VET’S DIARY: Animal welfare versus religious freedom

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This might make uncomfortable reading for some, but it is an issue whose profile has been raised by a British Veterinary Association e-petition that has just raised over 100,000 signatures.

The petition states: ‘We call for an end to slaughter without pre-stunning for all animals. EU and UK law requires all animals to be pre-stunned before slaughter to render them insensible to pain until death supervenes, but non-stun slaughter is permitted for certain communities. We support BVA, RSPCA, HSA, FAWC and FVE who conclude that scientific evidence shows that non-stun slaughter allows animals to perceive pain and compromises welfare.’

The 100,000 signature target was reached on January 29, and is quite an achievement, because only 35 out of over 32,000 e-petitions (on a whole range of issues) have ever reached 100,000 signatures.

The target is significant because it triggers a process whereby the issue must be considered for debate in the House of Commons.

Commenting on this milestone, the BVA president said: “The success of the e-petition reaching 100,000 signatures two months before the deadline shows the strength of public opinion and support for the aims of our campaign. Slaughter without stunning unnecessarily compromises animal welfare at the time of death and as such we call for an end to its practice.” 

The issue is inevitably controversial, because it can be seen as infringing the rights of religious communities, specifically Muslim and Jewish, to slaughter animals according to their tradition and culture.

However, animal welfare science and practical experience indicate that cutting animals’ throats while they are fully conscious can cause significant pain and distress, and animals can remain conscious for several minutes.

Videos of non-stun slaughter can be found on Youtube, but they are not for the faint-hearted.

Recent figures from the Food Standards Agency, who oversee animal welfare in slaughterhouses, show an increase in non-stun slaughter: 15 per cent of all sheep and goats slaughtered in the UK are now not stunned before slaughter.

Having said that, 80 per cent of Halal meat slaughtered in the UK is pre-stunned, and it seems that it is very much up to the Muslim leader officiating in the slaughter-house, whether or not animals are pre-stunned.

Indeed, a prominent British Imam, Nizar Boga, emphasised in July 2014 that pre-stunning is consistent with Muslim beliefs, and urged Muslims only to eat meat from an animal that had been stunned before slaughter.

However, pre-stunning is strictly not permissible under the Jewish method of traditional slaughter (shechita).

So meat cannot be declared kosher if it has been pre-stunned. Ironically, even then, the hindquarters of the animal are not considered kosher, so enter the wider food chain.

However, even if the issue is debated in Parliament, it is unlikely that the UK will follow the examples of Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Switzerland who have total bans on non-stun slaughter.

The rights of religious minorities in the UK are unlikely to be overturned.

But hopefully the trend of increasing non-stun slaughter can be reversed, and at the very least we can have our food labelled to show whether it comes from an animal that has been humanely stunned before slaughter.

In last week’s diary, Joe Henry looked at the causes of itchy sheep.