Is better labelling the answer to concerns about slaughter methods?

Religious slaughter – the preparation of halal and kosher meat – has hit the headlines in recent weeks with reports that some meat prepared for a potential halal market is being sold in supermarkets as own brand but not labelled as halal, and that halal and kosher meat has been served in food outlets without informing consumers. On Tuesday, MPs had a brief opportunity to discuss the matter when Philip Davies MP tabled an amendment to the Consumer Rights Bill (new clause 13). This amendment sought to require all products containing halal and kosher meat to be labelled as such at the point of sale by retail and food outlets. This amendment did not survive a vote with MPs highlighting the need to consider method-of-slaughter labelling requirements for all meat, not just that prepared by religious methods.

What is religious slaughter and how is it regulated?

Jewish law and Shariah (Islamic) law require animals to be cut and bled under certain conditions e.g. Shechita for Jews and Halal for Muslims for them to be permitted food.  The Halal Food Authority and Shechita UK (the federation of synagogues) provide further details of what this entails and who should perform the slaughter i.e. a mature Muslim to be halal (with some specific words) and a shochet to be kosher (with no ritual).

Religious slaughter is subject to the same EU regulations as all UK slaughter practice. These regulations set out licensing requirements and standards of practice. They also require all animals to be pre-stunned before slaughter to minimise their suffering. However, Member States may make an exemption for religious slaughter. This is where the key difference lies.

The key animal welfare issue – stunning

The UK Government makes use of this long-standing pre-stunning exemption, recognising the rights of religious communities, but has made it clear that it would prefer all animals to be stunned before slaughter. It also exercises its right go beyond the welfare requirements of the regulations and has imposed additional conditions on religious slaughter methods.

In practice, the Food Standards Agency estimated in 2011 that over 80% of UK halal meat was pre-stunned with the overall number of non-stun animals being relatively low. However, kosher meat is likely to be from un-stunned animals because of the different requirements of Jewish law meaning that the animal has to be healthy and uninjured before slaughter. Some Halal accreditation bodies allow some forms of stunning but there is no standard practice for all halal meat. The British Retail Consortium has said that all supermarket own brand meat is from pre-stunned animals but halal and kosher meat lines from specialist suppliers which is labelled as such may be non-stunned.

Welfare concerns came to the fore early this year when Denmark withdraw the use of the exemption in February. In March 2014 there were then renewed statements of concern led by the British Veterinary Association (BVA) and supported by the RSPCA and Compassion in World Farming about the exemption. These seemed to prompt David Cameron to use his first visit to Israel as Prime Minister that month to vow that he would never ban the religious slaughter of animals for food.

Better labelling – the solution?

A range of organisations including the British Secular Society, the Muslim Council of Britain, Halal Food Authority, Shechita UK, and the British Veterinary Association have indicated their support for some form of labelling which indicates whether animals have been stunned before slaughter whilst a pre-stunning exemption remains in place. Consumers could then make a choice according to the nature of their concerns whether based on animal welfare or their personal beliefs.

There is currently no overall, legal requirement at EU or UK level to indicate method of slaughter on meat labels. Nor are there specific regulations governing the sale and labelling of halal or kosher meat. However, if meat is labelled as such it must not mislead the consumer.

The major supermarkets and a number of food outlets already provide information on their websites about their policies on halal and kosher meat and wider animal welfare. The UK beef and lamb industry representative body EBLEX has also established a Halal Forum which is considering a potential assurance scheme.

The Government has said it wants consumers to be able to make an informed choice about the food that they buy and will review its options on this matter after the publication of an EU Commission study on method-of-slaughter labelling which is due in the summer.

The British Retail Consortium meanwhile has said that its members would be happy to change labelling if there was evidence of concerns about animal welfare in terms of stunning before slaughter.

Emma Downing