It matters; it really does, if meat from animals conscious when killed is being passed off on us by stealth by supermarkets, schools and restaurants. It wouldn’t be just an imposition on the squeamish but a large-scale taking of liberties by the big food retailers which would affect most carnivores in Britain who shop in supermarkets and eat in chain restaurants, viz, the majority of us. The Mail reported today that the default option for many retailers is to sell meat that has been ritually slaughtered according to Islamic requirements. And ritual slaughter can mean not stunning the animal before killing it. What we need to know is: what kind of halal – the Islamic equivalent of kosher – we’re talking about here.

The list of those retailers who sell halal meat without going to the trouble of labelling it includes Waitrose and M&S, which is going to cause the middle class carnivore an acute sort of angst – if you can’t trust Waitrose, well, who can you trust? We know already that in many parts of the country, meat served in schools is halal by default…without informing parents, obviously. The question is not whether the animals turning up on the meat counter have been prayed over before they were slaughtered, which is a ritual requirement, but whether they were insensible at the time. The retailers mentioned by the Mail say that they do use stunned meat; yet the fact is that some halal meat is from animals that were conscious during slaughter. What’s needed is clear labelling for the cruel stuff…well, the crueller stuff, the sort where the animals were more or less sentient when killed. It’s a distinction with a difference. And I’d like that, please, on restaurant menus as well as vacuum packed chops in the freezer cabinet. Not as an option; a requirement.

As I say, few meat-eaters – and I am an enthusiastic carnivore – would be much bothered to know that their lamb had been prayed over before having its throat cut so long as we were reassured that the animal was genuinely insensible when it happened. Animal slaughter is a grisly business on even a small scale; on a big commercial scale it’s far more dodgy (I refer you to Eric Schosser’s Fast Food Nation for the horror stuff); and, if done without stunning, a downright instance of animal cruelty. There have been various studies of just how cruel it is: the British Veterinary Association is, for instance, strongly opposed to the slaughter of animals without stunning. Professor Bill Reilly, its former chairman, has suggested that far more meat is ritually slaughtered than is actually necessary – chiefly as a cost cutting measure by the retailers who would otherwise be obliged to market the halal and non-halal stuff separately. He thinks that half of lambs killed for the halal market aren’t stunned, a figure disputed by Muslim organisations. That, ladies and gents, would amount of hundreds of thousands of creatures every year. And of the process of killing without stunning, which he observed earlier in his career, he remarks that “the distress, fear and pain were there for all to see in the abbatoir”. Well, quite.

Granted, the FSA has said that the number of animals not stunned before slaughter is relatively low as a proportion of the market: three per cent of cattle, 10 per cent of sheep and goats; four per cent of poultry. Most halal meat is stunned before slaughter – obviously this also applies to animals ritually slaughtered for Orthodox Jews, whose numbers are much smaller. But, you know, however consoling those figures are in percentage terms, they still amount to an awful lot of animals. Killing a heifer for instance without stunning is indubitably cruel, being a large beast, it takes longer to die, far longer than a poussin. I try, myself, in my poncey way, to avoid eating any poultry or meat that I think has had either a miserable life or a notably painful death (though when I’m in the Balkans, I pretty well give up).  Obviously the thing to do is to subsist off road kill, or wild woodpigeon or rabbit or nicely shot deer, on the basis their lives have been as decent as they can reasonably expect before perishing. But short of that, the least we can do for our animals in return for eating them is to try to insist that they are insensible at the point of death. And that’s just what we don’t know when it comes to halal meat.

So, why shouldn’t the government get on the case pronto? Why is David Cameron so anxious not to get involved, apart from the obvious reason? What I want, what lots of us want, is for food that’s been killed without stunning, wherever it’s sold or passed off on our children, to be labelled as such. Then we’ll know where we stand and can avoid it. Personally I’d rather like the government to get tougher on the whole business of non-stunned killing, to ensure it’s sold and passed off strictly to religious groups for whom this is a matter of conscience. I suppose the obvious option is for the squeamish to go vegetarian but I don’t quite see why we should do so as a precautionary measure, rather than strict Muslims. Failing that, readers may like to consider the option of some nice, free range pork?

PS: The British Veterinary Association has launched an online petition against slaughter without stunning; I just mention it for your interest.

Tags: animal welfare, Food, halal, kosher, Religion, supermarkets