Opinion: Ritual slaughter – One law for all

Ritual slaughter has had a reasonably low profile in the UK, despite vigorous debate abroad, in the European parliament, and now in the Commons. David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Sarah Ludford MEP (FT) have expressed some level of support for the practice, but I must disagree.

The law requires that animals be stunned before slaughter, for their welfare, but there is an exemption for Muslim and Jewish food production.

Halal animals often are stunned – due to differences in religious opinion – but millions are not, and shechita (kosher slaughter) is always without stunning. Their use has expanded to general consumption, usually without the customer’s knowledge.

This is a seemingly difficult issue, with science that can only be left to experts, and non-human animal rights apparently pitted against religious liberty. But only two, mutually-exclusive approaches are possibly justifiable.

The first possibility is that ritual slaughter causes no more pain or distress, or is in fact better, than the standard method with stunning. This is an argument put forward by those opposing reform. I’m open to this idea. But if it is indeed more humane, why restrict its use? Even if it were only equally humane, the law should not intervene, especially if ritual slaughter were cheaper or more convenient.

The other option is that slaughter without stunning does cause more pain and distress than the alternative. In this case it is utterly indefensible that the amount of suffering you can inflict should depend on your beliefs or the beliefs of your customers! Your treatment under the law shouldn’t depend on who you are, or your religious beliefs, but on your actions.

As for whether it does mean more suffering, the independent advisory body the Farm Animal Welfare Council came to the conclusion (p32-36) “that slaughter without pre-stunning is unacceptable and that the Government should repeal the current exemption”. It is the British Veterinary Association’s “strong view that ritual slaughter is cruel to animals and […] should be banned in the UK”.

Opponents of reform often point out that there are other welfare issues surrounding slaughter and living standards that we should be concerned with, and this is true (please do share your suggestions). But too often this is used as cover to tackle none of them, rather than all, and reducing the number of animals killed without stunning is comparatively easy to achieve.

The charge that dealing first with this issue equates to religious discrimination is especially levelled at compromise proposals to label when meat is from animals not stunned before slaughter. However, it’s difficult to see as discriminatory or illiberal a policy that would allow religious adherents to retain this welfare exemption while empowering any consumers who wish to avoid non-stunned meat to do so. If we keep the exemption we should even consider adding a tax on unnecessary cruelty.

But ideally the law should specify the least harmful practical method(s) of slaughter and this should apply equally to all. Multiculturalism shouldn’t mean different sets of laws for different people, and the Government should act on its stated desire “to see all animals stunned before slaughter”. Religious freedom is very important, but just as this shouldn’t go so far as to trample on the “rights and freedoms of others”, it’s essential that unnecessary suffering in non-human animals is also given some weight.

* Adam Corlett is an economic analyst and Lib Dem member

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  • Charles Beaumont 28th Jun '12 - 1:47pm

    This is not something that Liberals should be dedicating time and energy to. Have the public debate, based on scientific evidence, but let’s not start making more laws.

  • Richard Dean 28th Jun '12 - 3:53pm

    A very interesting article, on a topic somewhat overdue for debate. I think I read somewhere that about 50 million chickens are killed in the UK every year. I don’t know the numbers for pigs, cattle, goats, etc but they must be huge too. So the issue is not irrelevant at all. Knowing what the scientific evidence is would be a good starting point, but as always the evidence might allow several different interpretations. It’s not obvious to me that stunning first is necessarily a better process for the animal.

    Knowing also how the process of slaughter has developed over time could help clarify a way forward. I imagine that a ritual for slaughter was developed in some cultures primarily as a way of controlling human behavior – to avoid wanton violence – and as a way of achieving a hygienic result. The development will presumably have been limited by the technologies available in history – which can create a problem for those religions that find change difficult as a result of relying on history to create the authority that supports their present-day arrangements.

  • Simon Beard 28th Jun '12 - 6:22pm

    Sorry but I find this rather silly. Why do you take it as so obvious that ‘it is utterly indefensible that the amount of suffering you can inflict should depend on your beliefs or the beliefs of your customers’? If I were a Jain then I my beliefs would lead me to never cause any suffering to anything unless it was utterly unavoidable. If what you say is correct then the law should require Jains to inflict suffering, thankfully it doesn’t.

    As a vegitarian I am glad that the law does impose minimum animal welfare standards on those who don’t really care about it, but lets fact it, all meat eaters could do more to reduce the suffering of animals, for instance by buying organic meat. On the other hand, if your religious beliefs would make it impossible for you to accept higher animal welfare standards without that causing you to lose purity then I think it would be wrong of the state to prevent you from eating meat and some accomodation must be found for you within the law.

    We just have to try and get along with one another a bit, whilst doing our best to make things better. Is this really that shcoking?

  • Sally Burnell 28th Jun '12 - 6:50pm

    This webinar is aimed at veterinary surgeons but I think you will find it interesting/useful. It is delivered by Prof Bill Reilly, a former President of the British Veterinary Association (the organisation I work for)
    I think it’s about an hour long.

    It’s a hugely important issue and now is the time to say something about it because the new EU welfare at slaughter regulations will need to be transposed into UK law before next January. There will be a government consultation on it. There are two important elements for me – firstly if we cannot get an outright ban on non-stun slaughter then we have to limit it to the communities for which it is intended. Secondly, that can only really be done by compulsory labelling. At the moment in the UK the hind quarters of animals killed by schechita slaughter (for the Jewish community) are not Kosher because they contain certain nerves. That means that the animal has been slaughtered without stunning but the meat from the hind quarters is sold for general consumption. Also in the UK there are differing schools of thought on Halal slaughter – with some Muslims accepting pre-stunning and others not. So meat that is labelled Halal may or may not be pre-stunned. Any labelling would have to clearly state that it was from slaughter without stunning and not use the particular religious term, which would be inadequate.

    Thankfully, as a vegetarian I don’t have to worry about this in the shops but I am keen that if people eat meat they should choose the most welfare friendly option they can.

    Food labelling is a bit of a minefield as this report from CiWF and OneKind sets out – even RSPCA’s Freedom Food doesn’t get the highest scores. As a dairy eater I do find this frustrating (and before you say it Graham – I do know what the answer is!)

  • Sally Burnell 28th Jun '12 - 6:51pm

    apologies for misspelling shechita

  • Whilst a good death is desirable I can’t help but think that a good life is distinctly more important?!

    So instead of blowing hot air on this, how about acting to improve the miserable conditions that much of our ‘meat’ lives in before they die?



  • Helen Dudden 28th Jun '12 - 9:08pm

    I went off the idea of eating meat when I found out about the way it becomes meat. What ever religion you have, there is a choice.

  • The laws on ritual slaughter historically had a rational basis in food hygiene. In an industrialised country with cold chain distribution, plumbing, disinfectant and home refrigeration they are nothing more than a superstition.

    In fact the same could be said of not eating shellfish, separating meat from dairy, avoiding the use of yeast and all the other cultural food practices.

    Animal welfare should not be at the mercy of outdated habits which are clung onto in lazy disregard of their practical origins and contemporary obsolescence.

  • Labelling I agree with 100%, just like free range etc are labelled but non-free range are not prohibited.

    But as Nic pointed out above it seems a good idea to consider the treatment of animals throughout their lives not just the very end of them. I would be interested in what the science says about the amount of suffering caused by the non-stunning at point of death compared with the suffering caused by eg battery farming and similar. If I had a choice between a hellish existence for months or years followed by a relatively painless death, or a slightly better life followed by a more painful death, I’d choose the latter. Of course, I’m not a cow and vetinary specialists may inform us that animals see things differently, but it’s something we should at least throw into the debate before jumping to conclusions.

    I’m not saying that unless we can create a paradise for our meat animals we shouldn’t try to improve things at all, but surely the focus of our efforts should be on whatever causes the animals the most suffering – just as murder was criminalises before assault and rape before sexual harassment. Otherwise any such efforts risk the looking hypocritical.

  • …Stephen W28th Jun ’12 – 3:56pm……………………The modest improvement in welfare for a few minutes of life for some slaughtered animals is not worth a basic declaration of war against the Jewish and Muslim communities in this country. …………..

    These ‘few minutes’ (as you so describe them) must seem a long, long agony to those suffering them.
    As for a ‘declaration of war against the Jewish and Muslim communities’ such hyperbole is silly. We do not for instance accept ‘Sharia Law’ (and few would describe that as an act of war).

    As you believe that it is OK to hang a live animal by the back legs and slit its throat, if you interpret religious teachings that way, how do you stand on the Christian belief that homosexuality was an acceptable reason for denying a gay couple a double room?

  • Malcolm Todd 29th Jun '12 - 11:40pm

    Strange that we refuse to recognise polygamous marriages — which don’t intrinsically do harm to anyone — that many people believe to be sanctified by their religion, but accept a religious exemption on measures specifically intended to reduce suffering to sentient creatures.

  • Stephen W30th Jun ’12 – 1:40am……………Alright, let’s be more specific. An animal that has its throat cut will be conscious for a matter of seconds, not minutes. Since we are talking about killing the animal either way then I really don’t think we really have any moral high-ground to be standing on here…………….

    Signals have shown that calves do appear to feel pain when slaughtered according to Jewish and Muslim religious law, strengthening the case for adapting the practices to make them more humane. “I think our work is the best evidence yet that it’s painful,” says Craig Johnson, who led the study at Massey University in Palmerston North, New Zealand. His team also showed that if the animal is concussed through stunning, signals corresponding to pain disappear.The researchers then showed that the pain originates from cutting throat nerves, not from the loss of blood, suggesting the severed nerves send pain signals until the time of death. Finally, they stunned animals 5 seconds after incision and showed that this makes the pain signal disappear instantly.

    Article in New Statesman…………”After the throat is cut, large clots can form at the severed ends of the carotid arteries, leading to occlusion of the wound (or “ballooning” as it is known in the slaughtering trade). , “Occlusions slow blood loss from the carotids and delay the decline in blood pressure that prevents the suffering brain from blacking out. In one group of calves, 62.5 per cent suffered from ballooning. Even if the slaughterman is a master of his craft and the cut to the neck is clean, blood is carried to the brain by vertebral arteries and it keeps cattle conscious of their pain.” . It can take up to two minutes for cattle to bleed to death.

    ……………………………………..And yes, banning kosher or halal meat is far worse than not permitting various elements of sharia criminal law, of which there are wide variations, and no religious requirement for Muslims to follow when not in Muslim dominated countries. There is no such exception for Halal or Kosher. Halal and kosher are basic requirements for followers of those religions. If you ban it, even huge numbers of people who don’t keep strict halal and kosher will see it as a basic attack on their communities and their faiths. This is not hyperbole…………………………………….

    Debates still rage among Muslim jurists and the general Muslim population about whether or not stunning, anaesthetics, or other forms of inducing unconsciousness in the animal prior to slaughter are permissible as per Islam. Several halal food authorities have more recently permitted the use of a recently developed fail-safe system of head-only stunning where the shock is less painful and non-fatal, and where it is possible to reverse the procedure and revive the animal after the shock.

    So much for “a declaration of war”

  • Malcolm Todd 30th Jun '12 - 5:53pm

    @Stephen W
    “There is room in our society for people who are opposed to certain practices regarding animals to persuade others to take up those standards. Not to use the criminal law against those who frankly do not share their personal ethics regarding animals.”

    That’s an argument for getting rid of animal welfare laws generally, of course, not an argument for allowing exemptions on religious grounds from laws that apply otherwise.

  • Old Codger Chris 2nd Jul '12 - 12:11am

    A brilliant piece by Adam Corlett. And Ann’s comment at 8.16 on 29th June is spot-on.

    If ritual slaughter causes more suffering than stunning it should be banned, end of story. That’s not to say that other cruel practices shouldn’t be outlawed – of course they should. Religious / cultural traditions should be ignored in this case – otherwise why not legalise stoning adulterers to death, bull fighting or the fine old English sport of cock fighting?

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