Media scaremongering over halal meat is absurd

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A spate of articles have appeared in the press recently, warning the public about the scourge of halal meat which has supposedly crept into the products bought at the supermarket and from restaurant chains. These products, articles claim, are sometimes sold without any warning that the meat they contain is halal. Such articles imply, testament to their appearance on the front cover of national newspapers (“Millions are eating halal food without knowing”, Daily Mail, 8th of May) that unknowingly eating halal meat is of importance to the public. They argue that the method of halal slaughter is worse for the welfare of the animal, and thus the British public should not be complicit in an excessively harmful practise.

But what halal actually means is unclear, and even neglected, in these scaremongering pieces which tend to leave any defi nition of it to the reader’s imagination. Loaded phrases such as “ritualistic slaughter” and the “Islamification of food” are used to propagate a separate agenda that the halal debate has been confounded with. In light of this, it is perhaps worth considering briefly what it really means for a piece of meat to “be halal”. Although halal actually applies to range of actions and objects, in the context of food, halal means ‘permissible’. There are certain food stuffs that are not permissible, and so only a selection of meats can be halal. The criterion for the preparation of halal meat is as follows: the animal must be conscious when killed, and must be killed via an incision to the throat from a sharp blade. Before the throat is slit, the animal must be turned towards Mecca and a prayer must be recited. Furthermore, the animals must never see the blade being sharpened nor can it witness any other animals being slaughtered; the animal must also be healthy at the time of execution.

This is the supposedly barbaric way in which halal meat is prepared. There is debate as to how cruel it really is, with some arguing that it is less cruel than other practised industrial methods. But regardless, what halal actually means in the context of production line slaughter for the multinational supermarkets is very little. Tesco, for instance, claims that the only diff erence in the slaughter procedure between its halal meat and non-halal meat is the reciting of the prayer on execution. Both methods involve the animal being stunned with electricity (which acts as an anaesthetic), and both involve the animal being hung upside down to have its neck slit. In 2012, 88% of animals killed by the halal method were stunned, and therefore unconscious, before they were killed, meaning the prayer before execution is usually the only distinguishing feature of the halal procedure.

But even if for the sake of argument, we accept that the halal method of slaughter is more inhumane than the methods used by supermarkets (in virtue of the percent of animals which are not stunned), it is still difficult to see why this issue should receive such sudden and seemingly disproportionate coverage. Consider the conditions that an ordinary chicken from the supermarket is likely to have lived under. Such animals spend their entire lives confined to an area no bigger than the size of an A4 piece of paper. They never see sunlight, and are force-fed to grow to obscene sizes that they would never reach in nature. Many die of lung collapse, heart attacks, as well as from breaking their legs under the weight of their own body. Frustrated by such confined space, smaller birds are pecked to death, and so some farmers cut the beaks off their livestock in order to prevent this. This can result in infections, as well as some birds starving to death due to being unable to eat from the pain. The lucky ones, after 8 weeks of ‘existence’, are loaded into crates, and driven to the slaughterhouse. Many are crushed in transit, are dehydrated or have their legs broken by mishandling. They are then placed on a conveyor belt, stunned, hung upside down, before finally having their necks slit.

Can we really argue that this process is all of a sudden made inhumane simply because the animal was conscious when it finally had its neck slit? Such a suggestion is clearly ridiculous, but the attention that this relatively minor difference in practise receives suggests this is where the simple ethical distinction lies.

The reality is there are more pressing ethical concerns for the consumer in terms of the welfare of the animals that they eat. Unfortunately the right wing press ignores these, with its interest in animal welfare only surfacing when it can be used to bolster its Islamophobic narrative. Such press works by depicting halal slaughter as excessively cruel and harmful so as to perpetuate the notion that Islam is back- wards and outdated. In reality, halal methods of execution are eff ectively no different from ‘Western’ methods.

That halal meat is not always labelled as such is admittedly a concern for religious groups such as Sikhs who are prohibited from eating food blessed by other religions. But it is difficult to see how this concern has prompted the outcry at the level that’s been seen recently. Instead there are perhaps two alternative explanations for this recent interest in halal meat. Either our hearts are in the right place, and we are increasingly becoming concerned with animal welfare – with our aversions simply being misapplied – or more worryingly, these aversions represent a society becoming increasingly reactionary towards alleged ‘Islamification’.

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