Religious slaughter has been a polarizing subject in the meat industry and the meat consuming public for a number of years. Compelling undercover videos detailing cruel slaughter practices on live cattle have at times provoked outrage over religious slaughter. While animal cruelty at conventional slaughter plants (i.e. Hallmark Westland, 2008) were deemed plant issues to be corrected locally, cruel practices at religious slaughter plants seem to produce a reaction indicting the entire religious slaughter process (Agriprocessors, 2008).
The two main categories of religious slaughter are kosher (Jewish) and halal (Muslim). Both halal and kosher dietary laws prescribe that slaughter death occurs as a result of anemia of the brain caused by severance of the carotid arteries from a knife cut across the throat. Some view the religious throat cut’s resultant bleed out in a negative light; most scientists have concluded that when done properly, the process is not painful to the animal.
The most objectionable aspect associated with religious slaughter has been a method of restraint called shackling and hoisting, where the live animal is hung by its rear leg upside down before the slaughter cut is administered. Particularly with cattle, this may induce extreme distress for the conscious animal. All cattle are shackled and hoisted after stunning. It is the hanging of the live, conscious beef that is considered cruel. Although long associated with religious slaughter, it is not a religious requirement of either the halal or kosher process. Both Muslim and Jewish law require that all animals be treated with respect. (US, Europe, and Canada have largely eliminated shackle and hoist religious slaughter.)
Consumer expectations around animal welfare are rising, as is the demand for religiously slaughtered products. With such market dynamics, doing religious slaughter humanely is more important than ever.
Joe M. Regenstein is professor emeritus of Food Science for Cornell Univ., and head of the Cornell Kosher and Halal Food Initiative. He has been active in improving humane religious slaughter for decades, which includes collaboration with world renowned animal welfare expert Temple Grandin. Noting the rising demand for religious slaughter meats, he says, “In the US, the Orthodox community is definitely expanding in addition to more demand. We’re also seeing more high-end attempts at grass fed, animal welfare friendly and pasture fed beef. The Muslim community is also growing and looking at more high-end products.”
Roger Othman, Director of Consumer Relations for the Islamic Food and Nutrition Council of America (IFANCA), also sees the demand for halal meats increasing: “The global halal market is growing at an annual rate of over 7 percent, according to Thomson Reuters. Most fresh halal meat has been sold in ethnic stores, but that is changing as national supermarkets are either looking into the opportunity or already marketing halal beef and poultry products.”
While much of this demand is concentrated in stores near large Muslim populations, Othman sees that scenario changing: “We expect this to expand further as food shopping on Amazon increases.”
Both Regenstein and Othman say the more stringent requirements of religious slaughter and processing make the meat more attractive to consumers. Regenstein comments, “There are many people who buy kosher meat who are not Jewish. The fact that it’s well bled out, salted and soaked while slaughtered by a caring religious person; people that buy beef that are not Jewish are attracted to it because they know more about what’s going on, (and that’s) for some higher quality.”
Othman adds: “The popularity of the Halal Guys franchising is an indication that halal attracts more than just Muslim consumers. The understanding that halal is cleaner and more wholesome is an attraction to many consumers.”
Domestic production of religiously slaughtered meat is insufficient to meet consumer needs. New Zealand and Australia export a significant amount of halal meats to the US. A similar dynamic exists in the Glatt Kosher market, where 30 percent of the product (mostly for further processing) is imported from Latin America.
Peaceful and Respectful Slaughter
Erika Voogd, president of Voogd Consulting, has worked to foster improvement in conventional and religious slaughter for over 20 years. She is emphatic that religious slaughter should be peaceful for the animal. “Religious slaughter can be done in a very respectful, peaceful manner. It can be done quickly, with minimal stress to the animal. It takes a lot of work, and a consistent management of the process. Both the halal and kosher process require respect for the animal.”
Regenstein agrees, believing that when science and technology are properly applied, good results will follow. “I believe personally, that religious slaughter done right is at least equal to and possibly better than secular slaughter. It takes a lot more work, a lot more effort and a lot more cost compared to secular slaughter. You have to have the right equipment, people trained and being monitored, people handling and presenting animals correctly through the system.”
Voogd says that the setup for religious slaughter is more complicated. “Once you start using mechanical equipment for religious slaughter, you have to really baby the process; when you’re using mechanical equipment to restrain the animal to make the religious cut, the equipment can cause welfare injuries and meat damage. We’ve done a lot of work over the years to achieve rapid blood flow and loss of consciousness. We don’t want those animals to suffer before or after the cut is made.”
Doing it right
The bottom line is that good animal welfare is independent of religious slaughter. At its core, religious slaughter is the method used to achieve insensibility; performing the same function as the captive bolt and electric stunner. The handling before and after the religious throat cut is the responsibility of the plant and must be performed humanely with a minimum of distress. There is a feeling that humane practices around religious slaughter have improved because practices around all slaughter have improved.
To Voogd, both conventional and religious slaughter have the same objective. “It doesn’t matter if it’s a religious slaughter plant or conventional slaughter plant. As consultants we are there to promote continuous improvement and put programs in place that will sustain long-term humane handling processes so that plants are consistent in measuring their process.”
Othman hails the need for continuous improvement: “Overall, the meat industry needs to pay more attention to animal welfare, not just for ritual slaughter, but in general. The issue needs to go back to the farm, from birth, not just at the slaughter plant.”
Regenstein summarizes the challenges: “I think it’s important to recognize that the devil’s in the details, that you should not generalize in either direction; that there’s good research to improve both religious and secular animal slaughter. Judgments should be based on a fair comparison of science, not a political agenda. It’s important to people who are Muslim and Jewish, and they deserve the benefit of the doubt.”