UK: Ritual slaughter and animal welfare

Thursday 28 June 2012 by Zia Akhtar – Law Society Gazette

The Halal Food Authority (HFA) is working to achieve agreement with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) over the rules governing the ritual slaughter of animals ahead of full implementation of new regulations. It is both important, and possible, to find a practical legal consensus here.

The current rules and context

The EU rules governing all slaughter are set down in Directive 93/119/EC as incorporated in the UK by the Welfare of Animals (Slaughter or Killing) Regulations 1995 (as amended). Schedule 5 deals with permitted ­methods of stunning and any specific requirements, and part III states that an animal must be killed in accordance with the permitted methods of killing or slaughter, which should be conducted without causing ‘any avoidable excitement, pain or suffering to any ­animal’.

Muslims are obliged by scripture to consume only meat that is slaughtered by paying homage to a deity. The definition corresponds to kosher meat that Muslims define as al-halal and which is eaten after the animal is butchered in the prescribed manner. The blood of the animal must have been extracted and the neck severed without the spinal cord being detached in order for the vessels to be drained from the animal at the time of slaughter.

Critical reports

In 2003, the now defunct Farm Animal Welfare Council (FAWC) criticised the Muslim method of slaughter and ­recommended to the government that the al- halal method of butchering ­animals be declared illegal. The council’s report accused Muslims of violating three basic principles: freedom from discomfort, freedom from pain injury or disease, and freedom from fear and distress to animals.

The report sought additional enforcement powers available to the former Meat Hygiene Service, including new injunctive powers to issue a notice preventing the ­offending slaughterhouse producing kosher meat from using certain equipment until the offence was rectified.

The report stated that the incision made to the jugular vein delivered such a massive injury that it would result in very significant pain and ­distress in a period before insensibility supervened. The council’s view was supported by an opinion of the EU Scientific Panel of Animal Health and Welfare in 2004, which stated that the rapid bleeding in a conscious animal would elicit fear and panic. Poor welfare also resulted when conscious animals inhaled blood because of bleeding into the trachea. The report recommended that, as a minimum, pre-cut tranquilising should always be performed.

Five principles

The FAWC was replaced on 31 March 2011 by the Farm Animal Welfare Committee, part of DEFRA. The ­committee has formulated five ­principles that form the core of its policies. These are contingent on the upkeep of animals whether in farm, transit, market or at a place of slaughter, and these phases ‘define ideal states rather than standards for acceptable welfare’.

They are defined as:

  • freedom from hunger and thirst;
  • freedom from discomfort including shelter and a comfortable resting area;
  • freedom from pain, injury or disease; and
  • freedom to express normal ­behaviour by providing sufficient space and proper facilities, and ­freedom from fear and distress by ensuring the avoidance of mental ­suffering.

Exemptions on religious grounds

Separate rules apply to ‘ritual’ slaughter as exemptions under DEFRA guidelines – covering the butchering of animals without stunning, to meet Jewish and Muslim religious requirements. These have been provided with exemptions because of the significance that the communities attach to the right to slaughter animals for food in accordance with their beliefs. However, guidance states it must be carried out only in approved ­abattoirs for red meat and, in the case of poultry, in approved slaughterhouses.

The slaughter by the method prescribed in scriptures can only be done by a licensed Muslim slaughterman, in a licensed abattoir or licensed poultry slaughterhouse, which is under official veterinary supervision (or in other officially regulated poultry slaughterhouses). Slaughter is not permitted in any other place, even for personal consumption. The only animals that may be slaughtered using the Islamic method are cattle, sheep, goats, turkeys, chickens, hens, guinea fowl, ducks, geese and quail. As Muslims consume 20% of all lamb meat in the UK, this exposes them to the legal regime proscribing slaughter in certain conditions when the laws are breached.

There have been prosecutions of Muslims who have infringed Food Safety Act 1990 laws by selling meat that is unfit for human consumption, and the method by which sheep were slaughtered – illegal under the Animal Welfare Act 2006 that requires pre-stunning at slaughtering premises other than abattoirs.

Possibility of a consensus

In the UK, Muslims have been willing to compromise with the stunning requirement in order to preserve their method of slaughter. The HFA has been co-ordinating efforts with the Food Standards Agency (FSA) to certify meat that is al- halal. The voluntary body was launched in 1994 to monitor and regulate red meat and poultry in UK. It introduced a novel system of distinguishing al- halal meat from non-halal by putting markers for authenticity on the carcasses soon after slaughter.

The HFA provides licences for slaughterhouses, distribution centres, retailers, and providers of meat and poultry. Licences are granted on an annual and contractual basis. HFA inspectors also inform Muslim ­abattoirs on the Farm Welfare Regulations, for the auditing and for monitoring, packaging and labelling of meat products. The HFA ensures ­compliance with all the mandatory
rules in the food supply and ­distribution chain.

In addition to its consultation, the HFA has also taken the initiative of approving stunning on a qualified basis. Its approach accommodates the volumes of animal and poultry ­slaughtered on an industrial basis. It has to meet the requirement that ‘some kind of immobilisation of birds on the slaughtering line is permitted, to avoid injury to all concerned and bruising of the carcass’. It has ­regulated against merchandising of bruised and bloodshot parts for ­financial gain.

However, certain Muslim legal ­bodies have maintained objection to electrical stunning of poultry due to concerns that birds may die as a result of the stunning before being bled. Two Jeddah-based scholars from the International Islamic Fiqh Academy (IIFA) recently conducted an investigation into stunning techniques and found that the chickens did not die from the sedating pellets. The Council of Ulema of the IIFA, which is a subsidiary of the Organisation of Islamic Conference, is influential in setting the standard for slaughter to be followed by Muslims throughout the world.

Rules not watertight

UK rules have, however, been found wanting in respect of exports – and this has had an impact on Muslim countries. In August 2002, the Saudi Arabian government issued a directive to withdraw all European-produced chicken from its local markets and cold stores. The ban on all EU poultry followed a scandal concerning the use of artificial hormones in poultry feed. This policy was vindicated in 2009 when the FSA’s chicken survey found that 65% of chickens were contaminated with campylobacter – the most common type of food poisoning in the UK.

Arguments relating to how meat is butchered are considered to be of secondary importance compared to hygiene in the manufacturing process. John Pointing, a non-Muslim barrister who wrote Illegal Labelling and Sales of Halal Meat and Food Products in the Journal of Criminal Law, says the debate about methods of slaughter is superfluous and that dietary laws are involuble when they are prescribed by religious precepts. The focus should instead be on the establishment of a general framework of food law that is directly concerned with the protection of ­consumers.

There are compelling reasons to accept the methods of slaughter that correspond to the al- halal meat or butchering technique. It is a customary method and has largely preserved the health of communities who follow it assiduously. The move to compromise and to accommodate some of the stunning methods should be welcomed, but there must be no compulsion on the minorities, and the exemptions should be preserved in the slaughter regulations.

Zia Akhtar is a member of Gray’s Inn