A leading veterinary expert has called for the practice of slaughtering animals without stunning them first to be curbed or even banned.
Professor Bill Reilly, former president of the British Veterinary Association, said the current situation, which allows the practice in the production of Halal and Kosher meat, is “unacceptable”.
It is estimated two million animals – mostly poultry – are killed without stunning for the orthodox Jewish community (Schecita).
Halal meat now accounts for 25% of the UK meat market but some anecdotal evidence suggests almost half of lambs destined for slaughter are killed without prior stunning.
Prof Reilly’s comments come as the Welsh Government is preparing to consult on plans to restrict non-stun slaughter.
In an article published in the journal Veterinary Record, he said: “Non-stun slaughter… appears to be increasing. From an animal welfare perspective this cannot be acceptable.
“However, we are fortunate to live in a tolerant society and respect the religious beliefs of different faiths and must reconcile animal welfare with religious freedom.
“It is important to differentiate between religious and non-stun slaughter. My concern has nothing to do with the expression of religious belief but with the practice of killing by throat-cutting without pre-stunning.
“I do not believe that there is any scientifically robust evidence to support the contention that non-stun slaughter has the welfare of the animal at its core.”
The law currently allows for the slitting of animals’ throats without prior stunning to enable Jewish people and Muslims to meet the dietary requirements of their faiths, but with the caveat that it must not cause “unnecessary suffering”.
A new EU directive on the protection of animals at the time of killing will come into force in the UK in 2013.
The Farm Animal Welfare Council (FAWC) – now the Farm Animal Welfare Committee – concluded in 2003 that non-stun slaughter was unacceptable because “such a massive injury (throat cutting) would result in very significant pain and distress in the period before insensibility supervenes”.
Prof Reilly, a consultant in veterinary public health, questioned whether all the Halal meat produced was being eaten by the Muslim community.
He added: “In my view, the current situation is not acceptable and, if we cannot eliminate non-stunning we need to keep it to the minimum.
“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.”
Concern about animal welfare during non-stun slaughter saw the Netherlands ban the practice last year and the European Parliament proposed that food labels should indicate whether an animal has been stunned before slaughter, although it was not taken forward.
Prof Reilly added: “Much of the meat from non-stunned animals ends up on the secular market. It is likely that most consumers if given the choice or the information would choose not to eat such meat.
“Labelling of meat from non-stunned animals would prove a challenge for the industry but this is not insurmountable in an era when traceability is so important. Consumer rejection would drive down the supply.”
Saleem Kidwai, secretary general of the Muslim Council of Wales, said: “We believe this is a requirement. Slaughter is quick so pain is minimised and there is no unnecessary suffering. We believe it should continue.”
A Welsh Government spokeswoman said: “We plan to consult on the implementation of new welfare at slaughter regulations shortly and will be seeking views on how to restrict the non-stun slaughter of animals as part of that consultation.”
The Food Standards Agency (FSA) said its own figures showed most animals were stunned before being killed.
The FSA conducted a survey into animal welfare in slaughterhouses in September.
A spokesman said: “The results indicate that the number of animals not stunned prior to slaughter is relatively low, accounting for 3% of cattle, 10% of sheep and goats, and 4% of poultry.
“They also show that the majority of animals destined for the halal trade in both the red and white meat sectors are stunned before slaughter.”
The FSA said full details of the survey would be published ahead of a discussion at a board meeting on 22 May.