Compulsory labelling of halal meat could be supported by the government if it is enforced by the European Union, a minister has said.
Jenny Willott, a Liberal Democrat minister, said the government will consider introducing a ban if a European study finds that there is “widespread demand” from customers.
Her comments came after Philip Davies, a Conservative MP, tabled an amendment in the Commons for compulsory labelling of meat. His amendment was defeated by 281 votes to 17.
The vote came after disclosures that diners have been unknowingly served halal chicken in Pizza Express and other restaurants. Halal meat is also served at a series of other restaurants and food outlets, as well as in schools and restaurants.
Mrs Willott said that while the government is not prepared to introduce compulsory labelling “at this stage”, it could do so in future.
She said: “If there is to be compulsory labelling it would be best done at a European level, which would be best for consumers and also ensure that we do not put our food industry at a competitive disadvantage as well.
“My hon friend said there is widespread customer demand. There is currently an EU study being undertaken on this issue, looking precisely at that question. We are waiting with interest for that study to be published so that we can have full information on what consumers want and we will then review all of our options at that point.”
Mr Davies, who worked at Asda for 12 years, said supermarkets are reluctant to label halal meat because they find it “inconvenient”, citing figures showing that while Muslim’s make up a small proportion of the population a quarter of meat sold in Britain is halal.
He also quoted recent comments by Dr Taj Harjey, of the Muslim Educational Centre in Oxford, who said halal meat is “covert religious extremism and creeping Islamic fundamentalism making its way into Britain by the back door”.
He said: “As a strong believer in freedom of choice, I think one of the fundamental rights of the consumer is to know what they’re purchasing.
“And when I spent 12 years before I entered this House working for Asda, some of the supermarkets are reluctant to do anything about it.
“And the reason why, quite simply, is because it’s very inconvenient for them to go through the food chain to actually provide the labelling.
“It’s not about what’s most convenient for them. I don’t care about that. They should be delivering what their customers want and there’s no doubt this is what customers want to see.”
The vote came after the British Veterinary Association warned that labelling meat as halal or kosher could cause confusion and inflame prejudice.
The BVA appealed instead for consumers to be informed whether or not animals had been stunned before being killed by whatever method, insisting the controversy had nothing to do with religion.
In an open letter to the three main party leaders, Robin Hargreaves, President of the BVA, said: “Recent media coverage has also revealed a very strong feeling amongst the general public for better labelling about the provenance of food they are buying and eating. We very much hope you will listen to this sentiment and take forward the debate about clearer food labelling.”