conflict with some cultural practices. In this post I look at the ritual slaughter of animals as practiced in Jewish and Muslim communities.
The issue has surfaced again in the UK following the decision by the Danish Government to ban halal and shechita (kosher) slaughter, and after John Blackwell, President-elect of the British Veterinary Association (BVA), the representative body for vets in Britain, came out in favour of such a ban in the UK. Reports of Mr. Blackwell’s remarks can be found, inter alia, in The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph, the BBC, and the Independent. Further pressure on halal slaughter especially emerged following reports of alleged abuse of animals at a halal slaughterhouse in Thirsk leading to calls for CCTV cameras in all slaughterhouses.
Animal welfare has been a longstanding interest of mine and it seems clear to me that there is a strong case on welfare grounds to ban slaughter without stunning. However, there are interesting questions that are raised about the nature of evidence, and what counts as expertise as well as an ongoing debate about the extent to which religious practices can be accommodated in a modern liberal state.
What is ritual slaughter?
EU and British law requires that an animal presented for slaughter must be stunned before being killed. However, the traditional Jewish method of slaughter, shechita, and most interpretations of Muslim halal slaughter, require that the animal be conscious at presentation for slaughter. Slaughter is carried out by a single cut from a long very sharp knife across the throat area severing the major structures of the neck including the carotid arteries, jugular veins, oesophagus and trachea. The animal dies from exsanguination. EU and British law allows for an exemption from the requirement to stun to be granted in deference to religious beliefs. Such an exemption exists in the UK. Sweden and Poland have not granted exemptions, and in Austria, Slovakia and Estonia animals must be stunned immediately after the cut. It is also worth noting that some meat accepted a halal has been stunned prior to slaughter.
The welfare argument
Groups who seek to ban ritual slaughter focus their arguments on the pain and suffering experienced by animals slaughtered in these ways over and above that experienced by animals slaughtered after stunning. So we put to one side in this debate the broader questions associated with the use of animals for meat at all.
The additional sufferings identified by groups favouring a ban include pain experienced from the initial cut, the prolonged period of consciousness experienced by especially cattle following the cut, a feeling of ‘drowning’ from inspiring blood into the lungs, and pain experienced in cases where the slaughterman inserts his hand into the neck post-cut to confirm the severing of vital structures.
In cattle, the time remaining conscious post-cut was found in this study to average 20 seconds, with 8% of cases remaining conscious for one minute or more. On pain experienced from the cut, the Farm Animal Welfare Council (FAWC) concluded that ‘We are persuaded that such a massive injury would result in very significant pain and distress in the period before insensibility supervenes’
The British debate
Despite hitting the headlines recently, the debate about whether to continue to permit ritual slaughter without pre-stunning has been going on for some time. In 2003 the, now defunct, Farm Animal Welfare Council (FAWC) published a report on the welfare of farmed animals at slaughter or killing in which it concluded that ‘Council considers that slaughter without pre-stunning is unacceptable and that the Government should repeal the current exemption’ and that ‘Until the current exemption that permits slaughter without pre-stunning is repealed, Council recommends that any animal not stunned before slaughter should receive an immediate post-cut stun’ (p.36).
In May 2005, the then Labour Government published its full response to FAWC’s report. It rejected FAWC’s recommendation to end the exemption, noting ‘The Government is committed to respect for the rights of religious groups and accepts that an insistence on a pre-cut or immediate post-cut stun would not be compatible with the requirements of religious slaughter by Jewish and Muslim groups’ (cited in House of Commons Library note).
So we have expertise in animal welfare – FAWC and the BVA – arguing that ritual slaughter should be banned on animal welfare grounds set against the legitimate desire of government to respect the cultural practices of religious minorities in a liberal state.
Despite the BVA’s recent articulation of policy David Cameron, Nick Clegg, and Ed Miliband all confirmed their support for ritual slaughter. The Green Party, which has a strong stance on animal welfare, also does not propose a ban, but in its 2014 EU election manifesto, proposed ‘mandatory labelling of meat and dairy products as to the country of source, method of production and the method of slaughter’. UKIP, too, supports the policy of labelling meat with the method of slaughter. Indeed, but perhaps not surprisingly, only the BNP supports a total ban on ritual slaughter.
However, labelling, while superficially attractive carrying notions of choice is problematical. If only meat obtained using ritual slaughter methods is labelled this might be considered either discriminatory or failing to acknowledge that slaughter with stunning also carries animal welfare concerns for some groups. The BVA have also argued that labelling will not lead to any improvement in animal welfare as some meat obtained without pre-stunning finds its way into the mainstream food system and would not necessarily be labelled as having been obtained in that way.
The case of ritual slaughter of animals is an interesting one. The evidence base on animal welfare grounds suggests that slaughter without pre-stunning imposes additional, preventable, suffering over slaughter using stunning. However, the animal welfare case is not the only consideration. In a liberal society politicians are reluctant to ban the practice from support for minority rights and a desire not to fuel prejudice against religious minorities. Labelling, despite its drawbacks, is a more likely policy option in the UK than an outright ban. It is also a case where expertise has informed a debate rather than decided the outcome.
Finally, there is a potential problem with the term ‘ritual slaughter’. Does this imply that conventional slaughter is without any ritualistic element? Also, portraying conventional slaughter as ‘normal’ risks the creation of a category of a deviant other practice of ritual slaughter which might feed prejudice. As noted above, only the explicitly anti-Muslim BNP among UK political parties is backing a ban on halal slaughter leaving those who support a ban on welfare grounds finding themselves with supporters they might prefer not to have.