Pigs February 27, 2012 (AP)
Pigs at a farm in Iowa Photo by AP
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Animal welfare, religious tolerance and political correctness all seem to be conflicting with each other in Britain as politicians, educators and community leaders try to balance dietary customs and liberal values. While the government tries to find a way to accommodate Jewish and Muslim ritual slaughter and at the same time conform with what they see as acceptable limits on cruelty to animals, schools across London are taking pork sausages, a long-time staple of children's meals, off the menu.

Two reports over the weekend highlight the clash. The Sunday Telegraph reported that in many areas of Britain's capital, schools were being advised by their local councils, or deciding on their own initiative, to ban all pork products from their menus. This move was out of consideration to Jewish and Muslim children and teachers yet has not been taken following official requests by either community. While many see this as another admirable effort by local British authorities to exhibit sensitivity towards religious and ethnical minorities, the move has attracted criticism from Conservative politicians and farmers' associations who see this as yet another attempt to encroach upon the traditional British way of life, in this case embodied by the good old bangers and mash, in the name of multiculturalism.

Indeed, for all devout Jews and Muslims, this will not render the school meals more palatable, as non-Kosher and non-halal meat, beef, lamb or chicken, will still be on the menu. Jon Benjamin, the chief executive of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, told the newspaper that “this is simply not an issue. Jews of a certain level of observance would not eat in non-kosher restaurants or dining halls. Children at mainstream schools who are bothered would probably have packed lunches. Children who are comfortable with using the same cutlery and crockery as everyone else would choose their dishes from the options available. It is live and let live - we are certainly not calling for this.” (Benjamin is probably referring here to the custom of some Jews who don't keep kosher in any halachic sense, but will not eat pork all the same).

Neither has the mainstream Muslim Council for Britain asked for anything more than that halal meat be available, clearly labeled and handled separately from non-halal.

There are so many different levels of kashrut-observance among Jewish families, that there is no way a non-Jewish school could possibly satisfy their needs. Many Jewish schools have themselves run afoul of the wide array of kashrut boards, organizations and courts over the years. Muslims are no less fractious on what constitutes halal or haram.

But if some British politicians had their way, God-fearing Jews and Muslims in Britain, perhaps throughout the European Union for that matter, may have to become vegetarians. The Secretary of State for Agriculture and Farming, James Paice, is quoted in the Jewish Chronicle as having said to a meeting of the British Meat Packers Association, that both Kosher and halal slaughtering would be reviewed by the government next year as part of a wider "public consultation" on animal welfare.

Paice, a veteran Conservative parliamentarian and part-time farmer is not known as a friend of the animal-rights lobby, and has even enraged them by overturning some of the laws relating to the conditions of farm animals that were passed by the previous Labour government. He is though a critic of ritual religious slaughter, on the grounds that it is unduly cruel to slaughter an animal without stunning it first, as is mandated by Orthodox Jewish and Muslim law. According to the Jewish Chronicle, which is in turn quoting a trade publication, Paice told the meatpackers that "killing an animal without stunning is not acceptable in the Western world. But we need to be tolerant and understanding of religious communities who want their meat produced in that way."

This is of course a fantastic example of political double-speak. Paice gets to have it all ways here. He registers his personal disgust at a foreign, un-English method of farming, and at the same times champions tolerance and religious understanding. He went on to acknowledge the fact that despite his own feelings "the government has no plans to ban religious slaughter."

In a Europe which is grappling with cultural and social tensions between communities and is still uneasy with its historical baggage, there is little appetite for banning Jewish or Muslim ritual slaughter. Switzerland, Sweden, Finland and Iceland, none of them with large Jewish communities, all have longstanding bans of ritual slaughter, but the rest of Europe does not seem to be going down that road any time soon. Be it from the fear of angering the larger Muslim communities, the memory that the shechita ban was one of the first anti-Jewish laws to be legislated in Nazi Germany (Hitler himself believed fanatically in animals rights, no joke) or a genuine concern for minority religious rights – even new EU regulations on animal welfare will have inbuilt exceptions for religious practices. Even the Dutch parliament which has long been debating prohibiting slaughter without stunning, agreed last week to permit kosher and halal slaughter, provided the beheaded animal does not remain conscious for longer than 40 seconds. Why are 39 seconds of inhuman agony acceptable and 41 reprehensible?

Few would argue that this is the biggest problem any European nation has to deal with right now.