Belgium: To stun or not to stun

Belgium has worked out new rules banning the slaughter of unstunned animals, not sparing traditional rites for Muslim Halal and Jewish Kosher meat.
In typical Belgian fashion, the rules come almost ten years after the original regulation – number 1099/2009 for the Eurocrats — landed on the EU statute book. And by not granting a derogation for religious slaughter methods, as EU countries are allowed to do so by the EU law, Belgium’s Jewish and Muslim communities are protesting.

If the numbers 1099/2009 mean nothing to you, the general aim of the regulation, passed in 2009, of course, is to minimise pain, distress and suffering of animals during slaughter. Article 1 lays out that animals shall generally only be killed after stunning. The regulation calls for EU countries to ensure standard operating procedures – stunning – and impose staff training and standardised equipment.

Ten years on, Belgium is still grappling with a derogation for religious slaughter. Both Jewish and Muslim rites require kosher or halal meat to come from animals that were still alive when slaughtered.

From 1 June 2018, Wallonia has banned slaughtering animals without prior anaesthesia or stunning. Flanders will follow with a similar ban from 1 January 2019. And despite lengthy debates and consultation over the new laws, Jewish and Muslim groups remain unhappy. As in many matters, the region of Brussels, with a sizeable Muslim community, has waited to see which way the wind blows. But animal welfare minister Bianca Debaets is now calling for a ban on unstunned slaughter and wants the local Brussels parliament to follow suit.

As a gesture, Wallonia has exempted ritual slaughter from the ban until 31 August 2019. After all, the EU law grants member states the possibility of exempting ritual slaughter rites, if undertaken in a slaughterhouse.

Michel Vandenbosch is chair of Belgium’s animal welfare campaign group Gaia. Wallonia’s vote in mid-May to ban non-anaesthetised slaughtering, with 69 votes in favour, none against and only three abstentions, was for Vandenbosch an “unforgettable” day. Gaia called on religious communities to use their “common sense” and recognize that the ban balances concerns about animal welfare and religious freedom.

“The wealth of a society itself is also in the willingness to evolve traditions,” says Michel Vandenbosch.

Vandenbosch’s words were echoed by Flemish mobility minister Ben Weyts, who also doubles as minister responsible for animal welfare.

“Non-anesthetized slaughtering is no longer of this age,” says Weyts. “In a civilized society, it is our duty to avoid animal suffering whenever possible. It is crucial for animals to come to an end in a more dignified manner.”

The Flemish parliament has yet to vote a draft law on to the statute books. But the coalition government has agreed on a compromise that makes it mandatory in Flanders from 1 January 2019 for sheep, goats and poultry to be anesthetized electronically so as to be insensitive to pain – pre-cut stunning. Calves and cattle will have to be stunned immediately after their throat is cut until pre-cut stunning is technologically advanced enough.

Weyts complains that he has been threatened and has faced various court battles in pursuing a ban. But it is the only way for Flanders to go.

Reacting to Flanders’ ban on unanesthetised slaughter, Belgium’s Muslim Executive said Muslims attach “great importance” to animal welfare. The Muslim Executive adds that its theologians gave a negative opinion on anaesthesia in ritual slaughter back in 2010 and that the position had not changed since.

According to the Coordination Council of Islamic Institutions, which brings together Muslim institutions, federations and organizations in Belgium, there was never any reaction from government to the country’s Muslim community “reasonable and constructive” approach. The Coordination Council argues that Flemish minister Weyts is hiding behind a false interpretation of EU regulation 1099/2009 in order to introduce the ban on ritual slaughter. That regulation, the Coordination Council repeats, clearly allows for exemptions on the basis of freedom of religion.

And the Brussels-based European Muslim Network has started a petition against Wallonia’s new law. The petition argues that Wallonia’s law runs against principles of religious freedom enshrined in Belgian and EU law. For the European Muslim Network, it is not ritual slaughter that is at the root of animal cruelty, but massive industrialization of meat production from livestock, distribution to slaughter.

In Wallonia, deputy Josy Arens co-authored the ban together with fellow parliament member Christine Defraigne. Arens says the new law for the south of the country does not run against slaughter according to religious rites. “What it does calls into question is the absence of stunning prior to cutting the animal’s throat”, he says.

Arens also clearly states that the will of the people comes first. He cites an opinion poll, funded by Belgian campaigners Gaia that showed 9 out of 10 Walloons were in favour of a ban.

“Religious beliefs should not prevail over the will of the majority to avoid suffering when technically possible”, he says. Anticipating accusations of hypocrisy from religious activists, Arens adds that the cruelty of industrial breeding has not been ignored by the Walloon parliament.

Co-author of the law Christine Defraigne is also adamant that freedom of religion has been respected for both Jewish and Muslim faiths.

“Religious freedom has been respected because ritual slaughter has not been abolished. The obligation that the animal is not dead at the time of sacrifice is also respected since the stunning permits reversibility. The animal is not dead, but asleep or anesthetized. The processes are reversible”, Defraigne says.

She adds that Muslim and Jewish rites are respected by the stunning technique, as this allows the animal’s throat to be cut more effectively.

Leaders of Belgium’s Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant and Anglican churches have joined to warn against the misuse of increased sensitivity to animal welfare to disguise attacks on the lifestyle and food laws of the country’s Jewish and Muslim population. Belgian church leaders pointed out that ritual slaughtering involves a limited number of animals. “There are many problematic points in the food and meat processing industry that, due to its scale, deserve at least as much priority”, they said.

The scale of cruelty to animals in the meat industry has never been clearer to the majority of Belgians who saw or read reports of shocking footage captured by an undercover animal rights campaigner in a slaughterhouse in Tielt, a small town between Ghent and Bruges.

The YouTube video captured earlier this year by the undercover Belgian campaigner shows squealing pigs kicked, battered with iron prongs and prodded with electric shockers on their way to the slaughter chamber. Tens of thousands of Belgians saw how the pigs were boiled alive screaming in agony – where according to Belgian and EU law, the pigs should have been unconscious to avoid pain.

“You have to understand that these are things that you cannot bring out to the public”, a manager in the slaughterhouse told the undercover campaigner.

EU and Belgian law have enshrined many noble-sounding rules: slaughterhouse operators should have animal welfare officers. Law should forbid the suspending of conscious animals and tying of the feet of the doomed animal. It should also prohibit the severing of the spinal cord by knife or stunning to punish or move animals. And there should be some check to make sure animals are unconscious before being boiled or dismembered. But shocking images of animals squealing in a Belgian slaughterhouse as they are boiled alive show that the Belgian state could do more to ensure the principles are actually applied.

So the point made by Jewish and Muslim organisations is that Belgium’s authorities would do better to tackle the scale of animal cruelty in the meat industry before turning on religious communities. And in one point, Islamic ritual slaughter definitely goes beyond “humane” Western slaughter techniques: the animal must not be killed in the presence of other animals nor can it see blood in the room where animals have been killed.

Not one to mince words, the president of Brussels-based European Jewish Congress (EJC), Moshe Kantor, said the Walloon ban was “scandalous” and the “greatest assault on Jewish religious rights in Belgium since the Nazi occupation of the country”.

“It gives succour to anti-Semites and to those intolerant of other communities and faiths”, Kantor said.

Kantor for one will not rest until the new law is overturned. It is effectively a ban on Shechita – the Jewish way of slaughtering animals so that meat is kosher.

And Kantor was not the only one to look back to Nazism.

Philippe Markiewicz, president of the 200-year old Jewish Central Consistory in Brussels, created an outcry when addressing members of the Walloon parliament commission charged with working out the details of the new law.

“The last time Jewish ritual slaughter was under threat was in October 1940 by the Nazi occupiers,”, Markiewicz told the Walloon parliament. “The Nazis, responsible for the deaths of millions of men, women and children, were concerned about ritual slaughter because they knew how important it was for Jews”, Markiewicz said.

For Markiewicz, the stunner gun used has no golden bullet when it comes to animal cruelty, with up to 16% of the animals not being stunned but facing excruciating pain before death.

By Dafydd ab Iago

EU on animal welfare

European Commission Vice-President Frans Timmermans was reported last May saying that according to his personal point of view, ”ritual slaughter should not be a problem if it is done by people trained to do so”. He added that, “On animal welfare, let the facts speak for themselves. Let science testify as to the suffering of animals when they are slaughtered”.

Timmermans was talking at a conference of European rabbis and was probably aware of the fact that Jewish ritual slaughter is carried out by specially trained and authorized people. He might also have had in mind the relevant EU regulation no 1099/2009 on the protection of animals at the time of killing.

The regulation, which entered into force in 2013, allows slaughter without stunning in cases where religious slaughter takes place in slaughterhouses. This was already permitted in an earlier EU directive.

Recital 18 of this regulation states in particular that:

“Since Community provisions applicable to religious slaughter have been transposed differently depending on national contexts and considering that national rules take into account dimensions that go beyond the purpose of this Regulation, it is important that derogation from stunning animals prior to slaughter should be maintained, leaving, however, a certain level of subsidiarity to each Member State” (italics by The Brussels Times).

Does this mean that the regulation confirms the right to ritual slaughter without stunning? While paragraph 1 in article 4 in the regulation prescribes as a general rule that “animals shall only be killed after stunning”, paragraph 4 states that the requirement of stunning shall not apply in ritual slaughter “provided that the slaughter takes place in a slaughterhouse.”

The regulation does not apply when animals are killed during hunting or cultural or sporting events.

A Commission spokesperson for health and food safety told us that it is up to each member state to implement the regulation. “It is primarily the responsibility of the competent authorities of the member states – that are responsible for enforcement – to ensure that the requirements of Article 4(1) and 4(4) of Regulation (EC) No 1099/2009 are met”.

However, according to the spokesperson, Member States can apply stricter national rules and forbid ritual slaughter without stunning. This is the case in Denmark, Greece, Luxembourg, Malta, Slovenia, Finland and Sweden. If this were a correct application of the regulation, a Belgian ban on ritual slaughter without stunning would not be a breach of the regulation.

On the other hand, Member States have to comply with the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights and the restriction on slaughter without stunning shall not affect the freedom of religion, which is enshrined in the Charter. Such an assessment can only be done on a case-by-case basis according to the Commission.

The Commission is of the opinion that EU legislation properly reflects the balance between animal welfare and freedom of religion. For the time being, the Commission does not intend to intervene in Belgium in defence of ritual slaughter for Jews and Muslims. “We cannot comment on legislation in a Member State which is still in draft form”.

The Commission has neither issued any guidelines on the application of the regulation as regards ritual slaughter nor published any report on animal welfare concerns in different slaughtering methods. A report from 2013 on the various stunning methods for poultry focused on costs and market considerations (the quality of meat).

A report from 2011 on the protection of animals during transport found severe animal welfare problems during transport. Member States are submitting annual inspection reports that show that these problems still exist but an overview of the situation in the EU seems to be missing.

The Commission plans to establish an EU Platform on Animal Welfare, which might result in a more comprehensive approach. A kick-off meeting of the Platform took place on 6 June with representatives from stakeholders, NGOs, scientists, member states, international organisations and the EFSA (European Food Safety Authority). This was the first time that all key EU players gathered to exchange ideas and contribute to improving the welfare of animals.