Read my blog at Huffington Post

I also blog at Huffington Post's new UK site; please click here to read my posts there.

Thursday, 21 April 2011

Food for thought on meat labelling

MEPs have voted to create special labels for "meat from animals slaughtered without stunning", or words to that effect. The law requires all animals to be mechanically pre-stunned. But there is an exemption for kosher and halal slaughter. Kosher slaughter (shechita) prohibits mechanical pre-stunning. Under the rules of shechita, the animal has to be healthy and uninjured at the point of death, and you have to kill it painlessly so that it loses consciousness instantly. Anything else is considered inhumane and so is forbidden under the rules. So religious Jews believe that mechanically pre-stunned meat is not kosher and so they choose not to eat it.

Anyway, the law allows for the kosher slaughter of animals without mechanical pre-stunning. Meat from many parts of these animals is not kosher, so it goes into the general meat market, not the kosher market. And the MEPs want labels on this meat, so that consumers know that it has been slaughtered without having been stunned. But supporters of shechita argue that it has been stunned - it loses consciousness instantly at the moment of death, thanks to the way in which the throat is cut under shechita. So the labels are inaccurate.

Worse still, when you do mechanically pre-stun an animal, the stunning often fails, meaning that the animal dies in prolonged agony from the very gas or electrocution that was supposed to stun it. The law does not require you to stun the animal - it merely requires you to try to stun it! But there is no plan to mention failed stuns on labels - it is only meat produced without an attempt at mechanical stunning that is be labelled. You can club squirrels to death or poison them with warfarin and then sell the meat in London shops (this is actually happening), without any mention on the label of how the animal has been slaughtered. You can attempt to stun a conscious animal by firing a metal bolt into its forehead (with interesting CJD implications when the bolts are re-used), and nobody will be told this on labels. It is only the religious aspect of slaughter that is being singled out for labelling.

Surely, if we are to be fair, we should either label all aspects of how an animal has been slaughtered, or none? To single out only the religious aspect seems perverse and to be motivated, at least in part, by some people's dislike of organised religion. Shechita has been legal in this country for centuries without special labelling and it is not an especially inhumane method of slaughter; some experts argue that it is actually relatively humane. The labelling could make the production of kosher meat unviable in the UK, which is worrying for those of us who care about religious freedom at least as much as we care about animal welfare. I hope that this labelling proposal falls at its next hurdle.

But what, you might ask, about the rights of consumers who don't want to eat meat that has been killed without an attempt at mechanical pre-stunning? That is a respectable question.Well, they can eat organic - all organic meat is from animals that have been mechanically pre-stunned (with or without success). So, if you want to avoid shechita, buy organic. And if you want meat to be labelled with its method of slaughter, then let's label all the meat, with all the methods of slaughter, and not only the shechita meat. Which would be a huge increase in the burden of red tape faced by the food and retail industries, and so strikes me as a daft idea, but if you're going to label one method of slaughter, then label all methods of slaughter.

As my Lib Dem colleague Sarah Ludford MEP put it well:

"I opposed the labelling of kosher and halal meat last June and deplore this new decision of the committee. Singling out religious slaughter is not only unjustified on animal welfare grounds, but risks being discriminatory through stigmatising the practices of Muslim and Jewish communities.
"The assumption that 'secular' slaughter is by definition superior to religious slaughter is simply untrue. Pre-stunning through electrocution or gassing is not necessarily more humane, and the documentation of disgracely sloppy practices has shown great cruelty can take place.
"Meat labelling must avoid prejudice and be comprehensive in scope so that shoppers can understand the implications of all methods of slaughter. It is unjustified to single out the 2 methods inspired by religious tenets. 
"I hope that a vote of all MEPs in a forthcoming European Parliament plenary session will reject the present discriminatory labelling proposal."

No comments:

Post a Comment