Fix all slaughter, and do not make exceptions or excuses for religious cruelty.
“Compassion for animals is intimately associated with goodness of character, and it may be confidently asserted that he who is cruel to animals cannot be a good man.”
“The assumption that animals are without rights and the illusion that our treatment of them has no moral significance is a positively outrageous example of Western crudity and barbarity. Universal compassion is the only guarantee of morality.”
“If the person undertaking this way of slaughter believes it to be a less stressful and painful method than the prescribed Shar’i manner, then this is tantamount to believing an invented method to be superior to a revealed one, and it means that the person believes the revealed method of slaughter to be painful and cruel, which is “close to disbelief”.
The head of the British Veterinary Association (BVA) has provoked anger from religious groups by calling for an end to traditional Jewish and Muslim methods of animal slaughter. This naturally resulted in the Daily Mail and other dog-whistle racism chip-wrapping to hoot and holler and cynically hijack animal rights for right wing ideology. That resulted in left-wing, Jewish and Islamic groups variously calling the head’s remarks “scandalous”, “a dereliction of duty” and “completely misleading”.
I will attempt to deconstruct the whole mess and suggest what I think would be best for all involved.
What set this whole mess off?
We call for an end to slaughter without pre-stunning for all animals. EU and UK law requires all animals to be pre-stunned before slaughter to render them insensible to pain until death supervenes. But non-stun slaughter is permitted for certain communities.
We support BVA, RSPCA, HSA, FAWC and FVE who conclude that scientific evidence shows that non-stun slaughter allows animals to perceive pain and compromises welfare.
We must differentiate between religious and non-stun slaughter. Our concern does not relate to religious belief but to the animal welfare compromise of non-stun slaughter.
– over 80% of UK Halal slaughter is pre-stunned
– hindquarters of animals killed by (non-stun) Shechita can enter the market unlabelled
While non-stun slaughter is permitted we call for clearer slaughter-method labelling and post-cut stunning to improve welfare.
Non-stun slaughter affects millions of animals. We support a good life and a humane death for all animals.
So what’s wrong with that?
The actual petition in no way actually argues against religious beliefs or speaking silly incantations, just that they are insufficient reasons to overrule laws on the actual welfare of animals. In effect, it’s equivalent to a human rights statement saying, “Even if you belong to a Thuggee cult, we will not let you rip the living heart from a man’s chest or enslave children”.
There’s very little to argue against here; nobody in the UK even needs meat to survive, and certainly nobody needs meat slaughtered in an inhumane manner to survive. If, for some reason, a Muslim did need to eat meat to survive, Islamic jurisprudence allows the consumption of haram (i.e. non-halal, non-kosher) meat anyway.
The only reason a religious person would argue for a less humane slaughter, then, would be that they take pleasure from the meat and do not think the extra unnecessary suffering ethically compares with their enjoyment. It is effectively a sadistic tradition argument – my enjoyment comes as a consequence from your pain, pain that results from my desires and my deital tradition, therefore it is acceptable.
What’s the labelling about?
The BVA claims there is evidence that a high proportion of meat slaughtered using halal and kosher methods enters the general food chain without being labelled as such. Anyone who disagrees with those principles or methods for whatever reason (less harm, religious prohibitions, anti-muslim bigotry) should have the opportunity to know if the food they’re eating was slaughtered according to those methods.
The BVA is also calling for meat to be labelled “stunned” or “non-stunned” rather than described as halal or kosher. They point out that since most halal meat is in fact stunned, contrary to popular belief, people might be avoiding it assuming it’s non-stun.
What are the responses?
MPs rejected the labelling plan. Why? Conservative Jonathan Djanogly asked “Why are you just picking on religious communities with your amendment?” and Yasmin Qureshi, Labour MP said”I am a bit concerned about the way this debate on halal and kosher has been taking place in the country and also some of the things said in the chamber as well. At the heart of this debate is the suggestion that somehow halal and kosher meat is actually more painful for the animal… as opposed to the stunning method, even though we know 90% of the meat in this country is stunned anyway.”
Well, yes, it is more painful for the animal, especially kosher.
The apologetic responses tend to be:
- Halal is equivalent to standard slaughter, as, in the majority (around 90%) of cases, the animal is stunned.
- What about the crapness of the experience animals under the current system? They suffer too!
- This is Islamophobic or antisemitic!
First point: this may be true, if we trust the survey statistics. Still, that would mean that around one in five animals are halal-slaughtered without stunning, and it would mean that there’s still significant theological opposition to stunning (see opening fatwa). It’s entirely possible that stunned halal slaughter has less support amongst British Muslims than the current system provides for; it may be ignorance of the fact that the animal is stunned that enables this meat to be purchased, with a potential for Muslims wanting more ‘uncompromised’ meat in future.
That said, that doesn’t change the horrors that occur as a result of kosher slaughter, which are overlooked as the right wing, left wing and various Muslim “spokespersons” try to desperately make this about Islam.
Second point: this is an informal fallacy called the fallacy of relative privation, or, in a more vernacular form, whataboutery, in which the reasoning of the argument on show are ignored in favour of appeals to scale or severity. It may be true, but it’s irrelevant to the argument at hand. For example, one may claim they are hungry, only to be shut down seconds later by a righteous proclamation that their hunger is nought in comparison to starving millions in Africa.
It is an extremely common response as there are many legitimate concerns; conversations are free flowing; everyone loves to point out hypocrisies, and comparisons to analogous scenarios can be very rhetorically effective in refutation.
Third point: this is an ad hominem fallacy and an appeal to motive, even if it’s true for a lot of cases. The original statement, however, is nowhere near bigoted, merely against the ritual mistreatment of animals for any reason.
What are other countries doing?
Denmark, Norway, Iceland, Switzerland, Sweden and Poland have all banned slaughter without stunning, effectively putting animal rights ahead of religion. Estonia, Slovakia and Austria decided that animals that are not stunned before being cut must be stunned after in a compromise position.
What are the responses to the situation?
Representatives of both Jewish and Muslim groups said in a letter to Daily Telegraph that consumers should know how animals were killed before they buy meats.
“Comprehensive labelling should be supported by faith communities and animal welfare groups alike,” said the letter signed by Henry Grunwald, chairman of Shechita UK, the body that represents the Jewish method of religious slaughter, and Dr Shuja Shafi, deputy secretary-general of the Muslim Council of Britain.
Speaking in the Commons, Conservative MP Philip Davies proposed the labelling from an entirely sensible matter of market information symmetry: “As a strong believer in freedom of choice, I think one of the fundamental rights of the consumer is to know what they’re purchasing.” The Consumer Rights Bill failed by 264 votes.
Israel’s deputy minister of religious services, Rabbi Eli Ben Dahan, reacted in a completely reasonable, non-stereotypical way by saying: “European anti-Semitism is showing its true colours across Europe and is even intensifying in the government institutions.” Jewish groups say labelling kosher meat “non-stunned” would be discriminatory, because it implies that the traditional method is less humane.
Shechita UK, mentioned above, rely, seemingly intentionally on old data based on results from old stunning equipment, most of which has not been used in the meat industry for at least a decade. Grunwald and other Jewish community representatives cite decades-old studies that argue that kosher slaughter methods cause the animal to lose consciousness instantaneously, even though this claim is considered false by the vets who made the statement.
PETA recorded an infamous undercover video shot at Agriprocessors of Postville, Iowa in 2004, which was at the time the largest kosher slaughterhouse in the world, clearly showed animals having their throats cut and trying to run away after the fact, often taking up to half a minute to properly expire. Jewish animal rights activists and ethical vegetarians have contested the practise on humanitarian grounds for years. Of course, even they give the exact same fallacies the halal apologists do.
It would not be the purpose of this article to reject the notion of antisemitism in Europe, and possibly a slight role of animal rights in such an opinion or belief, but concern over animal welfare isn’t always in bad faith either.
The (Usually Christian) Far Right
Of course, the far right BNP and Britain First jumped at the chance to rile themselves up, as did the right wing press:
As apparently the neonazis have more populist traction complaining about Muslims, the worry of antisemitism promoted that group takes a back seat to complaining about halal, even if kosher is demonstrably more dedicated to an unpleasant slaughter method.
The (Usually Secular) Left
The Guardian’s writers have been falling over each other to prove they’re the least Islamaphobic and ‘most progressive’ by avoiding the question of whether there’s any better alternative. Rarely do the articles address the original statement, instead preferring to focus on the threat of the unwashed right wing hordes clamouring on about muslamic ray guns.
Guardian articles basically follow the fallacies outlined above, then harp on about how the opposition looks a lot like fascists and we shouldn’t think they have a legitimate point. That presumably includes the BVA, RSPCA, HSA, FAWC and FVE’s conclusions based on scientific evidence. Any ghosts of legitimacy were quickly banished to the “unuseful to complain about the right wing” pile.
It seems that Guardian readers weren’t necessarily so easily swayed and just under half of respondents to the poorly worded question: “Would you mind eating halal meat” said yes.
You would think the question would be a straight “Would you eat halal meat? Yes or no?” rather than “Would you mind eating halal meat?” to avoid the problem of misclicks, but, using the exact same shady aspersion casting as many a Guardian columnist making an insinuation; isn’t it weird it seemed almost to be phrased to invert the quick-click responses? Odd that. I mean, why add an unnecessary, complicating modifier to the question?
The Mirror had an odd moment of respectability and actually defended the original statement while everyone else was yelling racist and traitor at each other. It also revealed that Britons overwhelmingly disapprove of non-stun slaughter.
Responses from Muslims were predictably diverse. Other than echoing the Guardian halal apologetics, responses to a Muslim saying “Didn’t know Sikhs are forbidden from eating halal or kosher meat. Case for proper labelling is incontrovertible” on twitter included “the mistake you made here is to consider him a muslim, hes a quilliam type scum” and ” Thanks for confirming you are not a muslim & just another Islam hater :)”. So the Ummah is still a while off unity.
Maajid Nawaz, figure of hate among cranky bastard Muslims and Islamists, laid out an unwarrantedly reasonable argument: 1) All halal meat in UK be pre-stunned (all chicken already is) 2) Halal not be secret 3) No national chain bans bacon (don’t order it). This would make halal slaughter approximately ethically equivalent to typical slaughter and superior to kosher slaughter, which never stuns.
Where to from here?
The main point everyone has missed whether talking about halal, kosher, stun or non-stun slaughter is whether there’s a better alternative available, other than the obvious ethical superiority of vegetarianism. This isn’t to say that I personally am a vegetarian (I’m not), but I can recognise the ethical superiority of the position.
- Labelling: great. Do it. People should know how where their meat came from.
- Controlled atmosphere killing. It’s cheap, nitrogen is everywhere, and it doesn’t have the horrible experience of asphyxiation associated with, say, dying in carbon dioxide. When humans experience it, (for instance, in low-pressure chambers) they describe euphoria and joy. In experiments, a pig knocked out by n2 atmosphere will return to the area it was knocked out, despite learning what it involves. Even the bastards at PETA support it, and they should know, given the thousands of animals they slaughter, ostensibly for ethical reasons.
- Ban atrocious industrial-scale cruelty like the Boss Hog farms. These structures are terrible for the animals involved and the environment.
- Institute a recognition to support animal welfare across the board; from strays, pets and livestock, and do not make arbitrary exceptions for religions.
- Encourage halal and kosher butchers to reinterpret their approach in light of the superior welfare of the animals.
If you like, you can see former Tory MP Michael Portillo going through the controlled atmosphere experience, giving an actual moment-by-moment account.
The future should not be halal or kosher as currently practised, and it should certainly not be hijacked as part of a culture war. The most humane method of slaughter should be the default, with traditional halal and kosher methods phased out and replaced. If, as their apologists claim, these forms of slaughter are about the welfare of the animal (actually a pretty fair estimation given historical context and interpretation of original intent), then they should embrace new technology to that end. If this argument is in bad faith and it’s cultural baggage towards more cruelty, that should be addressed, and the right wing cannot be allowed to dominate the propagation of an ethical idea.
If religious people cannot accept secular law acting in the interests of animals and free choice, they should simply become vegetarian and stop watering down the definition of persecution. This will be better for them, the environment and the animals sacrificed for their plates.