Ritual Slaughter and Animal Welfare

Quite a few people thought I should talk about the Independent’s story: Denmark banning kosher and halal meat. 

One of the people who thought I should talk about it was my cousin who’s currently doing a PhD in philosophy. Understanding somebody else’s PhD topic is always tricky, but to my knowledge, she’s investigating the rights of minority groups, e.g. religions, in liberal societies. There’s a fundamental conflict in a society which likes to believe everyone has the right to practice their beliefs when those beliefs might compromise the rights of others in the society. Whose rights should be most protected?

Now I am neither Muslim nor Jewish, I’m a staunch atheist. I’ll talk about this as objectively I can, and it’s not my intent to insult anyone.

Firstly – Halal meat is meat killed in accordance with Islamic laws. The animal is slaughtered in the Dhabīḥah  method which involved the animal’s carotid artery being slit and the aim of this is to kill the animal as quickly as possible to reduce suffering. It’s important to note this – for years halal was considered good welfare. The law is there to promote good welfare as traditionally, Allah wants us to look after the animals.

Jewish dietary law is called kashrut, and foods which obey these laws are kosher. Only clean animals may be eaten and clean animals are cloven hoofed cud-chewers (ruminants), but not animals which digest in the hind gut or do not have a cloven hoof. There’s a list of flying animals that it is not okay to eat, such as birds of prey, bats, fish-eating birds, and you can only eat sea-dwelling animals that have both fins and scales. Incidentally, and in the light of my last post, I do have a Jewish friend who likes to point out that giraffes are kosher. Poor Marius never stood a chance in Denmark. The ritual slaughter of kosher animals is similar to halal, a precise cut to the throat severing the carotid, jugulars, vagus nerves, trachea and oesophagus. The shochet, the man who kills the animals, traditionally should be a good Jewish man with great respect for the religion, and therefore a respect for the suffering of the animals.

Both of these methods promote good care of the animals, respect for the animal being slaughtered, and – and I think this is really important – traceability of meat. They both tick a lot of my boxes. They protect human interest by showing due care and attention to the food chain and food hygiene, and they protect the animal’s interest by showing them respect and killing them in what is perceived to be the best way of avoiding suffering.

So why do Denmark have concerns over halal and kosher meat?

I expect it’s to do with the lack of stunning. Gregory et al (2009) compared three forms of killing beef cattle by investigating the blood found in the trachea. They compared shechita (no bolt stunning beforehand), halal (no bolt stunning beforehand) and bolt stunning plus ‘sticking’ (the method of slaughter is mechanically the same but because it is stunned beforehand and there’s no prayer it the religious terms are not accurate). Now note first off that this study does have a flaw in that it’s not the same person killing all these animals, because then it would not be true shechita/halal, so some of the variation here cannot be attributed to the method but the slaughterer. All three methods found animals which had blood in the trachea (the shechita slaughtered animals had the least amount of blood in the trachea with only 19% of animals showing blood there, with the 21% of the stuck animals showing blood and 58% of the halal animals). The blood reached down as far as the upper bronchi (indicating quite a lot of aspiration of the blood, e.g. the animal was sucking down a breath of blood) in 36% of the shechita animals, 69% of the halal and 31% of the stuck animals. There was a bright bloody foam in the in the trachea of some of the animals (indicating air being forced through the blood) in 10% of the shechita, 19% of the halal and 0% of the stunned animals. The authors concluded that the animals killed without stunning could suffer a welfare challenge from the inhalation of blood before they lose consciousness.

In 2010, Gregory et al looked at how quickly halal slaughtered cattle collapsed after the cut was made. 14% of the animals studied stood again after collapsing. This demonstrates that consciousness is not lost, and so the method, wonderful though its intent may be, does not work as it should.

Another interesting religious dietary law is that Sikhs cannot eat either halal or kosher meat. Sikhs believe that ritual slaughter which involves prayer and a protracted death is an unnecessary level of ritualism and isn’t appropriate. Instead they slaughter their meat animals using the jhatka method which should completely sever the head from the body of the animal in one blow, minimising suffering. (Incidentally, I haven’t been able to find out if Denmark still allows jhakta meat, please let me know if you have info on this).

The EU has a directive on animal slaughter which requires stunning unless the member state wants to exempt a religious group from the directives rules. Denmark has decided no longer to allow this exemption for religious groups. Some papers have looked at what it would take to have Islam accept stunning as part of halal slaughter (Nakyinsige et al, 2013, spoilers – there are ways to have halal meat with stunning)

But! I just want to point out one last thing. When we’re assessing welfare in slaughterhouses, we use ‘success of stunning’ as a welfare measure (Grandin, 2001, Grandin, 2010). Stunning is not the end to all slaughter related welfare problems. Who has the right to tell religious groups what they can and cannot do? Well I have a personal opinion about that, but I think that science’s role in this debate is to investigate welfare indicators, to find reliable and safe methods of slaughter, and not to forget that many of these dietary rules come from a desire to protect welfare. And it is my job as a member of my society to say I’m worried about animal welfare at slaughter.

One last thing. While I’m concerned about halal, kosher and even jhakta meat, I have eaten the first two and would eat the third. I’m considering making a goat curry and the local butcher who does goat is a halal butcher. But I rarely ever buy Danish bacon. In part because I want to support the British pork industry, but in part because I have welfare concerns about the farming of Danish bacon. Rightly or wrongly, I have more concern over the policy differences between my country and Denmark, than I do over ritually slaughtered meat. I wonder how right I am about that.

Edited to Add – An acquaintance of mine with more experience on the slaughter side of animal welfare had a few good points to make about this article, which I will share here.

  • There’s a difference between small ruminants and large ruminants in using cut-throat slaughter. Smaller animals tend to lose consciousness within 8 seconds and so the worries about consciousness and suffering that Gregory et al raise are less of a concern for my goat curry (I am making that goat curry soon – I can taste it already . . .)
  • And two – the animal’s life before slaughter is such an important component of animal welfare that my last point may be misleading for the layperson. We need lots of research on slaughter, all forms of it, but how we care for food-production animals in their lives is one of the biggest welfare challenges facing our society.
Advertisements