Halal meat. One of the most controversial food scandals in the UK since horsemeat. Unlabelled Halal meat was claimed to be forced upon consumers, who felt they had a right to know how their meat was killed. But what exactly is Halal? And is there more to the contention than meets the eye?

What is Halal?

Halal means ‘permissible’ in Arabic, which applies to more than just meat in Islam. However, to the average non-Muslim in the UK, it relates almost completely to meat and animal slaughter. Contrary to popular opinion, the original aim of Halal techniques was to reduce the suffering of animals: “Let each one of you sharpen his blade and let him spare suffering to the animal he slaughters” (The Quran).

The criteria for Halal meat are as follows:

  • The animal must be alive when the neck is cut
  • The neck must be cut by hand with a long sharp blade
  • The cut must obliterate the trachea (windpipe), oesophagus (throat), the two carotid arteries and the two jugular veins (the main vessels that take blood to and from the brain)
  • Allah’s name must be recited in prayer as this is done

The Quran also advises that animals have had a healthy life, are not slaughtered in front of other animals, and are not able to see the blade of the knife being sharpened (McElwee, Smith, Lever, 2017).

The religious intention (or niyyah) of the slaughterer is to show as much respect as possible to the animal. It also means that the animal must be in close contact with the slaughterer, which could be said to improve both the care of the animal and its connection with the human. The recital of a prayer by a practising Muslim also contributes to the respect shown towards the animal (Miele, 2016).

While historically, the animal would be fully conscious at the time of slaughter, advances in animal welfare research has led to over 80% of Halal animals being reversibly stunned before slaughter (FSA, 2015), which mirrors veterinary and animal rights groups recommendations (RSPCA, 2017). Most Muslim countries also accept the stunning of animals before slaughter, including Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, Egypt and many others (Fuseini, Knowles, Hadley, Wotton, 2016).

So what is the difference between Halal and non-Halal?

  • Non-Halal:
    • All non-Halal animals are stunned. This is the law, and may be reversible or irreversible.
    • These animals may be killed by decapitation, a cut to the throat or a chest stick – this may be automated or by hand.
  • Halal:
    • Around 80% of Halal animals are reversibly stunned
    • These animals must be slaughtered by hand with a single deep cut to the throat, whilst reciting Allah’s name.

The convenient Halal scandal at the rise of Islamophobia

A sudden interest in animal welfare by right-wing newspapers such as the Daily Mail must be treated with some suspicion. The most frustrating thing about the articles surrounding Halal meat is the omission of the fact that over 80% of Halal meat in the UK is stunned.

An article in the Daily Mail titled “Halal-slaughtered animals are ‘dying in agony’ because of ‘Muslim ignorance’ over pre-slaughter stunning, say experts” completely misrepresents the evidence. The Muslim scholars are actually not ignorant at all. The body of the article briefly states that 95% of scholars are happy with stunning, as long as it is reversible (Linning, 2016). The article also completely fails to mention that over 80% of Halal animals are stunned. An undercover video of a Halal abattoir was featured on the Daily Mail online as evidence of the cruelty of Halal (Poulter, 2017). However, the films were made by Animal Aid, who had footage from 13 slaughterhouses, two of which were non-stun Halal premises. 10 of the slaughterhouses had serious animal welfare breaches, including one that was RSPCA approved and two that were Soil Association approved (Animal Aid, 2017). This shows that the animal welfare breaches are a problem for all abattoirs, not exclusively Halal ones.

All of this can be seen as part and parcel of the worldwide rise of Islamophobia, particularly in the UK. Islamophobia’s roots are certainly older than the advent of the ‘War on Terror’ – but 9/11, and the increasing number of high profile terrorist attacks since, has certainly cemented Islamophobia as a pressing social and political issue of this century (Allen, 2010).

Some particularly high profile cases of so-called “Asian Sex Gangs” (child sexual exploitation by men from a Muslim background) have also added to the fire of Islamophobia. Critics said that Police had been scared to investigate crimes due to the risk of being branded as racist. However, many more elements came into play regarding the reasons these crimes managed to affect so many children for so many years. Child sexual exploitation is difficult to prosecute, as children often don’t report the crimes, evidence is difficult to obtain and it is expensive and difficult to investigate. The Times (the paper which broke the story), also completely de-contextualised and manipulated the data to fit with their narrative (Cockbain, 2013).

Conclusion

So, to summarise:

  1. Halal meat processes historically aimed to reduce suffering of animals and to show them respect.
  2. Advances in animal welfare techniques have meant that most Halal slaughterhouses now use stunning to minimise pain, as is UK law for all other slaughterhouses.
  3. Halal slaughterhouses are just as vulnerable to malpractice as all others and this does seem to be common.
  4. The media has played a huge role in swaying public opinion on Halal meat. It has exaggerated the role of non-stun practices for Halal meat and over represented cruelty in Halal slaughterhouses.
  5. Far right and Islamophobic attitudes have been able to flourish under this scandal, masked by a concern for animal cruelty.
  6. If the public have a concern with animal welfare there is always the option of following a vegan or vegetarian diet.