Pizza Express uses it in its restaurants and the Subway chain embraced it seven years ago, so asks Sarah Freeman what’s all the fuss about halal meat?
Yorkshire Poultry Products is much like any other slaughterhouse.
However, inside the rather anonymous looking premises on a Bradford industrial estate, there is one difference. After every chicken is killed, a short prayer is uttered. It only takes a few seconds, but with the business thriving the men working the production line are currently paying their respects around 200,000 times a week.
The firm was founded in the late 1990s and over the last 15 years or so it has developed into one of the largest suppliers of wholesale halal poultry in the country. For the most part, no one has taken much notice of what goes on inside YPP headquarters, but that was before Pizza Express was accused of using halal meat without telling its customers.
By the time the restaurant chain had issued a statement insisting it made its policy clear on its website, the halal issue had already snowballed. Other food retailers had been outed amid claims they had misled the public and questions had been asked in the House of Commons. Meanwhile in some quarters the whole debacle was being seen as an attempt to undermine the country’s Christian ethos and animal rights organisations were busy lining up spokesmen who could talk emotively about the suffering caused by “ritual slaughter”.
Non-halal slaughterhouses stun their animals using a bolt gun before they are killed. However, under Sharia law, animals have to be killed by hand and for the meat to be considered halal the animal must be healthy before it is killed, and all the blood must be drained from the body.
Without effective stunning, the Farm Animal Welfare Council has said that chickens and turkeys are likely to be conscious for up to 20 seconds after the fatal incision is made.
“Scientific evidence clearly shows that slaughter without pre-stunning is an important animal welfare concern,” says Eloise Shavelar, RSPCA campaigner. “In 2003, the Government’s independent advisory body, the Farm Animal Welfare Council stated that non-stun slaughter results in ‘very significant pain and distress’. Therefore, this practice puts the millions of farm animals killed without pre-stunning at risk of serious suffering.
“We recognise that religious beliefs and practices should be respected. However, we also believe animals should be slaughtered under the most humane conditions possible.”
However, there is a but and it’s a big one. While the image of livestock and cattle staring death in the face is an unsettling one for those who prefer not to think about the last moments of their lamb chop or fillet steak, most animals processed through halal slaughterhouses are not conscious when they are killed. In fact between 84 and 90 per cent are electrically stunned before they are killed.
It’s a fact recognised by the RSPCA, but the organisation sees no reason why slaughter without pre-stunning shouldn’t be made illegal. Denmark recently followed Sweden, Norway and Iceland by removing religious exemption clauses from their own regulations.
The move saw renewed pressure put on the British government with the RSPCA launching an e-petition calling for actions. However, ministers insisted they would not be following suit and yesterday David Cameron reiterated that as far as he was concerned it was a matter of consumer choice.
Back at Yorkshire Poultry Producers, one of its directors Mohammed Sarwar is similarly not quite sure what all the fuss is about.
“This industry is very tightly regulated,” he said. “All our slaughterhouse staff are licensed and you can’t get that licence over night. You have to be trained and like any other reputable company, animal welfare and hygiene are paramount.
“We use two different methods. In the first the animals are stunned before they are killed, but in the second they are not and our work is overseen by the Halal Monitoring Committee.
“Of course labelling is important. I think consumers have the right to know where the meat they are about to eat came from and how it was slaughtered, but I do see it from both sides. I know for a fact that there are companies out there which claim to produce halal meat, but their slaughtering methods don’t meet strict guidelines.
“The whole area needs to be looked at by the Food Standards Agency, but I don’t think it’s just non-Muslims who are in the dark about what they are eating.”
Two years ago Philip Davies, MP for Shipley, failed to make it law for all halal and kosher meat to be clearly labelled, but in light of this week’s events he has renewed the call.
The halal industry is estimated to be worth around £2.6bn a year to the UK, but currently, it is impossible to tell whether meat labelled as halal has been pre-stunned or not.
Even before this week’s revelations, the industry body Eblex had been consulting with suppliers about introducing a new quality assurance scheme and has said that the halal producers it has spoken to are overwhelmingly in favour of such a move.
“The halal sector has given us a very clear message that it wants an assurance scheme, is keen to get behind one that is workable and wants to help consumers make informed choices,” says Nick Allen, from Eblex.
“Not only will it help demonstrate high standards in processing for halal sheep meat, but it is also about giving consumers choice about what they are buying and a level of transparency that it has been suggested is currently missing.
“The draft proposals we have put together has different schemes for both stunned and non-stunned halal which would be clearly labelled on the product. This is what consumers are asking for and this is what we are responding to.”
The sandwich chain Subway has been using halal chicken since 2007 and many airlines, schools and hospitals who have to cater for Muslim and non-Muslims have opted to use halal suppliers for the sake of simplicity.
However, the lack of clarity over labelling comes on the back of horsemeat scandal which rocked consumer confidence in the meat supply chain. Over the space of two months last year countless supermarkets and food manufacturers were forced to admit that the products they had been selling has beef and lamb were in fact horse and the controversy was supposed to result in much tighter industry controls.
“We all have to take some responsibility for what we eat,” says a People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. “If you are talking about labels, the only one which guarantees complete peace of mind is ‘vegetarianism’.”