[BEFORE YOU START READING: I have written five substantive posts on this topic. This is the long post, where I look at the various issues in detail. For a four-minute overview of the key arguments, click here. If you’re really pushed for time, I have attempted to summarise the issue in a two-minute digest, here. I have analysed a newspaper report on the topic here. I have looked at the science behind the current policy here.]
Hi, my name’s James.
I’m not especially observant; I don’t keep kosher. But some of my family and friends do.
I’m also a member of the Social Democratic Party. It’s the first party I’ve ever joined. And overall I really like our policies… with one exception.
That’s this policy, near the end, in the “Animal Welfare” section:
A ban will be applied on the use of non–stun slaughter as requested by the British Veterinary Association and RSPCA.
The aim of this blogpost is to persuade you that, though doubtbless well-intentioned, this policy is misguided, and that the party needs to replace it with a requirement for better standards in all abattoirs across the country and for clear labelling.
Non-stun what? You’ve lost me already.
OK, so this is about how animals are killed in slaughterhouses, and a piece of legislation called The Welfare of Animals at the Time of Killing (England) Regulations 2015 (“the Regulations”). Basically, if you run a slaughterhouse in England, you can currently lawfully kill an animal in one of two ways:
Under Schedule 3 of the Regulations, you can kill it without stunning it beforehand, in accordance with religious requirements. (Similar rules apply in Wales and Northern Ireland. Scotland also permits non-stun slaughter, although the Scottish regulations are set out differently to everyone else’s!)
The party’s policy would effectively abolish Schedule 3, and require that all animals be stunned before slaughter – regardless of any religious issues.
Talk me through the religious stuff.
Sure. For meat to be kosher for observant Jews, the animal must be killed with a single cut to the throat by a surgically sharp knife which immediately stops blood supply to the brain, causing consciousness to be lost and, with it, the animal’s ability to feel pain. This process is called shechita and was devised as a humane method of slaughter. The meat cannot be kosher if the animal is stunned beforehand. (You can read a bit more on what Judaism says about it here, if you’re interested.)
For meat to be halal for Muslims, it needs to be killed in a similar way, but with an additional requirement that the slaughterer recites an Islamic prayer. In Islam, the process is known as zabiha. There are two different bodies which oversee halal slaughter in the UK: the Halal Food Authority (HFA) and the Halal Monitoring Committee (HMC). The HFA, which certifies most halal meat in the UK, allows for some means of stunning before slaughter, whereas the HMC does not.
The end result, as the chart below from the Food Standards Agency shows, is that some halal meat, and all kosher meat, comes from animals that have not been stunned before slaughter.
OK, I understand. So why have the British Veterinary Association and the RSPCA requested a ban on non-stun slaughter?
You can read what the BVA says here and what the RSPCA says here. They believe that all animals should be stunned before slaughter, arguing that this is more humane and less painful for the animal. They cite scientific research in support.
That sounds fair enough – all the SDP policy is doing is responding to that request. What’s your beef with it, exactly?
Nice pun. There are at least three problems.
Firstly, the science on non-stun slaughter isn’t as unambiguous as the BVA and RSPCA claim. Some scientists claim that stunning the animal before slaughter reduces pain. Yet there are others who challenge the premises of such research and/or who claim the precise opposite. In particular, Professor Joe Regenstein of Cornell University has robustly challenged the science upon which the position of the BVA and RSPCA is based: see here and here.
Secondly, the various methods of stunning animals before slaughter are themselves contentious. There is no consensus, for example, over the use of stunning with carbon dioxide. Louise Ellman MP has argued that vastly more animals suffer as a result of inadequate stunning than are killed altogether by shechita (or indeed halal). It is therefore far from clear that non-stun slaughter methods are less humane than methods that involve stunning. In short, this is a scientific and ethical minefield. Is it appropriate for a political party to take any one side on the issue?
The third problem with the policy is that it is an obvious infringement of religious liberty. Imagine you’re an observant Jew, and the UK government bans non-stun slaughter in the UK. This suddenly makes it much harder for you to eat kosher meat in accordance with your religious beliefs. You are then faced with one of three choices. You could become vegetarian. You could buy expensive imported kosher meat. Alternatively, as a last resort, you might feel the need to emigrate – with all the upheaval which that entails. Therefore, what appears to be a well-intentioned animal welfare policy, would have serious consequences for minority religious groups. And these could become even more serious, post-Brexit.
What’s Brexit got to do with it?
If Britain leaves the EU in a no-deal, WTO Brexit (which is SDP policy), and the government banned non-stun slaughter in the UK, this would already put observant Jews (and, to a lesser extent, Muslims) in a difficult position, because of the potential imposition of high tariffs on imported meat. Free from EU rules about free movement of goods, the government could, in theory, also ban the import of non-stunned meat altogether. This would put observant Jews and Muslims in an even tricker position, and make us start to question our future in the UK.
If this sounds like an overreaction, consider these words from New Zealand Jewish leaders, when that country tried to ban kosher slaughter a few years ago: “It will mean our religious families will be forced to leave New Zealand. Few Jews will want to migrate here. We will be seen as a country where Jews are not welcome, and where our traditions and beliefs are not respected or valued.” The Scottish journalist Stephen Daisley – not himself Jewish – has recently identified “simmering hostility to kosher slaughter methods” as one of four contemporary threats to Jewish life in the UK. So, again, what appears to be a well-intentioned animal welfare policy, would have serious consequences for religious minorities.
What about a compromise: we ban non-stun slaughter in the UK but continue to allow imports of kosher/halal meat?
This would preserve a measure of religious liberty for Jews and Muslims, but would not resolve any animal welfare issues: it would simply shift them overseas. As Neil Parish MP has argued, “There is a danger that an outright ban on religious slaughter [in the UK] would not improve the welfare of animals at the point of slaughter. At the moment about 80% of the halal meat produced in this country has been stunned. Driving our halal and shechita meat industry abroad to countries without our robust animal welfare standards and our supply chain traceability might result in more animals being slaughtered without stunning” (emphasis added).
In fact, banning non-stun slaughter in the UK, whilst allowing imports of kosher and halal meat, might actually harm global animal welfare overall. Permitting non-stun slaughter in the UK enables us to track animal welfare standards throughout the entirety of an animal’s life. To ban non-stun slaughter in the UK, but still allow the import of kosher and halal meat, would mean more animals being raised in farms overseas, which might have significantly worse living conditions than our own. Ironically, therefore, the SDP policy falls short not only on the grounds of religious liberty, but even, potentially, on its own terms of improving animal welfare.
OK. What approach do you think the party should take instead?
The SDP is a communitarian party. As the banner on our home page puts it, we believe that “the family, the community and society are as important as the individual”. We should therefore think very carefully about pursuing a policy which – no matter what the intentions – would have a seriously detrimental effect upon two significant segments of the community.
We are also, expressly, a party of religious tolerance. Here are some words from the “Tolerance” section of the New Declaration (emphasis added):
“We are concerned that our long-standing culture of tolerance has fallen from favour… Citizens holding a traditional, patriotic or religious outlook are often bullied and marginalised, stifling the open debate upon which a free and democratic society depends.”
Again, this suggests that we should think very carefully about a policy that – whatever the intentions – would infringe upon the religious liberty of Jews and Muslims.
Hang on, that’s a bit of a reach. The New Declaration talks about tolerance for religious outlook, not for religious actions.
In reality, the two go hand in hand. The Anglican’s religious outlook leads him to christen his children. The Baptist minister’s religious outlook leads him to baptise adult converts to Christianity. The Roman Catholic’s religious outlook leads her to eat fish on a Friday. The atheist’s (non-)religious outlook leads her to do… none of those things (with the possible exception of eating fish on a Friday, preferably with chips). The religious outlook of observant Jews/Muslims leads them to eat non-stunned meat. A communitarian party, committed to religious tolerance, should think carefully before restricting their freedom to do so.
The Blue Labour theorist, Maurice Glasman, has been identified as a key influence on the SDP. Glasman is an observant Jew who keeps kosher. He’s not a vegetarian. (Yes, I did check – I know his brother!) It is therefore highly unlikely that Glasman would support a ban on non-stun slaughter. In other words, this policy seems out of kilter with the party’s political heritage.
OK, I see your point, but surely you’re not saying we should tolerate anything done in the name of religion.
No, of course not. We should not tolerate, say, terrorism or the stoning of adulterers perpetrated in the name of religion. But, whether you are religious or not, I think you would agree that a debate about terrorism or stoning is on a very different moral plane to a debate about different slaughter methods.
Fair enough, but the New Declaration also says that the SDP is committed to the highest possible standards of animal welfare. And everyone knows that non-stun slaughter is cruel! Have you seen this newspaper article?
I’m glad you mentioned that piece. It seems to get aired a lot. However, as I’ve attempted to show here, it’s not great journalism. What’s helpful, though, is that it reproduces these words from Animal Aid towards the end:
‘Bowood Yorkshire Lamb was the tenth slaughterhouse in which we had filmed undercover since January 2009.
‘We didn’t know what we would find when our cameras were planted, including that it was a halal establishment – the first we had investigated. We have now investigated 14 slaughterhouses, and all but two have stunned the animals before killing them.
‘We found evidence of lawbreaking in the vast majority of slaughterhouses, including animals being kicked, punched in the face, given electric shocks, burnt with cigarettes and thrown about prior to having their throats cut.
‘By whatever method animals are killed, or whichever authority presides over the killing, there is no mercy in a slaughterhouse. The animals are traumatised. They don’t want to be killed but they are killed, and for no good reason.’
Those words show that cruelty towards animals takes place in slaughterhouses of all sorts. We read of animals being given electric shocks. That is obviously something that is more likely to happen in abattoirs where animals are stunned electrically before slaughter. Should we therefore ban electrical stunning?
Touché. But that doesn’t necessarily prove your point. The fact that equipment which should be used for stunning, is misused, doesn’t prove that non-stun slaughter is therefore more humane.
It doesn’t, but, once again, scientific opinion is not as monolithic on this issue as the BVA and RSPCA suggest. If there is not a scientific consensus, it follows that the SDP should think carefully about following those organisations’ request – particularly when there is a different, and considerably less contentious, way of resolving the (perceived) problem.
OK, let’s leave the animal welfare point. I can see that it’s not entirely clear-cut. But even so, the law should treat everyone the same way – there shouldn’t be different treatment for religious groups.
This is the approach taken by organisations like the National Secular Society. They want to eliminate any different treatment for religious groups in a wide range of policy areas. But the SDP is not that kind of party: we are not secularists. We are not calling for, say, the disestablishment of the Church of England, the banning of infant circumcision, or an end to state funding of faith schools. To justify calling for a ban on non-stun slaughter on the grounds of secularism, appears inconsistent with the rest of the party’s ethos.
Okay. But this issue doesn’t just affect Jews and Muslims. It affects the wider population too.
That’s a fair point. According to the Food Standards Agency survey that we looked at earlier (reproduced below), around 7% of all cattle, 30% of all poultry and 50% of all sheep/goats slaughtered in the UK, are slaughtered by either halal or shechita methods. Such figures are clearly far in advance of the country’s combined Muslim and Jewish populations, which totalled less than 5% in the 2011 census.
Whilst some halal/kosher meat is exported, it is clear that a significant amount makes it on to the general market. Last year, the Yorkshire Post listed a number of popular eateries that served halal meat. It also appears that some schools and prisons serve only halal meat (or have done in the past). A significant amount of meat slaughtered by kosher methods finds its way on to supermarket shelves – often unlabelled.
I understand that many people would prefer not to eat kosher or halal meat. Sometimes this is for ethical reasons connected with animal welfare – although, as I have argued above, I believe this is misplaced. There are others, particularly Christians, who, for religious reasons of their own, would prefer not to eat halal meat in particular.
So, what would you propose instead of the current SDP policy?
Thanks for asking! I would propose replacing the current policy with the following alternative:
i. It has only become a legal requirement to have CCTV in abattoirs relatively recently. An SDP government should push for rigorous enforcement of existing standards – across the board.
ii. All meat products should be clearly labelled as to the method of slaughter: whether the animal was stunned or not; and, if it was stunned, what method was used, together with an indication of the failure rate. In this way, the consumer will be enabled to make an informed choice. (This is preferable to simply labelling meat as “kosher” or “halal”. This is because, as seen earlier, a significant amount of halal meat has in fact been stunned. In addition, a significant amount of unstunned meat, is, for one reason or another, neither kosher nor halal.)
iii. Public bodies such as schools, hospitals and prisons should, upon request, provide alternative options for those who do, and for those who do not, wish to have a kosher or halal meal. This, again, enables the consumer to make an informed choice.
This is just one policy out of the whole programme. Is it really that big a deal?
Yes. I’m convinced it’s a huge deal, because of the impact it would have on Jews and Muslims, both at party level and at national level.
At party level, it will deter many Jews and Muslims from joining and/or voting for the party. Speaking personally, I joined the party after reading the New Declaration but before the detailed policy programme was released. I would not have joined the party, had I known that the latter would include a proposal to ban non-stun slaughter.
Rakib Ehsan is a Muslim academic whose politics seem close to those of the SDP. However, the proposal to ban non-stun slaughter is something that puts him off. Is that really the kind of party we want to be?
At national level, if a policy like this were to become law, it would make it significantly harder for observant Muslims and (particularly) Jews to practice a key tenet of their faith, and would make them feel unwelcome within the UK. Is that really the kind of country we want to be?
This has turned into a really long piece. Haven’t you got something better to do?
Absolutely – I would far rather not be having this discussion with members of my own party. I’m well aware that it provokes strong feelings, on both sides of the debate. However, it’s important to me, because some of my family keep kosher, and I want them to remain free to do so without facing considerable difficulties if they want to eat meat. I’d also like them to feel they could vote for the SDP – as I’m sure you do, too!
But, far more importantly, this is a big thing for the SDP, because it goes to the heart of what kind of party we want to be. If we keep the current proposal to ban non-stun slaughter, the reality is that we will put off large numbers of Muslim and (particularly) Jewish voters. (At the time I started writing this piece, the party was campaigning in the Peterborough by-election. Over 9% of Peterborough’s population are Muslim, almost twice the national average. How do you think they would respond to a party proposing to ban non-stun slaughter? Or the large numbers of Jewish voters in the “Bagel Belt” constituencies of North London?) Once again – is that really the kind of party we want to be – particularly when we can replace the current policy with an obvious alternative?
OK, I take your point. So – what happens next?
At the AGM in autumn, I’m going to be proposing a motion that we replace the current policy (to ban non-stun slaughter) with the three-point alternative I’ve outlined above, i.e.:
i. Push for the rigorous enforcement of existing standards in all abattoirs;
ii. Require all meat products to be clearly labelled as to the means of slaughter; and
iii. Make it a mandatory requirement for public bodies to provide suitable alternatives for those who do, or do not, wish to eat kosher or halal meat.
I hope you’ll support me in this. If you have questions, or think I’ve got it all wrong, do feel free to post a comment below. Thanks for reading!
PS Some quick answers to some FAQs:
1. I’ve heard that some animals are stunned immediately after the cut. Is that correct?
Not quite. An immediate post-cut stun is forbidden under Jewish law. Some abattoirs which carry out kosher slaughter stun the animal 30 seconds after the cut. However, this is nothing to do with animal welfare but rather to improve abattoir efficiency: a stunned animal will move along a line quicker than one whose muscles have begun to contract post mortem.
2. Is it correct that some kosher/halal meat produced in the UK is exported? What’s all that about?
Middle Eastern countries such as Israel and Saudi Arabia produce little meat of their own because they are largely non-arable.
3. Haven’t lots of other European countries banned kosher/halal slaughter? Why is it a problem for us to do the same?
You’re right – kosher/halal slaughter has been banned in countries such as Belgium, Poland, Denmark, Norway and Sweden. Such bans often have little to do with animal welfare but have rather been intended as a sinister means of population control against Jews and Muslims. This is not an example that the UK should wish to follow!
4. What about this leading rabbi, Jonathan Romain? He seems to have a different take.
He’s saying that if the evidence ever becomes incontrovertible that stunning is more humane, then Judaism should develop to accommodate that. As that hasn’t yet happened, though, the point is academic.
5. What about stunning with gas?
Stunning animals with gas causes… pain and suffering, and is therefore forbidden under Jewish law. The bottom line is that there is no nice way of killing an animal (particularly large ones), so unless we’re all going to go vegan, the focus on a comparatively small number of animals slaughtered by Jews and Muslims is selective at best.