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Halal food has taken a sustained battering in recent months. The President-elect of the British Veterinary Association hit the headlines when he proposed that the UK should follow Denmark and ban religious slaughter of animals without stunning. Now the news that all Pizza Express and Subway meat is Halal has caused an upsurge in media pieces calling for such meat to be labelled accordingly. This according to Brendan O’Neill in the Telegraph is important in allowing people to choose.
On one level this all seems perfectly reasonable, but on another it seems an odd line to draw. If we are going to label the means by which meat is slaughtered then what is the logic of limiting this process only to Halal food? All meat has been slaughtered in some manner at some point – why is it Halal that is singled out for special treatment?
If we really followed the logic of this labelling process then we would surely go much further and also have all meat labelled according to whether it’s been battery farmed, the age at which it was slaughtered, force fed, and a myriad of other ethical, biological and health-related criteria. Apart from the fact that this would lead to an absurd amount of labelling all over our food, it is hard to escape the sense that Halal meat is a bit of a soft target, likely to piggyback onto broader concerns about a supposed “Islamification” of Britain and an encroaching Sharia law.
Compared with the more widespread ethical issues in the production of meat sold in the UK this is a pretty marginal issue to be taking the brunt of complaints and attention. In fact, once society has accepted the basic logic that an animal can be bred, raised and have its entire existence revolve around being killed for the pleasure of a consumer as cheaply and efficiently as possible then the frenzied concern about the few seconds before its death seems ever so slightly hypocritical.
On a practical level when it comes to the actual serving of Halal food (rather than merely labelling) then a bit more clarity over what is meant by Halal might be helpful. Halal meat is slaughtered by having the animal’s throat cut and letting the blood drain out of it while having prayers said over it. Depending on your interpretation of this law the animal may or may not be stunned and the prayer may or may not be said in person (as opposed to on a pre-recorded tape message as some abattoirs have adapted). All Pizza Express chickens, the chain have pointed out, are stunned. This interpretation of Halal slaughter is not universally accepted by Muslims, but has become the industry norm. The vast majority of Halal food meat that is not stunned is intended for Islamic butchers and specialist supermarkets.
In point of fact, 80% of British-slaughtered Halal meat is stunned (and ethical standards in the rearing of meat before slaughter tend to be rather higher than in most other parts of the meat industry). For poultry almost 90% was stunned. All New Zealand lamb sold in the UK is Halal, but (by law) must also be stunned. All these data are freely available from the Food Standards Agency.
Essentially this is nothing more than an economic decision by Pizza Express. Stocking both Halal chicken and non-Halal chicken is a massive logistical problem. The meat would have to be stored in separate fridges, prepared using different cutlery (food stops being Halal if it comes into contact with non-Halal food) and presumably sourced from a different supplier. If you want to serve meat to a mixed audience of both Muslims and non-Muslims, as is likely in most major UK cities, then the clear economic and pragmatic answer is to stock Halal meat. In some ways the critics have a point – Pizza Express are “pandering” to Muslim clients. That, however, is not Islamification, but simply good business sense.
Ben Ryan is a researcher at Theos
Image from wikimedia available in the public domain
Posted 8 May 2014
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Theos researches and investigates the intersection of religion, politics and society in the contemporary world.