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Chairman's column: 

One of the most demanding tasks required of the Chairman of AWSELVA is to produce an article for each magazine according to the commands laid down by the editor, namely that said article should appear personal, contentious and immediately. Under such pressure, and in the light of the 2003 Farm Animal Welfare Council Report of the Welfare of Farm Animals at Killing and Slaughter: Part 1, Red Meat Animals, I thought that it would be suitably topical and contentious to address the issue of religious slaughter. I should add, if only for purposes of advertisement, that this article has been drawn from the manuscript of my forthcoming book, Animal Welfare II: Limping towards Eden which will be published by Blackwell Science in 2004.


The regulations for religious slaughter set down by the sons of Abraham, whether the Jewish sons of Sarah or the Ishmaelite sons of Hagar, were a worthy expression of best practice according to the standards of the time. The regulation that the animal should be unblemished at the time of killing was a powerful aid to improved meat hygiene, the regulation that the animal be killed by a holy person using an uninterrupted cut from a very sharp knife, and after saying a prayer, conveyed a sense of moral respect for the animal being sacrificed. It also sought to minimise distress by requiring that that the killing should be done quickly and by a competent individual using effective equipment. The principles relating to meat hygiene and moral respect are as true today as ever they were. However the argument that the method seeks to minimise distress is only sustainable by extreme sophistry either in the interpretation of what constitutes suffering or indeed, in terms of what constitutes current U.K. law.


It was possible to argue that religious slaughter by the Halal and Shekita (or Shochetim) methods was consistent with the regulation that animals should be rendered “instantaneously insensible to pain until death supervenes” on the basis that a rapid cut with an uninterrupted movement does not produce an immediate sensation of pain. However, as I argued in A Cool Eye towards Eden, the source of distress for the animal is not so much pain but the conscious awareness that it is choking to death in its own blood. The Welfare of Animals (Slaughter or Killing) Regulations 1995 “do not permit any animal to sustain any avoidable excitement, pain or suffering”. Religious slaughter clearly contravenes Regulation 4 since, so far as the animals are concerned, excitement and distress associated with death by exsanguination and preparation of the animal for the rapid, uninterrupted cut can both be avoided. The Act therefore includes a Schedule 12 which overrides this regulation provided that animals are reasonably humanely restrained (not upside down at least) and their throats slit using “rapid, uninterrupted movements” according to provisions set down for Shochetim slaughter. This regulation, which allows respect for traditional religious practice to override a concern for animal welfare that imposes a strict code of practice on the rest of the community, has not met with the approval of the Farm Animal Welfare Council. They include the following recommendations in their 2003 Report on the Welfare of Farm Animals at Slaughter or Killing:


Part 1 Red Meat Animals:

201. Council considers that slaughter without stunning is unacceptable and that the Government should repeal the current exemption.

203. Until the current exemption which permits slaughter without pre-stunning is repealed, Council recommends that any animal not stunned before slaughter should receive an immediate post-cut stun.


These recommendations concerning the slaughter of red meat animals exclude, by definition, poultry, and, of course, pigs. It is valid to point out that when poultry are slaughtered using a head-to-shackle electric shock, or sheep slaughtered using a head-to-back stunner, stunning and killing are simultaneous. All that follows is the bleeding-out process. Thus both paragraphs 201 and 203 contain an element of ambiguity that could delight lawyers and hold up progress. Paragraph 203 is a nonsense; worthy but a nonsense nevertheless. Its clear aim is to reduce the time between cutting the throat and loss of consciousness. For those whose set of values calls for slaughter methods that prevent avoidable suffering, this clearly does not go far enough. Those whose set of values (the phrase ‘mind set’ is not appropriate) requires the animal to be unblemished at the time of slaughter are asked to eat meat from an animal that has, while still alive, been subjected to a procedure that would have been intolerable had it occurred seconds earlier.


Many Muslim communities have tended to display a flexible approach to reconciling the conflicting ethical demands of animal welfare and religious practice. In the U.K. this dates back to the 1930s when the Imam of Woking issued an edict permitting methods of preslaughter stunning that did not appear to cause physical damage (or marked distress) to the animal. Today many communities will accept as Halal, meat from sheep and poultry bled out following electrical stunning. It is probable that gaseous stunning of poultry may also be acceptable if it is caused by anoxia, using argon, rather than asphyxia using CO2, in which case Halal slaughter of poultry could become the most humane of methods.


Faced by those who are unprepared to consider any changes to traditional practice, then I offer my backing to the recommendation given in paragraph 201 of the 2003 FAWC report on the Welfare of Animals at Slaughter. The Government should repeal the current exemption for religious slaughter contained in Schedule 12 of the 1995 Act, since this states quite simply that the regulation that “no person engaged in the movement, lairaging, restraint, stunning, slaughter or killing of animals shall cause any avoidable excitement, pain or suffering to any animal” shall not apply. In accordance with my principle that the best legislation is that which achieves practical improvements through intelligent use of both carrot and stick, may I suggest the following:


Whenever it is deemed necessary, on the grounds of established religious practice, to consume meat from animals that have been killed by exsanguination without experiencing prior physical damage, then the animals should be rendered unconscious and insensitive to pain by methods that do not cause physical damage.


There is an element of sophistry in this too, but that is inherent to the debate. Electrical stunning is already acceptable to the leaders of many devout Muslim communities, although there are those who could argue that this techniques damages the animals. Narcosis induced by anoxia with argon is reversible if stopped in time with no lasting signs of damage. Other ‘harmless’ techniques for inducing narcosis, such as the use of electromagnetic induction, are at the experimental stage.


Those who command the practice of religious slaughter should reinterpret their commitment to the principles of hygiene, humanity and respect in terms of the best current understanding as to how these admirable principles should be achieved.