Religious slaughter was last considered by MPs at the end of last year when Neil Parish (Con, Tiverton and Honiton), chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Beef and Lamb, secured a debate on “Meat slaughtered in accordance with religious rites”, Commons Hansard 4 Nov 2014 Vol 592(105) Col 147WH. This Monday, 23 February, the topic was again on the agenda with another WH debate on “an e-petition relating to ending non-stun slaughter to promote animal welfare.”
There are currently three major e-petitions relating to this issue:
- End non-stun slaughter to promote animal welfare, (16,132 signatures)
- Make CCTV mandatory for all slaughterhouses, (108,010 signatures)
- Protect religious slaughter in the UK and EU, (124,321 signatures)
In addition, the House of Commons Library Standard Note SN 07108: Religious Slaughter of Animals was again updated in advance of yesterday’s Westminster Hall debate which was triggered by the first petition. Moving “that this House has considered the e-petition relating to ending non-stun slaughter to promote animal welfare,” Mr Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con) noted a recent poll had indicated a “great deal of confusion about non-stun slaughter.” However,
“one of the main concerns in the e-petition [is] about the labelling of meat products. Whatever their views on stun versus non-stun, or on halal, kosher or other methods of slaughter, I hope that most hon. Members agree that the important thing is to label meat products as helpfully as possible, so that consumers can make an informed choice.”
Caroline Lucas (Brighton, Pavilion) (Green) suggested that as well as strengthening the law, in consultation with the religious communities involved, the House should consider improving standards in all slaughterhouses, such as by introducing CCTV as a mandatory requirement. Miss Anne McIntosh (Thirsk and Malton) (Con) and other members returned to this suggestion, although it was pointed out that this would be no panacea on its own; the recent abuses identified by the Farm Animal Welfare Committee were at abattoirs in her constituency at which there was such surveillance.
Mr Hollobone described the differing practice across European Union: slaughter without prior stunning has been banned in Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland and Denmark; in Austria, Estonia, Finland and Slovakia, stunning is required immediately after the incision if the animal has not been stunned before; in Germany, abattoirs have to prove the religious needs, and the number of animals to be slaughtered to satisfy the needs of the religious community concerned, before they are granted a licence. In Australia, stunning at slaughter is required, but there is an option for a state or meat inspection authority to provide an exemption and approve an abattoir for ritual slaughter without prior stunning for the domestic market, but even in those cases, post-cut stunning is a requirement,[Col 6 WH].
Other important points raised included:
- the results of a recently published Food Standards Agency survey of slaughterhouses indicated that the number of slaughtered chickens, sheep, goats and cattle is more than is required for the Muslim and Jewish communities to consume;
- 80% of halal slaughter is pre-stunned and the hindquarters of animals killed by the non-stun shechita method are not regarded as kosher and are therefore unlabelled; and
- in the November 2014 debate, the Minister said: “from the EU perspective, ‘stunned’ has a clear legal definition in the legislation, and it is simply that an animal is rendered insensible to pain almost immediately … [it was] “a clear definition and the scientific evidence does not support the argument that a cut without prior stunning achieves that.”— [Official Report, 4 November 2014; Vol. 587, c. 169WH.]
Noting that this goes directly against the shechita understanding in that a cut to the throat stuns, kills and exsanguinates all in one go, Mr Hollobone suggested that the shechita authorities in this country need to make a more powerful case to Her Majesty’s Government if they want their view to prevail, [Col 7WH]. He concluded with five questions to the Minister, [Col 8WH],
- Do the Government agree that all animals should be stunned before slaughter for animal welfare reasons?
- Why are they allowing non-stunned meat to go outside the communities for which it was intended, contrary to EU and UK legislation?
- Will they support the introduction of compulsory labelling of meat, fish and products from non-stun slaughter as “non-stun”?
- Will they look at introducing mandatory post-cut stunning, as has been done in some countries, including Finland, Austria, Estonia, Slovakia and Australia?
- Will they consider the German approach of abattoirs having to prove the religious needs, and to define the number of animals to be slaughtered to satisfy the needs of the religious community concerned, before being granted a licence?
The position of the Labour Party was outlined by Huw Irranca-Davies (Ogmore) (Lab) [35WH],
“… we would prefer it if all animals were stunned before slaughter. That is a long-held policy position shared with Her Majesty’s Government and is based on well-established scientific consensus, which points to evidence that slaughter without pre-stunning causes pain and distress … Labour would prefer that all animals be stunned before slaughter, but we support the exemption, which allows for production and consumption of kosher and halal meat … The Labour party also believes strongly that consumer interests are best served through transparency in food production and processing, and that consumers have a right to know where their food comes from, and how it was reared and slaughtered. We believe that that labelling to show different methods of slaughter, or simply stun or non-stun slaughter, has merit, but that it is best debated and agreed at an EU level to ensure a clear and consistent approach across all EU member states,”
“[w]e hope that today the Minister will be able to reveal some progress with the extended European Commission study on labelling, which was originally expected to report in 2014. The Minister might also want to comment on the practicality of an industry-led UK-only scheme, in response to consumer concerns.”
Responding to the debate, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (George Eustice):
- undertook to check the figures that suggested 15%, of sheep and goats were killed without stunning, whereas the Jewish and Muslim population of this country accounts for only some 5% of the total population, [Col 40WH].
- admitted that he had never been able to get a clear answer on exactly how long it takes for bovines in particular to lose consciousness, [Col 42WH].
- on the timing of the European Commission report, said “We initially expected it last summer, then we expected it in the new year, and the latest update that I have had is that it is still some months away, which I think reflects the fact that this is a difficult issue to get right,” [Col 42WH].
- announced that following a number of incidents, the FSA has begun a series of unannounced inspections of GB slaughterhouses, and by the end of March all approved slaughterhouses will have been subject to an unannounced inspection, [Col 43WH].
In addition to the time taken for bovines to become unconscious, Monday’s debate highlighted that further information is required on: a breakdown in the quantity of religiously slaughtered meat produced in relation to those for whom it was required by their beliefs; and on the markets shechita-slaughtered meat; and the outlets for the hind-quarters of shechted meat. Both relate to the integration of religiously-slaughtered meat products within the UK supply chain and the associated financial implications. George Eustice said, [Col 25WH]
“I have discussed this issue with Shechita UK, and everyone acknowledges that the hind quarters are normally sold on the open market. It would be conceded that most of it goes to Smithfield, possibly to be sold to caterers, but Shechita UK will also maintain that some of it goes to halal markets.”
This appears to be consistent with the position in 2010, although in a written answer, Sir Stuart Bell put it slightly differently, [HC Hansard 16 Nov 2010 Vol 518(72) Col 761W]
“Contracts for the supply of meat and poultry [for use in the Palace of Westminster] are currently in the process of being re-tendered and as part of that process it has become apparent that the practice of supplying halal meats and poultry is widespread in the catering supply chain”.
“some of the meat that is ‘shechted’ (slaughtered in accordance with Jewish law) is not passed as kosher after the final inspection is carried out. However that meat is certified as acceptable for public consumption by the health inspectors of the Meat Hygiene Service and it is therefore sold on to the non-Kosher market without difficulty.
If that meat were to be labelled as ‘meat from slaughter without stunning’ the market value of the product would drop, this could in turn, represent a large financial loss to the abattoirs that produce kosher meat. In this way, proponents of amendment #205 are hoping to drive the price of kosher meat products up to a level where many in our community will be unable to afford to buy it. “
Clearly more recent information is required.
Last time this issue was debated in Westminster Hall, “there was much more hysteria” and as a consequence, “Muslim and Jewish communities felt picked on and unfairly scrutinised”, according to Shabana Mahmood (Birmingham, Ladywood) (Lab), [Col 9WH]. This was much less in evidence last night, but the position of both the government and opposition remains unchanged and does not seem likely to do so until the European Commission report is eventually published. However, as the BBC reported before the debate, “in the run-up to the general election, opposition to those methods of slaughter would also seem to have become dog whistle politics: shorthand for targeting a specific religious minority – Muslims – without saying as much. UKIP last week said it would ban all slaughter methods that didn’t involve pre-stunning – causing controversy amongst British Muslims and Jews”.
Huw Irranca-Davies observed, [Col 38WH], “if reports are to be believed that another petition has also exceeded 100,000 signatories, no doubt we will discuss it again, perhaps even before the general election”, although this seems unlikely since Parliament is expected to be dissolved on 30 March 2015 for the general election on 7 May 2015.
 The number of signatures are those for 16:45 on Monday 23 February 2015. There was a significant increase (11.5%) in the number of signatories for the third e-petition (to protect religious slaughter) in the 24 hours prior to the debate.
There are also other e-petitions on different aspects of religious slaughter, although these have collected far fewer signatures.
 In the context of a proposed amendment to a new EU Regulation on food information: European Parliament legislative resolution of 16th June 2010 on the proposal for a regulation of the European Parliament and of the Council on the provision of food information to consumers (COM(2008)0040). The contentious “amendment 205” was slipped in to the Regulation at the last moment.