A series of recent events relating to the Halal market in Europe all point to the fact that the Halal sector is really starting to come of age. Along with the opportunities that accompany any coming of age, there are also the inevitable responsibilities to be shouldered and dilemmas to be resolved.
The European picture is complex. There are distinct nation states with their own national issues, their own Muslim communities, their own market interests and their own geo-political dynamics.
There are also the wider European issues that will affect all members, as well as the even wider Islamic issues that all Muslims share, along with the often confusing – and even frustrating – differences between the various cultural and doctrinal groupings.
And of course, there are financial concerns and opportunities that have caught the attention of the European business communities. With over fifty million Muslims in the greater European region (and rising), and an average annual per capita food consumption in the region of 1,500 Euros (and rising), it is not surprising that business interests both large and small want to take a bite of this 75 billion Euro market.
The big question is…how? Because as attractive as this market appears, it is also something of a mine-field.
At the risk of over-simplifying the issue, we can say that there are three major components at work here:
- there is the food industry trying to balance quality and price to take advantage of a clear market opportunity;
- there are political forces, both for and against the growing Halal market, as well as the animal welfare lobby;
- there are the Muslim communities, on the one hand the targeted consumers and on the other hand attempting to be the regulators and guardians of the religious aspects of the Halal production process.
The dynamic at play here is that the predominantly pro-active forces are the first two – business and politics – while the Muslims remain thus far a reactive force that is, if you will excuse the expression, rather like the meat in the sandwich, whose moves are all too often defined by their reaction to the other more active participants.
Lets take a couple of examples.
On 16 June 2010, the European Parliament introduced a resolution that, if it is passed into law, will require meat from non-stunned animals to be labelled accordingly, ie “Meat from slaughter without stunning”. While one may argue that this is simply a move to keep consumers informed, it is drawing a dividing line along ethical grounds with the clear, even if unstated, implication that meat from this method of slaughter is less ethical, thereby creating a second class of less humane meat products.
This would affect all products from whole carcasses to any downstream derivatives for all products being sold within the European Union. It is a move to marginalise and degrade both Halal and Kosher products. If it were really a sincere effort to inform consumers, then it would be fairer to make all meat products state clearly how the animal was slaughtered. The stun versus non-stun argument is not so clear cut, and surely all consumers have the right to know what they are eating.
The most scholarly and informed research into this subject was conducted by Dr Temple Grandin of Colorado State University and Professor Joe Regenstein of Cornell University, and was reported in Meat Focus International in March 1994.
From this report it becomes clear that the key concerns from an animal welfare perspective are less to do with stunning, and more to do with the type of stress inflicted upon the animal before and during the slaughter process.
It is impossible to make a clear assessment of how the animals react to either the stun or the incision if it is already in a state of stress and agitation from the way it has been handled and restrained. Stress causes the release of chemicals into the blood stream that are best not consumed by humans, such as cortisol and adrenalin.
Dr Grandin has impeccable credentials when it comes to designing stress-free methods of handling and restraining cattle, and the observations that were made, once the animals were in a relatively stress-free state at the moment of slaughter, may be surprising to many.
When held upright in a comfortable restraining box, in tests with 3,000 cattle in three different plants, it was observed that “the animals had little or no reaction to the throat cut. There was a slight flinch when the blade first touched the throat. This flinch was less vigorous than an animal’s reaction to an eartag punch.”[i]
When a long razor-sharp knife is used, “95% of the calves collapse almost immediately…when a slower, less decisive stroke was used, there was an increased incidence of prolonged sensibility.”[ii]
Dr Grandin comments that there are some very poorly designed restraining devices in use in Europe. When poorly designed restraining devices are used, or where there is insensitive handling (even with good restraining devices) the animals react violently to excessive pressure. Hissing, metallic clanging noises and sudden movements are also disturbing to cattle and are unnecessary.
Badly designed restraining boxes result in poor results for stunning, with up to 3 out of 5 animals requiring a second shot, causing significant stress. All stunning methods appeared to cause the release of significant amounts of epinephrine[iii], greater than would be caused by environmental stresses or restraining method.
“One can definitely conclude that improperly applied stunning methods would be much more stressful than Kosher slaughter with a long straight razor sharp knife.”[iv]
Dr Grandin has also observed that the Kosher slaughtermen are more highly trained than the Muslim counterpart, and where she recommends stunning if the slaughter techniques are not optimal. This is clearly an issue that the proponents of non-stunned slaughter have to take into consideration, and to heed the prophetic advice, ‘When you kill, kill well.” It is no use simply claiming that Halal is the best method, and then performing it in anything other than the best way.
As Dr Grandin has pointed out with respect to this subject, “politics have interfered with good science”[v], and one can go further to say that not enough good science has been done.
But it is surely clear from this that for the pro-stunning lobbly to take the moral high-ground is indicative of either a lack of good information or the presence of a hidden agenda, neither of which is in the best interests of animals or people.
The real animal welfare issues are NOT about religious slaughter – that is really a red herring – they are issues about animal handling and being knowledgeable about, and being prepared to implement, the best practices in the animal slaughtering process.
We must remember that the majority of the Halal products are produced in non-Muslim countries and companies. This is an observation rather than a complaint, but it needs to be kept in mind when looking at the way Halal has made its way into the mainstream.
The recent disclosure that there is far more Halal meat being consumed in the UK than has been recognised is indicative of several things.
Firstly, for food producers, and particularly for the food service industry, going fully Halal represents an attractive proposition. It makes good business sense. Faced with the options of a) running two separate production lines, or b) missing out on the Halal sector altogether, many producers have opted to go fully Halal. New Zealand and Australian producers were probably the first to make this choice, and the Halal option worked well for them, although recent events in the UK may well force them to label their export products more clearly.
In the UK, institutions as diverse as hospitals, sporting ground and even pubs have also opted to go fully Halal, for example with their chicken products, but without labelling their offering accordingly, and perhaps without fully appreciating the public response to this lack of disclosure.
Despite some emotive and manipulative reporting on this subject, there is a strong case for letting the consuming public know what they are eating. And this has two sides to it. Not only do the non-Muslim population want to know if the meat is Halal…so that some of them can avoid it, the Halal consumers would like to know so that they can eat it. How many residents as well as travellers to the UK would appreciate knowing that they can eat the meat after all!
It has been interesting to note that in the aftermath of the disclosure about undercover Halal food in the UK, the majority of the outburst was against the Muslims and the methods of slaughter…almost all of them totally ignorant about Halal slaughter methods. There were surprisingly few comments aimed at the business owners who had made these purely commercial decisions to supply Halal, and had made the conscious decision not to tell their customers – Muslim or non-Muslim.
So we can draw two conclusions. Firstly, the decision to buy from a Halal supplier is often made simply on the basis of the price/quality equation. Ideology and faith do not come into it. As the Whitbread spokesman said, “We don’t specify Halal as a requirement in our procurement. We base our decision on quality and price. It just turns out that we source that amount of chicken from suppliers that happen to be Halal.”[vi]
Secondly, it is understandable that the general public is not knowledgeable about the details of Halal or Kosher slaughter. It is also understandable that newspapers want stories that will sell papers. But the extent of the mis-information that passes for reporting is doing little more than fanning the flames of controversy and reveals a distasteful agenda that is primarily an attack on the Muslims.
But the Muslims did not ask for Halal meals at Wembley Stadium. They did not even know!
The Muslim Response
The greatest challenge facing the Muslims, on this and many other issues, is to move from a reactive to a pro-active mode of being. This is true for the Muslim nation states, but it is certainly a more pressing need for the Muslim communities in the West.
There are really two significant issues here, and it is important that the Muslim communities in Europe understand them.
Firstly, we have to defend both stunned and non-stunned Halal slaughter because we need them both. Halal is an industry, whether we like it or not, and the procedures of stunning are not going to go away, because the meat industry and the legislators are not going to allow that to happen. Pre-stunned Halal slaughter is here to stay.
The issue of proving whether an animal is alive at the time of slaughter can be solved by a variety of means, and if the animal is demonstrably alive, the accusations that the process is haram are simply not justifiable. Halal is by definition ‘permissible’ which therefore signifies a lowest common denominator rather than a highest common factor.
In the face of those forces that would like to get rid of any form of Halal products, it is important to recognise that Halal, in all its varieties, needs to be supported with a unified front.
There are moves to introduce stun-to-kill (as being more ‘efficient’ than stun-to-stun) and the euphemistically named Controlled Atmosphere Killing, (ie death by gas) will be with us by 2013. We should pay more attention to the real issues that confront us, rather than squabble over issues which are, when we see the larger picture, actually details.
The Muslims need to defend the right to slaughter without stunning. They also need to insist that stunning methods ensure that the animal is alive at the moment of slaughter. The important point, surely, is that both these procedures be done in the most humane, safe and sanitary conditions possible.
Secondly, the Muslim communities have to build institutions that can define and regulate the industry in the best possible way. It does not matter who is right. It matters that it is done right.
There is a pressing need, and a great opportunity, to create a national institution that will a) create clear definitions and standards for the Halal market, b) regulate the activities of the Halal certification bodies, c) ensure that the industry is clear about how to comply with Halal guidelines, and d) ensure that the consumers understand what they are buying.
An accreditation body such as this would be of great benefit to the industry, to the consumers, and, importantly, to the economy. Not only are there important business opportunities within the domestic Halal markets, there are huge opportunities to supply the import-dependent Muslim world.
Differences have to be set aside with the understanding that the formation of national Halal accreditation bodies will be in the interests of the greater good of society.
Any European country that takes on the Halal agenda in a balanced and well-planned way, will find it can create new business opportunities that will help to revive a struggling economy. If Halal is done correctly, if it is taken to its highest possibility, it can have a beneficial effect on peoples health, on animal welfare and for the economy.
[i] Grandin and Regenstein, Meat Focus International 1994, p 115-123.
[iii] Van der Waal 1978; Warrington 1974
[iv] Grandin and Regenstein, Meat Focus International 1994, p 115-123.