Ritual slaughter, Part 2: What’s (in) the beef?

Ritual SlaughterBy LSS member Dr. Peter Bowen-Walker

Many people find the idea of unnecessary animal cruelty unacceptable and as a consequence they don’t mind paying a little extra for food they know has been produced in accordance with the highest standards of animal welfare.

Since ritual slaughter of animals often involves reliance on the EU exemption from the requirement that animals are stunned prior to slaughter, it is fair to conclude this sort of meat was not produced in line with the highest standards relating to animal welfare at the time of slaughter (see previous post).

So as a consumer how can you be sure that the meat you purchase comes from an animal stunned prior to slaughtering?

Unfortunately it doesn’t appear that any relevant UK government agency (DEFRA, Food Standards Agency, UK Accreditation Service, or the Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratories Agency) holds a list of bodies that provide accreditation which certifies that any given item of meat has come from an animal which was stunned at the time of slaughter. This is despite the fact that the UK Farm Animal Welfare Council:

“… considers that slaughter without pre-stunning is unacceptable and that the Government should repeal the current exemption.”

And it is despite a clear call from the British Veterinary Association:

“that all animals should be stunned before slaughter, and if slaughter without stunning is still to be permitted then any meat or fish from this source must be clearly labelled. This will enable consumers to fully understand the choice they are making when purchasing such products.”

Even the British Retail Consortium, who do certify that food is safe in relation to its “packaging, storage and distribution” do not provide an assurance regarding the food they certify that the highest levels of animal welfare were applicable at all stages of the animal’s life including at the point of slaughter.

The EU are aware of the growing concern of consumers, scientists and veterinarians concerning the lack of information required on food labels and at Paragraph 50 of Regulation No 1169/2011 have stated:

“Union consumers show an increasing interest in the implementation of the Union animal welfare rules at the time of slaughter, including whether the animal was stunned before slaughter. In this respect, a study on the opportunity to provide consumers with the relevant information on the stunning of animals should be considered in the context of a future Union strategy for the protection and welfare of animals.”

So why are both the UK and the EU reluctant to impose a requirement that meat is labelled as prior-stunned or not?

Justin Cohen wrote a surprisingly candid article in March 2011 called Kosher meat labelling a 21st century ‘Yellow Star’. He discussed proposals by MEPs that all meat produced without prior stunning of the animal should be labelled with the wording:

“This product comes from an animal slaughtered by the Shechita/Halal method”

This recommendation was later changed to:

“Meat and meat products derived from animals that have not been stunned prior to slaughter, i.e. have been ritually slaughtered” (Amendments 205, 353, 354, 359 of the Proposal for a regulation of the European Parliament and of the Council on the provision of food information to consumers)

He explained that Jewish groups were opposed to any such labelling because:

“It is feared that such a measure would lead to a massive hike in kosher prices as the vast majority of Shechita meat goes to non-kosher consumers who may decide to opt for products without labels. The practise could then eventually become untenable.”

The article went on to quote Shimon Cohen of Shechita UK, which opposed the labelling of food as “the 21st century equivalent of the yellow star, but on our food.”

So are the EU and member state governments colluding to permit non-stunned meat to clandestinely enter the general food market, knowing it will be purchased by unwitting and unwilling consumers – simply so that this cruel practice can be made financially viable for religious groups? Even if this is not explicitly the case, given that this possibility is being raised in the press and repeated in official government literature this troubling question must not be dismissed – because of the welfare consequences for the animals at the receiving end.

For example in a document written by Christopher Barclay entitled Religious Slaughter (Standard Note: SN/SC/1314 – House of Commons Library) in the section Labelling the following statement can be found:

“Many people believe that if such meat had to be labelled as coming from animals slaughtered without pre-stunning, they would not buy it. That might undermine the economics of Kosher meat.”

So much for the establishment of a true “internal market” as provided for by Article 28 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU).

For readers who want to know more about the labelling debate, there is a website sponsored by the RSPCA, Soil Association, Compassion in World Farming and others called Labelling Matters. It’s an excellent resource.

So how can you ensure the meat you purchase is derived from animals prior-stunned at the point of slaughter?

Thankfully, some forward-thinking organisations require that the meat produced under their accreditation system must come from prior-stunned animals. So look out for the following food certification schemes:

  • Red Tractor
  • RSPCA – Freedom Food
  • Soil Association Scheme
  • Humane Slaughter Association

In addition, many supermarkets require their producers to pre-stun the animals when producing fresh meat and “own brand” products. In a series of recent “over the phone” enquiries I made, all the following supermarkets confirmed their “own-brand” and fresh meat was prior stunned (irrespective of species):

  • Co-op
  • Sainsbury’s
  • Morrison’s
  • M&S
  • Waitrose / Ocado

Tesco would not give this assurance over the phone, but in a letter dated 7 October 2010 posted on the British Humanist Association website, Tesco stated:

“[We] would like to reassure you that we require all slaughter processes in our supply chain, including Halal, to meet our stringent animal welfare requirements. In every case, the animal is stunned before slaughter so that it is insensible and feels no pain.”

Unfortunately, these guarantees do not extend to processed or pre-prepared meals and ingredients. The meat in these products may very well derive from animals which suffered unnecessarily. It is in relation to this category of foods (also recently embroiled in the “contaminated with horse-meat” scandal) that the failure of EU and UK labelling requirements renders consumers powerless to make informed choices over the food they eat and the personal ethical standards they can therefore live by.

So much for Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights: freedom of “thought, conscience and religion”. This thorny subject is a two-sided coin in which the needs/conscience of the pro-animal welfare consumer is treated as inferior and subject to an EU/member state disregard.

It is on the basis of this analysis that religion appears to have an utterly disproportionate effect and influence in the EU. It distorts the internal market of the Union, it dismisses the true exercise of freedom of conscience of those with alternative “thoughts and conscience” and renders animal welfare a distinctly second-class EU principle.

Perhaps consumers should therefore be encouraged to avoid purchasing meat products produced in EU countries such as the UK, where prior-stunning is given an exemption, and should instead only purchase meat products from those countries that forbid this practice such as Sweden, Latvia and the province of Åland in Finland? This is of course impractical and no doubt disproportionate, but writing to your MP and MEP to lobby for honest labelling may be a small gesture of solidarity you may wish to take to reduce the suffering of your fellow “sentient beings”.

Concluding remarks

Animal welfare, freedom of thought and conscience, and a free internal market are all core principles of the EU. Yet, in response to unnecessary (and even contradictory) religious demands these core principles are compromised to a greater or lesser extent in relation to the ritual slaughter issue.

As the EU so readily capitulates to religious demands, I find myself musing on some further issues which arise naturally from this unsatisfactory situation:

1) How important will the question of animal welfare be in the 2014 MEP elections? And how important will it be in any future UK referendum on our continued membership of the EU?

Issues such as live animal transport, fur-farming, animal-testing, poor implementation of welfare standards in member-state farms and abattoirs, the non-stunning exemption and more recently the influence of EU export restrictions on cattle vaccinated against TB (possibly resulting in the need for a badger cull) all regularly feature in the UK press to the detriment of our view of the EU. Animal welfare is also now in the sights of organisations such as the Eurogroup for Animals who have recently launched a campaign to specifically raise public opinion on matters of animal welfare before the 2014 EU Parliamentary elections.

2) How will the EU reconcile its apparent commitment to animals as “sentient beings” and the already notable tension within the Union? Might this question become amplified if a country such as Turkey were to join in the future?

As a Muslim-majority country, almost all animal slaughter in Turkey is carried out without prior-stunning. One can only see things getting even worse if Turkey’s well-documented slide away from secularism towards Islamism continues.

Whilst this may not be an issue in itself, and the Union may simply provide a blanket power to derogate from Council Regulation 1099/2009, what if under consumer pressure in, say, the UK or Sweden the government did decide to insist on labelling of food as non-stunned or to prevent its production altogether within that member state?

Could this amount to an indistinctly applicable “Measure Equivalent to a Quantitative Restriction”? I propose that clear labelling might well influence the conduct of consumers (as it did after egg labelling), but could this be reconciled with Article 34 TFEU (prohibition of quantative restrictions)? Would any government be willing to hold its ground and argue it was justified under Article 36 treaty exceptions, namely the “protection of health and life of…animals…”? This argument has already failed once when the UK tried to prevent live transport of animals to the EU on the basis that animal welfare standards of some EU countries were too low – see paragraph 9 of the judgment in R v MAFF ex p Hedley Lomas (case C-5/94).

Would the EU expect a new member state to change its culture?

Or will the EU simply ditch completely its rhetoric of concern for “sentient beings” and their welfare?

Dr Peter Bowen-Walker is a biological scientist, lecturer and a part-time law student with an interest in animal welfare, habitat protection and environmental law


Views expressed are not necessarily those of the LSS

Image credit above: National Secular Society

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