Full disclosure: I haven’t eaten meat for nearly three decades, so I don’t have a stake (pardon the pun) in the debate roiling the British media about the cruelty or otherwise of ritual slaughter, whether shechitah or halal.
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But let’s be clear about one thing – this is all about fear of immigrant communities, the anxiety of an increasingly secular Europe that outsiders are coming to challenge their time-honored traditions. The question is one of politics, rather than animal welfare.
The rights and wrongs of ritual slaughter, like circumcision, is a perennial issue in the U.K., although the British are famously supposed to be more sentimental about animals than children.
The story’s latest revival was sparked by an exclusive story on the front page of The Times newspaper, no doubt well aware of the emotive buttons it would press. British law currently demands that animals be stunned by electric current, gas or bolt gun before slaughter, with the exception of those killed according to Jewish and Muslim law. However, Dr. John Blackwell, the head of the British Veterinary Association, now demands that kosher and halal slaughterers introduce stunning of animals or face an all-out ban.
MP Andrew Rosindell, secretary of the associate parliamentary group for animal welfare and a long-time campaigner over this issue, told the newspaper that both Jewish and Muslim ritual slaughter went against “everything that we really stand for as a people” – a clue as to the real suspicions behind the issue.
Manufactured stories about supposed ritual slaughter scandals are frequent fodder for the British media.
“Meat from cattle slaughtered in 'cruel' kosher ceremony is in your high street burger,” screamed a headline in Britain’s middle-market tabloid Daily Mail just days ago.
But then the Mail has long been guilty of this kind of rabble rousing under the guise of investigative reporting. A previous story entitled “Britain goes halal... but no-one tells the public” which they promised would “alarm anyone concerned about animal cruelty” revealed how hospitals, hotels and even the Houses of Parliament all served halal meat. Its pages regularly feature outraged parents discovering their children’s schools serving halal meat, supermarkets “secretly” selling halal meat, and so on and so on. This time, it was the turn of “inhumane" shechita.
Unfortunately, this kind of story caters to a low kind of paranoia about outsider communities. That’s why bans on ritual slaughter are regularly raised throughout Europe, even where legislation does not necessarily follow.
During the 2012 French presidential campaign, f or example, National Front candidate Marine Le Pen warned that non-Muslims were unknowingly eating halal meat from animals killed “in horrible cruelty.” Predictable enough, but incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy, desperately flagging in the polls, quickly seized on the issue to claim that serving halal meat in public institutions contradicted French secular values. His ally, Interior Minister Claude Guéant, warned that halal food could become “obligatory” in school canteens, and Prime Minister Francois Fillon decried such traditions as at odds with modern science or hygiene.
None of this helped – Sarkozy lost the polls. And it’s creditable that although this issue enduringly resurfaces in the British consciousness, our political parties have not sunk to similar populism.
Instead, Prime Minister David Cameron, Labour chief Ed Miliband and deputy prime minister and Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg lined up one after the other in recent months to offer their assurances that ritual slaughter was safe.
Last week, Cameron reiterated his support during a visit to Israel, telling the Knesset that "On my watch shechita is safe in the U.K."
The only U.K. party to support a ban as a matter of policy is the far-right British National Party, or BNP, who like to present an image of robed Muslim butchers chanting the name of Allah while torturing a poor beast to a lingering death.
Ninety percent of Britain’s 2.7 million Muslims in the U.K. choose to eat halal. However, as further proof that this issue is less about animal rights and more about fear of the other, nearly 90 percent of this meat is already pre-stunned, according to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
The fact is that, as far as animal welfare is concerned, this is really a non-issue, much as it was in Denmark which recently passed a law banning ritual slaughter. Leaving aside the fact that pigs raised to produce the famous Danish bacon don’t exactly enjoy holiday conditions, no shechita has been carried out in Denmark for the last 10 years due to community’s tiny size, and, as in the U.K., some 90 percent of halal meat is already pre-stunned.
“So not a single animal’s life has been improved by this legislation, but a considerable number of people have been upset and insulted,” says Shimon Cohen of campaign group Shechita U.K.. “What it is actually down to is a worry about rising immigration. Seeing as the only legal way of slaughtering an animal in this country is severing their carotid arteries and jugular veins, what are people objecting to? The color and religion of the person who does it.”
But let’s not fool ourselves that shechita is somehow superior. The sages did not design it for industrial meat production, and the kosher slaughter market has had its own disgraces, from the U.S. firm Agriprocessors in 2008 to Israel’s Soglowek Food’s scandal last year.
There has been some action, especially in the U.S., towards an ethical standard for kosher produce. But kosher meat is factory-farmed just like that for the rest of the market, pumped full of the same chemicals and transported in an identical way.
Even Cohen notes that “there is no conclusive scientific evidence that shechita is any more or less humane than any other form of slaughter,” acknowledging that it would be “presumptuous and silly” to argue that it causes less suffering.
As someone who doesn’t ever eat meat, I find the whole issue puzzling.
Blackwell, the U.K. veterinarian, said ritual slaughter could cause pain to a sheep for as long as seven seconds before its death, but I find it hard to understand why the last moments of an animal’s life should be more important than its entire existence up to that point.
Where does animal welfare feature in societies where people expect to eat cheap meat products as a matter of course? Anyone who eats a late-night chicken nugget take-away or a cheap sausage is on shaky grounds when it comes to objecting to the circumstances in which animals are killed.
So it’s as idiotic to argue that shechita is innately more humane as it is to claim the supposed health benefits of brit milah justify the practice.
Ultimately, religious or cultural practices should be scrutinized for their compatibility with what we accept as the basic principles of liberal values. Society has to negotiate where it can bear to draw the line. But when it comes to eating meat, it involves killing animals. It involves much blood and gore. If you really care, you should go vegan.
Daniella Peled is editor of the Institute for War and Peace Reporting and has written widely from across the Middle East and Afghanistan.