Religious ritual slaughter is mired in controversy, but Muslim authorities say it is humane
Halal meat is an essential part of the Muslim faith and advocates argue that the practices of traditional Islamic slaughter are humane.
However, many animal rights campaigners argue that religious slaughter causes animals unnecessary suffering and should be banned.
Here are some of the facts and debates surrounding the emotive issue.
What is halal meat?
Although the term “halal” is used by non-Muslims almost exclusively to refer to the slaughter and preparation of meat in accordance with Islamic practices, its meaning within Islam is far broader.
“Halal” refers to any action or behaviour that is permissible in Islam, including what types of meat and methods of preparation are acceptable, while “haram” refers to impermissible or unlawful actions.
In the context of dietary rules, pork and blood, as well as meat from birds of prey and reptiles, are defined as haram and so forbidden to practising Muslims.
How is halal meat prepared?
God’s name must be invoked in a one-line blessing called the Tasmiyah, said before any slaughter. British Halal Food Authority (HFA) supervise and monitor slaughtermen who use the most common version, “Bismillahi-Allahu Akbar” (In the name of God the Greatest).
Reciting a short blessing beginning with “bismillah” (in the name of God) is a prerequisite for Muslims before embarking on any significant task. Orthodox Jews recite similar everyday blessings, including a prayer used before performing kosher slaughter.
The Islamic method of killing an animal for meat is called zabiha. After reciting the blessing, the slaughterman uses a surgically sharp instrument to cut the animal’s throat, windpipe and the blood vessels around its neck. The blood is then allowed to drain from the body.
Only one animal can be ritually slaughtered at a time and the other animals must not witness any death.
The religious law also says how the animal must be treated during its life, with the animal not allowed to have been mistreated or caused any pain. It must also be provided with enough space to roam, clean water, food and fresh air.
Are the animals conscious when they are killed?
Some animals killed for halal meat in the UK are stunned electrically before their throats are slit, known as “pre-stunned slaughter”. The British HFA approves of low-voltage electrified water baths to stun poultry and electric tong stunning for sheep and goats.
However, it is forbidden to use methods of stunning that can actually kill the animal, such as bolt guns. Animals not killed by ritual slaughter are considered carrion meat, which is haram.
Do the animals feel pain?
The question of whether religious slaughter is more or less humane than other forms is a matter of debate. Countries such as Denmark and Poland have banned it altogether, while activists in many other nations are fighting for the practice to be outlawed.
Shuja Shafi and Jonathan Arkush, writing in The Guardian, say religious slaughter is as humane as the alternatives, arguing that traditional methods of stunning, using a captive bolt, gas or electricity, only paralyse the animal so it cannot move. “It is impossible to know whether the animal is feeling pain or not,” they say.
In both Muslim and Jewish religious slaughter, the act of slitting the throat “stuns the animal”, they add, and “there is no delay between stun and subsequent death”.
Animal health experts and campaigners disagree. The RSPCA argues that killing animals without stunning them causes “unnecessary suffering”, while activist group Peta calls halal slaughter “prolonged torment”, saying the animals “fight and gasp for their last breath, struggling to stand while the blood drains from their necks”.
The British Veterinary Association calls for all animals to be effectively stunned before slaughter, while the Farm Animal Welfare Council says cutting an animal’s throat is “such a massive injury [that it] would result in very significant pain and distress in the period before insensibility supervenes”.