UK – Opinion: Halal hysteria

BY MEHDI HASAN New Statesman

The British “debate” about meat, animal cruelty and ritual slaughter has become a proxy for deep fears about Muslims in our midst.

I am sitting in one of London’s finest Indian restaurants, Benares, in the heart of Mayfair. I’ve just placed an order for the “Tandoori Ratan” mixed-grill appetiser – a trio of fennel lamb chop, chicken cutlet and king prawn.

I’ll be honest with you: I’m pretty excited. Most of the upmarket restaurants in London do not cater for the city’s burgeoning Muslim population. Benares is one of the few exceptions: all of the lamb and chicken dishes on its menu are halal.

The restaurant opened in 2003 and its owner, Atul Kochhar, is a Michelin-starred chef. “Right from day one, we’ve kept our lamb and chicken halal,” Kochhar says. “It was a very conscious decision because I grew up in India, a secular country, where I was taught to have respect for all religions.” Kochhar, who is a Hindu, says Muslims make up “easily between 10 and 20 per cent” of his regular diners. It isn’t just a taste for religious pluralism that has dictated the contents of his menu; serving halal meat makes commercial, as well as cultural, sense.

To other, perhaps less tolerant types, however, the rise and rise of halal meat in the west and here in the UK, in particular, is a source of tension, controversy, fear and loathing. British Muslims are living through a period of halal hysteria, a moral panic over our meat. First there came 9/11, 7/7 and the “Islamic” terror threat; then there was the row over the niqab (face veil) and hijab (headscarf); now, astonishingly, it’s the frenzy over halal meat.

Last month, MPs in the Commons rejected a ten-minute-rule bill that would have made it mandatory for retailers to label all of the halal and kosher meat on sale and make it clear on the packaging that the animals were “killed without stunning”. The bill’s proponent, the Tory backbencher Philip Davies, claimed that the meat was being “forced upon” shoppers “without their knowledge”. It was defeated by the narrowest of margins – 73 votes to 70.

As is so often the case, the right-wing press is behind much of the fear-mongering and misinformation. “Britain goes halal . . . but no one tells the public,” screamed the front-page headline in the Mail on Sunday on 19 September 2010. The paper claimed that supermarkets, restaurants, schools, hospitals, pubs and big sporting venues such as Wembley Stadium were “controversially serving up meat slaughtered in accordance with strict Islamic law to unwitting members of the public”.

The following week, readers were treated to two more stories suggesting a sinister plot to inflict halal meat on innocent, animal-loving, non-Muslim Britons. “How 70 per cent of New Zealand lamb imports to Britain are halal . . . but this is NOT put on the label”, said the Daily Mail on 25 September 2010. “Top supermarkets secretly sell halal: Sainsbury’s, Tesco, Waitrose and M&S don’t tell us meat is ritually slaughtered,” proclaimed the Mail on Sunday the next day.

With the threat from terrorism receding, Britain’s Islam-baiters have jumped on the anti-halal bandwagon, and not just the neo-fascists of the British National Party and the English Defence League, which has a page on its website devoted to its (anti-) “halal campaign”, but mainstream commentators, too. The Spectator’s Rod Liddle – who once wrote a column entitled “Islamophobia? Count me in” – has demanded that halal meat be banned and called for a boycott of Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury and the rest until they agree to stop stocking halal products. “I will buy no meat from supermarkets,” he wrote, rather melodramatically, back in 2010.

In this year’s French presidential election, candidates seemed to spend more time discussing halal meat than rising unemployment or the ballooning budget deficit. Marine Le Pen, leader of the Front National, alleged that “all the abattoirs in the Paris region sell halal meat without exception”, while the outgoing president, Nicolas Sarkozy, claimed that the halal issue was a “central concern” for French voters. (For the record, halal constitutes 2 per cent of all the meat sold in Paris.)

Last year in the Netherlands, the lower house of parliament approved a bill, introduced by the Party for the Animals (PvdD) and backed by the Islamophobe Geert Wilders’s Freedom Party, to have all ritually slaughtered meat, including halal and kosher, banned. The Dutch government refused to sign off on the bill but agreed to appoint a commission to consider tighter procedures for slaughter.

Stun guns

So, what is it about halal that provokes such anger and hysteria? The word literally means “lawful” and refers to any object – not just food – or action or behaviour that is deemed permissible under Islamic law.

For meat to be considered halal, three conditions must be met:

1) The animal must be healthy and uninjured and, crucially, it must be killed with a cut.
2) All the blood must be drained from the animal’s body.
3) The slaughterer must recite the appropriate Islamic prayer at the time of slaughter.

Islam, like Judaism, prescribes a single-cut method of slaughter: the animal is killed with a quick cut to the throat using a sharp knife. This allows the blood to drain out and, it is believed, makes the meat cleaner.

Naturally, the image of blood flowing out from the slit throat of a dead cow or sheep doesn’t help. But Muslims, like Jews, insist that so-called ritual slaughter is humane and pain-free because the animal quickly loses consciousness. “There is no time to start feeling any pain,” in the words of Dr Majid Katme, a former spokesman for the Muslim Council of Britain.

In contrast, modern western non-ritual methods of slaughter demand that the animal be rendered unconscious before it is killed – usually by means of stunning, with a bolt gun, or electrocution. The stunning of livestock before slaughter has been compulsory in the EU since 1979 but most member states, including the UK, grant exemptions to Muslims and Jews.

So, for the moment, non-stunned halal meat is available in Britain, but contra the Mail on Sunday, there’s not enough of it to satisfy the growing demand. As a Muslim, I often have great difficulty in deciding where to eat out, given the lack of halal restaurants (hence my excitement at Benares). One recent survey suggested nine out of every ten UK Muslims adhere to the strict rules on halal eating – that is, they reluctantly opt for the salmon, and not the steak, when eating out.

Nonetheless, even though they represent just 3 per cent of the population, Britain’s two million Muslims tend to eat much more meat, on average, than their non-Muslim counterparts. Reports suggest that British Muslims consume a fifth of all red meat sold in the UK.

I have British Muslim friends who book their holiday flights on Emirates, whatever their end destination, specifically in order to be able to stop off in transit in Dubai and buy a Big Mac from the airport’s halal McDonald’s. Some Muslims, it seems, will travel to the corners of the earth in pursuit of halal food.

Is it any wonder that the UK halal meat market is estimated to be worth £3bn? Or that fast-food chains in the UK such as McDonald’s and Domino’s Pizza are working on trials offering halal meat?

Nando’s, the Portuguese mid-market restaurant chain, has perhaps gone furthest and fastest. One in five of its branches in the UK now serves halal-certified chicken, and I never cease to be amazed by the sea of hijabs among the diners at the Nando’s in south Harrow that has been my “local” for the past decade.

Then there’s KFC, which has responded to the raft of halal fried-chicken franchises (see Sophie Elmhirst’s piece on page 28) by running a halal trial in a hundred of its restaurants nationwide. On its UK website, KFC promises its customers that “our food is just as tasty and finger lickin’ good as it has always been”. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it also includes a list of defensive answers to “frequently asked questions” such as “Why have you chosen my store?” and “Does this mean your animal welfare standards have changed?”.

Protecting animals is the cover behind which critics of halal meat often hide. This month, Professor Bill Reilly, a past president of the British Veterinary Association, condemned the rise in the number of animals killed in ritual slaughter as “not acceptable”. “[I]f we cannot eliminate non-stunning, we need to keep it to the minimum,” he wrote in the Veterinary Record. “This means restricting the use of halal and kosher meat to those communities that require it for their religious beliefs and, where possible, convincing them of the acceptability of the stunned alternatives.”

Opponents of ritual slaughter cite a raft of scientific studies that condemn the practice as painful and abusive. In a much-discussed report published in 2003, the Farm Animal Welfare Council (FAWC), an independent body that advised the UK government until its dissolution last year, argued that ritual methods of slaughter resulted in “significant pain and distress” for the animal and recommended that Muslims and Jews be banned from slaughtering livestock without stunning the animals first.

The FAWC’s findings were backed by a major EU-funded study “on issues of religious slaughter”, which concluded in 2010: “. . . it can be stated with the utmost probability that animals feel pain during the throat cut without prior stunning”.

Case closed? Not quite. Ruksana Shain, of the Muslim consumer group, says the scientific evidence against halal slaughter “isn’t conclusive”. But she would say that, wouldn’t she? OK. Well, consider the verdict of Joe Regenstein, professor of food science at Cornell University in the United States, who leads the university’s Kosher and Halal Food Initiative.

“Many of those attacking religious slaughter have no clue as to what is happening,” he tells me. “It is more of an Islamophobic issue, not an animal well-being issue.” Compared to modern, secular methods of slaughter, he says, “the traditional or Prophetic method might actually be equal or possibly superior” because the initial pain of the throat cut results “in the animal releasing large quantities of endorphins, putting it in a state of euphoria and numbness”. The cut thus serves as its own stun. The scientific evidence against halal slaughter, Regenstein says, “is extremely weak and has often been done poorly with an agenda driving a desired outcome”.

Missing defence

To pretend that Muslims do not care about animal welfare is unfair. There are several Quranic verses and sayings of the Prophet warning Muslims not to harm livestock; mistreatment of animals is considered a sin by the vast majority of Islamic scholars. In fact, advocates of halal slaughter can call on their own slew of scientific studies for support.

In 1978, research led by Wilhelm Schulze of the University of Veterinary Medicine Hanover showed that “the slaughter in the form of a ritual cut is, if carried out properly, painless in sheep and calves according to EEG [electroencephalography] recordings and the missing defensive actions [of the animals]”. The German Federal Constitutional Court based its 2002 verdict permitting ritual slaughter on this study.

Then there are the writings and research of Temple Grandin, professor of animal sciences at Colorado State University and one of America’s leading experts on the humane treatment and slaughter of livestock. She sees no difference between stunned and non-stunned slaughter if both are conducted properly and professionally. When a ritual slaughter is “done really right”, Grandin has said, “the animal seemed to act like it didn’t even feel it – if I walked up to that animal and put my hand in its face I would have got a much bigger reaction than I observed from the cut, and that was something which really surprised me”.

Remember, the “secular ways of slaughter”, as Regenstein points out, also have their downsides: “If the public were to discover that animals were subject to a pre-slaughter intervention – like having their skull cracked open, [being] electrocuted, or put in a gas chamber – they might not really like that either.” Shouldn’t consumers have a right to know which of these methods were used? Shouldn’t they be told about the danger of “mis-stunning”, which leaves the animal conscious and in pain, and occurs “relatively frequently”, according to a 2004 report by the European Food Safety Authority? Why not label all meat with detailed explanations of how exactly the animal in question was killed, and let consumers decide? “Why only pick on halal?” Ruksana Shain asks.

In the Commons debate on food labelling on 24 April, the Labour MP Gerald Kaufman, who is Jewish, criticised Philip Davies for singling out Muslims and Jews, saying he had “picked on two small minorities who share the way in which the meat they eat is killed”. However, Kaufman added that he would not have expressed his “total opposition to this bill” if it had cast its net wider to include other animals such as chickens that had been kept in “dreadful conditions”.

Preventing animal cruelty goes far beyond the “debate” about stunning or not stunning. And ironically, not all Muslims are opposed to stunning. There are two main organisations that regulate the halal food industry in the UK – the Halal Monitoring Committee, which has a “blanket ruling disallowing stunning in any form”, and the Halal Food Authority, which allows controlled stunning where the “animal or the birds do not die prior to slaughtering”, and which has certified KFC’s stunned chicken as halal.

Thus, most Muslim, and non-Muslim, participants in the heated debate over halal meat are ignoring a critical point. Data produced by the Meat Hygiene Service in 2004 suggested that roughly 90 per cent of halal slaughter in the UK involved stunning. In September 2011, the Food Standards Agency reported that “the majority of animals destined for the halal trade in both the red and white meat sectors are stunned before slaughter”. So what’s all the fuss about?

Consider the scare stories from the Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday, which automatically assume that all halal meat derives from the traditional,  non-stunned method of slaughter. What drove both papers’ coverage of the story? Are we seriously expected to believe that either the Mail or the Mail on Sunday gives a damn about animal rights? I struggle to recall the last occasion on which either tabloid splashed on the abuse or neglect of animals. More often than not, Mail columnists reserve rather harsh words (“deranged fanatics”, to quote Richard Littlejohn) for animal rights activists.

Crucially, if the hysteria over halal meat in Britain isn’t the product of Islamophobia, how do halal-obsessed politicians and journalists explain their silence on the subject of kosher meat? The 2003 Farm Animal Welfare Council report condemned both halal and kosher methods of slaughter. Yet, for instance, the Mail on Sunday, despite referring to “ritually slaughtered meat” in the headline of its “Britain goes halal . . .” report, went on to discuss only halal meat for the first 24 paragraphs of the piece before mentioning kosher meat – in passing – in the 25th paragraph.

The truth is that halal has become a proxy for much deeper fears and concerns about the presence of a growing and vocal Muslim population in our midst. “It’s being used as a political issue, especially by xenophobic and Islamophobic folks, to whip up a backlash against ‘the other’,” Regenstein says.

To pretend otherwise is naive, if not disingenuous. If this was a debate about animal welfare, it would be about all forms of slaughter; if it was a debate about ritual slaughter, it would address kosher, and not just halal, meat.

“Why only pick on halal?” It’s an important question in need of an urgent answer.