Halal food

I was prompted to this post by a recent piece on the English Defence League website (no I don’t go there, it was a link on another blog – which is rather spiffing btw). The issue is Halal meat. KFC have opened several trial outlets which will be selling only halal meat, to try and encourage Muslim customers. I’ve never really looked into the issue of religious slaughter very much so I’m just going to muddle my way through this and we’ll see where we go.

A not-at-all islamophobic image from the EDL

Very generally, for me the whole reasoning behind religious slaughter is ridiculous. If your god is so petty that he’s watching what goes into your mouth, how it’s been killed, what kind of food it is, and he’s going to judge you based on that, then it really shows how man-made religions are. If a god does exist I think it’ll be far more noble than the ones conceived by stone-age barbarians who didn’t understand the world around them.

So what exactly is halal food? There are a few articles on the subject, but basically it is food that is not forbidden by the Q’uran, and if it’s a meat product, the animal has to be slaughtered in a certain way, namely by invoking the name of Allah beforehand, and by cutting the carotid artery and jugular vein in the neck, which is to remove the blood (Muslims are not supposed to eat bloody meat).

There is apparently some debate over whether or not this kind of ritual slaughter causes more pain for the slaughtered animal or not. The BHA seems pretty sure that it does, based on the conclusions of a report by the Farm Animal Welfare Council in 2003. The BHA also claims that the Government itself accepts that the ritual slaughter method causes very significant pain and distress. There was, however, a study in 1978 which showed that ritual slaughter is actually considerably less painful than the captive stun bolt method. New Scientist also reported on a study carried out in New Zealand by Craig Johnson, which found that ritual slaughter is considerably more painful than slaughter after stunning. The last line of that report says that Shulze (the author of the 1978 study) did warn in his study that the stunning method may not have worked properly. As far as I can tell, it’s pretty clear.

In the UK, animals must be stunned before they are slaughtered, but there is an exemption for religious slaughter. As I have said for a long time, exemptions to the law based on belief are ridiculous. I could come up with a ‘religion’ where all my meat must come from animals that were tortured before they were killed, and there would not be an exemption for me, because I’m just one person. The argument the government makes is that if ritual slaughter were banned, halal meat would be imported (so what? If you crack down on heroin production it’ll be imported, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it), and that they can’t ban it because of the freedom of religion clause in the Human Rights Act. That’s not true. Muslims and Jews are not required to eat halal and kosher meat – they could just not eat meat – and the Human Rights Act says religious freedom can be curbed to uphold other rights.

Even if halal and kosher meat were required by Islam and Judaism, then it would come down to balancing between a person’s right to practice their religion and an animal’s right to suffer as little as possible. There is absolutely no contest. Let’s not forget that a religious belief is just that – a belief – no more valid or worthy of respect than any other belief. I could hold a belief that it is morally correct to allow animals to suffer, but it wouldn’t get an exemption from the law because it doesn’t have the label ‘religious belief’. Neither would anyone argue that I should have the right to put my belief into practice because again, it doesn’t have the label ‘religious belief’. It seems that as soon as a belief has a supernatural element, is believed by a significant number of people, and it comes with a bunch of other beliefs, it somehow gets respected and exempted from law.

Now some people may be thinking that in the past ritual slaughter was the most humane way of killing an animal, and that may well be true. In fact it’s interesting to think about how these kinds of rules may have come about. Pigs and shellfish were animals that were quite difficult to keep in the desert, and difficult foods to keep fresh for a long time. It’s not too far-fetched to say that people probably got ill from eating these kinds of food more than other food, and that early religious people may have considered this a sign that it was forbidden. Yes, ritual slaughter may have had some kind of rhyme and reason to it back in the day, but they also used to use mercury to cure syphilis, and yet if a doctor did that now he’d be struck off. This kind of thing is outdated, can we not move on?

Anyway, back to the article. I have absolutely no doubt that this issue that the EDL is raising has nothing whatsoever to do with animal welfare. If it were, then they could have protested at any kebab shop that serves halal food and they could have been doing it a long time ago. Instead they are protesting the introduction of a different culture into Britain, and the animal rights angle is a way of responding to the question, “well what’s wrong with halal food?” I found this picture in the local coverage of the protest to be particularly laughable:

Now I personally wouldn’t buy halal food because of animal welfare concerns, but to try and make out that the cruelty of halal food is the reason you shouldn’t buy from KFC, a company well known to have a list of animal welfare problems as long as this post, is completely and utterly ridiculous. Anyone concerned about animal welfare wouldn’t be eating at KFC anyway.

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3 Responses to Halal food

  1. Sarah says:

    I completely agree with your views about how nonsensical the religious slaughter rules are. I think draining the blood probably kept the meat fresh for longer, so it made some practical sense; I think that is done even in non-religious slaughter sometimes; but I don’t see any need for sticking to the centuries-old technique when there are easier and probably less painful ways to do it now. Following the actions of a 7th century prophet is not compatible with progress and that is frustrating to see.

    Having said that, I suppose I have a little more sympathy for Muslims than you do, maybe because I’ve spent nearly 9 years with one, and I know how extremely difficult it is for them to question let alone reject their inherited belief system. It is all wrapped up in their identity, it affects every part of life and the thought of being without it can be terrifying for them. I have studied Islam and the end result is I have no truck with it, but I sympathise with the Muslims who have had it impressed on them since birth.

    So I have to weigh my compassion for Muslims against my compassion for animals, and since I don’t think halal slaughter (done properly) is cruel, I am not inclined to want it banned.

    I personally would always choose to use the most pain-free method of slaughter, but bearing in mind how brutal the killing and eating of other species generally is in “the wild”, I don’t really feel an urge to condemn the religious procedure as I understand it, which seems to have been formed largely with welfare in mind (for example, the knife has to be sharp, the animal can’t be allowed to witness another animal being slaughtered, etc.). Whether the procedure is always correctly adhered to is another matter…

  2. grammarking says:

    I’ve been looking a bit closer into this matter to see if animals that haven’t been stunned do suffer considerably more than those who have. It’s annoying though, most of the research appears to be behind paywalls.

    I will make one observation though. Your point that being eaten in the wild is brutal isn’t relevant, although it is a point I’ve made myself in the past. Even though non-human animals are not moral agents, they can be moral patients and we humans can and should be moral agents.

  3. Bill says:

    Just check some of the animal welfare material for various examples of botched stun jobs. How horrific.

    Contrary to your opening paragraph – I think our actions concerning what we eat are far from petty.

    Any person that has a genuine compassion for animals – can choose to not eat them, eat less meat, or support better farming practice.

    I believe compassion is one of the fundamental precepts in at least the Christian bible. Though many choose to blissfully ignore this or contort the writings.

    Personally I think that meat is murder and a selfish indulgence for those that are lucky enough to be given the luxury of choice.

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