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Secularists Go Silly On Halal

I’ve always found halal slaughter less unpleasant than regular industrial animal slaughter. As anyone who’s ever cut themselves with a properly sharp blade knows, cutting yourself with a sharp blade doesn’t hurt at all until about a minute after the event, by which point the animal is already distinctly dead. You might prefer your animals to be shot in the head with a bolt-gun first; whatever floats your boat.

There’s no strong evidence to support either view – the only thing it’s fair to conclude is that it doesn’t make much difference [*], that both methods are almost entirely painless and instantaneous, and that slaughter is probably the least problematic aspect of the entire industrial meat supply chain from an animal welfare point of view.

Anyway. Apparently a sizeable proportion of the meat on sale in the UK is killed halal-style, along with nearly all frozen lamb imported from New Zealand (the latter because the Gulf is New Zealand’s largest meat export destination). Now, I can see that if you were some kind of hardcore religious type, you might be opposed to eating halal meat, because a prayer was said to the wrong imaginary sky fairy when it was killed and so your imaginary sky fairy might be cross. In which case, fair play to you – I disagree, but it makes sense in your worldview.

But much more baffling is this response from the National Secular Society:

We suspected that meat killed by the halal and kosher methods was being used for general consumption but we never imagined it was so widespread. It is disgraceful that ­people aren’t being told if the food they are being served is from meat that has not been stunned prior to slaughter

This is a witless quote, for two reasons.

The biggest is that the NSS spokesman’s “if” clause is wrong: 90% of halal meat sold in the UK is pre-stunned, including all NZ meat and all meat sold to supermarket chains and major foodservice companies – which is what the article in question is talking about. The only difference between this sort of ‘halal’ meat and non-halal meat is that it’s been killed by a chap who said a prayer when he cut the animal’s throat. If you object to that for any reason other than “I’m worried my god will punish me”, you are purely and simply a bigot.

But even boycotting the other 10% of halal meat, killed in the traditional style (you’re unlikely to find this on sale outside of dedicated halal butchers shops, takeaways and curry houses), is still jumping to silly conclusions about animal welfare based on your own personal sense of ‘ewww’.

If you are, genuinely, so concerned about animal welfare that a possible, unproven, small difference in possibilities of consciousness between stunned and unstunned slaughter affects your purchasing decisions, then you shouldn’t be eating randomly sourced meat in the first place – the suffering that industrially farmed animals undergo compared to compassionately farmed animals is several orders of magnitude greater than anything that happens in the slaughterhouse.

So unless you’re veggie, or you stick solely to meat that’s been produced under a recognised ‘compassion in farming’ certification scheme (or a local farm that you know follows the same principles, of course), then you should probably shut up about halal meat already. Otherwise, people might start to think that you’re just in the ‘bigot’ camp too…

[*] people have been known to argue against halal slaughter from an animal welfare point of view. However, these people tend to be arguing from prejudice, not evidence: there have been surprisingly few scientific studies done on the topic, not least because working out how much an animal has suffered during slaughter is pretty much impossible. The most comprehensive study, carried out in Germany, found that ritual slaughter was painless for sheep and calves. There is some evidence to suggest that cows, being large, take show some signs of brain activity (which doesn’t necessarily mean suffering or pain) when killed by halal/kosher slaughter – there is none to suggest the same for chickens or sheep. The Farm Animal Welfare Council report that’s usually quoted on the subject by anti-halal/kosher types ignores the evidence on either side in favour of proof-by-assertion, which is a distinctly poor show (paragraph 195).

  1. October 5, 2010 at 8:52 pm | #1


    You might be interested in this article in the New Humanist, which pretty much concurs with your main point.

    It also calls into question how effective stunning with electric currents is and whether it could in fact exacerbate pain.

  2. ajay
    October 6, 2010 at 4:57 am | #2

    Weirdly, it turns out that this could be a religious problem for Sikhs, who specifically aren't allowed to eat halal-killed meat, on the grounds that it's cruel to the animal. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prohibitions_in_Sikh

  3. October 6, 2010 at 1:40 pm | #3

    Thanks for the link, Cuthhyra – good piece.

    Ajay – I thought the prohibition was more to do with spiritual concerns (and/or about hating the Mughals) than cruelty of method of slaughter…

  4. ajay
    October 6, 2010 at 11:32 pm | #4

    Well, there may have been some of that too – wanting to isolate yourself from the dominant culture and religion. But then that's going to be the case for any religious marker, from unusual food laws to funny hats.

    I'm not a Sikh, and I don't know much about the issue, but there's this, from Wiki:
    "For Sikhs jhatka karna or jhatkaund [permitted meat] refers to the instantaneous severing of the head of an animal with a single stroke of any weapon, with the underlying intention of killing the animal whilst causing it minimal suffering."

    Incidentally, for what it's worth, I have actually seen animals being slaughtered in the traditional halal style – goats, for a Sufi festival – and they were noticeably unhappy about the experience. Lot of noise, lot of struggling, both before and after the cut. I don't think it was painless.

  5. dsquared
    October 7, 2010 at 9:40 am | #5

    I have actually seen animals being slaughtered in the traditional halal style – goats, for a Sufi festival – and they were noticeably unhappy about the experience

    but was this in a proper slaughterhouse, or in a village somewhere (any amateur farmers' slaughtering is going to look horrible). If New Zealand lamb was slaughtered in a way which distressed the animals much worse than domestic slaughterhouses, this would be visible in the quality of the meat ("dark-cutting" is apparently the term of art for meat that has been ruined by stress hormones raising its pH)

  6. ajay
    October 8, 2010 at 8:45 pm | #6

    It was by the side of a road.

    But that was aimed at John's remark that "As anyone who’s ever cut themselves with a properly sharp blade knows, cutting yourself with a sharp blade doesn’t hurt at all until about a minute after the event, by which point the animal is already distinctly dead".
    I'm sure that professional halal killing is a lot slicker. This was like something out of Apocalypse Now.

  7. dsquared
    October 8, 2010 at 11:49 pm | #7

    We did something about this on CT a while back; in actual fact, the NZ meat industry does stun animals before halal slaughter, which some foodie-purist-halal types regard as not being really halal (these would be the people for whom basically nothing counted except the full pig-sticking experience, preferably by the side of a road I think). There are about a zillion different halal standards and no co-ordination in the labelling system, plus the constant temptation for someone with a bunch of non-halal chickens and a big pending order to simply cheat. I ended up concluding that for a genuinely devout Muslim who really cared about halal, vegetarianism was the only viable option if you lived in England.

    I must say I also can't get behind this idea that having one's throat slit doesn't really hurt, although given that as I say, the NZ halal lamb industry does stun the animals, it's not really the cruelty that people are objecting to.

  8. dsquared
    October 9, 2010 at 12:00 am | #8

    Ahh, here's the ref. Basically I think that what's going on here is if you consider the scene you saw, then imagine what would happen if that sort of kicking around and screaming was happening in a slaughterhouse that had to process hundreds of hundreds of a day and avoid dark-cutting or damaging them, then you can be pretty sure that more or less any commercially slaughtered meat is going to avoid the kind of halal slaughter you saw. The question is then – does this mean that most branded "halal" is actually "I Can't Believe It's Not Halal", and if so, is there an obligation to allow Muslims to carry out roadside slaughters?

  9. ajay
    October 9, 2010 at 2:18 am | #9

    these would be the people for whom basically nothing counted except the full pig-sticking experience

    Probably not pig, to be fair, dd.

    And yes, I'm sure that no modern commercial method, halal or haram, is going to operate quite like the scrum of knife-wielding dervishes* that I saw. But I can see early Sikhs, who would be seeing something closer to the latter than the former, deciding that only instant beheading was humane enough.

    As to whether this makes it "really" halal or not, that is, as you say, up to the individual shaikh.

    (*Actual dervishes. Not a stereotype.)

  1. October 5, 2010 at 7:17 am | #1

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