The debate over when meat is halal and whether it should be clearly labeled has been put back on the agenda by vets and animal welfare activists who want all animals slaughtered for food to be knocked out before to kill them.
The arabic word halal means permit, and the rules of slaughter are based on Islamic law. The animal should be alive and in good health, a Muslim should perform the slaughter in the proper ritualistic manner, and the animal’s throat should be cut with a sharp knife to sever the carotid artery, jugular vein and the trachea in a single pass. The blood must be drained from the carcass.
Around 40 million cattle, sheep, pigs and calves and 900 million poultry are killed in UK slaughterhouses each year, according to a Food Standards Agency (FSA) report two years ago, and one estimate suggested that 114 million of these animals, including poultry, are killed using the halal method. The market could be worth £ 2 billion a year or more.
But contrary to popular belief, most animals killed by halal methods are knocked out before slaughter. FSA estimates suggest that 88% of animals killed in the UK by halal methods have been pre-stunned in a way many Muslims find religiously acceptable.
In many sheep and lambs this is done by electronic stunning of the head or in poultry via an electrified water bath with sufficient power to render them unconscious but not to kill them. Another stunning method involving cardiac arrest is not allowed under the Halal rules.
In non-halal slaughterhouses, stunned animals are chained and hoisted above the ground where a slaughterer “sticks” them by slitting their throats or inserting a breast stick near the heart. Cattle and some sheep and pigs are knocked out by a bolt in the brain before being killed.
Many poultry are now being killed by gas. But they were traditionally chained, hung upside down on a production line, moved through electrified water to stun them, then routed to a mechanical neck cutter. In Halal, however, they are killed by hand.
Muslims who oppose any stunning say their method remains the most humane and point out that a number of stunning methods have been banned because they are bad for animal welfare.
The Jewish method of slaughter called shechita cannot involve pre-slaughter stunning at all. Its supporters claim that the technique learned by practitioners over the course of seven years of training meets the European Union’s stunning requirements in that it provides insensitivity to pain and distress. They contend that a surgically sharp instrument, twice the width of the animal’s neck and known as chalaf, is sufficient because of the speed and expertise with which it is applied.
It is estimated that in total, by any method, 3% of cattle, 10% of sheep and goats and 4% of poultry slaughtered in Britain are not pre-stunned, although a proportion are stunned after chopped off.
Vets say unstunned cattle take about 20 seconds (but up to 2 minutes) to lose consciousness, sheep six or seven seconds (but up to 20), and poultry seven or eight seconds, but all of those times can be much longer.
Some European countries, most recently Denmark, have banned slaughter without prior stunning. The RSPCA and the British Veterinary Association are among the groups calling for an end to slaughter without prior stunning – a move that would mean an end to religious exemptions from EU and UK law on this element of slaughter, and also, according to activists, an end to unnecessary suffering.
Campaigners are urging the government to introduce clear labeling to indicate whether meat is slaughtered by halal methods – an issue the European Union is already studying. Some Muslims warn that there must be an information campaign beforehand and those who are against any stunning wonder why, if labeling on the halal method is necessary, why is it not for slaughtered animals? ‘another way, by captive bolt pistol, gassing, electrocution, drowning or “stunner”.