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Meat: Ritual Slaughter and Religious Freedom

Volume 796: debated on Thursday 28 March 2019


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government, in the light of developments including the judgment of the Court of Justice of the European Union of 26 February Œuvre d’assistance aux bêtes d’abattoirs v Ministre de l’Agriculture et de l’Alimentation (C–497/17) that meat prepared according to the rules of religious slaughter cannot be classed as organic, what plans they have to encourage a wider debate about the space for practice in accordance with religious rights that respects human rights and equalities laws.

My Lords, the Government note the judgment that EU law does not authorise the placing of the EU organic production logo on products derived from animals that have been slaughtered in accordance with religious rites without first being stunned. The ruling will apply in the UK but, in any event, since January all UK organic control bodies ceased to certify meat from non-stunned animals as organic.

I thank the Minister for that Answer. This ECJ judgment effectively means that those in the Jewish and Muslim communities who wish to purchase kosher or halal meat legally slaughtered without pre-stunning will be unable to buy products with the organic label. I am secular, but I think it is important that religious communities have the right to practise their religion, not just the right to religious belief, as long as human rights and equalities laws are respected. We are seeing not only attacks on places of worship but on matters of dress, male circumcision and time off for religious observance as well as animal slaughter. Room for religious practice is being squeezed. How will the Government promote an honest, open debate in our society about where this is going and where a reasonable settlement lies?

The first point I make to the noble Baroness, which I made in my Answer, is that prior to the judgment it was already not possible to buy organic halal or kosher meat from un-stunned animals. That was the practice from January. On her general point about religious freedoms, in this country we have some of the best protections in the world with the Equality Act and the convention on human rights. It is something of which we can be justly proud.

My Lords, I draw the noble Baroness’s attention to yesterday’s Hansard, where the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, is reported as saying that,

“if the Prime Minister’s deal goes through … rulings of the European Court of Justice will be directly applicable in this country … So we had better get used to it”.—[Official Report, 27/3/19; col. 1854.]

My Lords, my noble friend has already drawn the noble Baroness’s attention to that point. As I have said, this was the pre-existing practice in this country anyway, and there is no proposal to change the law in this regard.

My Lords, in the UK a substantial amount of meat and meat products from animals killed without stunning and meant for the consumption of certain religious groups finds its way into the general food chain. What are the Government doing to prevent that or to ensure that there is adequate labelling of meat and meat products so that consumers can make an informed choice about what to eat?

My Lords, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has indicated that it will look at labelling in the round to ensure that we take account of consumer demand. Therefore, that is something that we can ensure. It has been perfectly legal to sell kosher and halal meat since the 1930s and that position remains unchanged. The only change is that since January this year—this is not to do with the judgment—it has not been possible for it to be classified in this country as organic.

My Lords, I would like to register an interest in that I eat only kosher meat. I understood that labelling meat as organic is about how the animal is reared or fed, not about how it is killed. However, does the Minister agree that mechanical stunning methods are not fool-proof? Why does he think that campaigners often concentrate on shechita, for example? According to Defra, mis-stunning, which can cause an animal distress, affects about 1% of the total poultry slaughtered per annum—9.5 million—when the total number of poultry for the kosher market is just 1 million a year.

My Lords, I note what my noble friend says and he is absolutely right: the number of mis-stunning incidents in abattoirs is very low, and that has been the case over a period of time. As I said, there is a delicate balance to be struck here between what might be desirable from an animal sentience point of view and what is desirable from a religious rights point of view. It is a very delicate balance but I think that we have it right in this country. Certainly, my department has had very few representations on this issue; I do not think that it is a major issue with the public.

My Lords, the noble Baroness’s Question is about much more than meat. It was Lord Acton who wrote that religious freedoms are the foundation of political freedoms. Is it not true that the debate for which the noble Baroness is calling is very relevant, despite the record to which the Minister has drawn attention and of which we can be proud? Religious groups are feeling caught between the views of the majority in all sorts of situations and their own religious observance and conviction.

My Lords, the right reverend Prelate makes a relevant point about the general issue and about having a debate. A debate may well be something that we should have, although I find it difficult to have it on a question of this nature. I draw the right reverend Prelate’s attention to the report of the Equality and Human Rights Commission in 2015—some three years ago—which indicated a general satisfaction with the balance that we have at the moment. However, I accept that there are issues to be addressed and I personally would welcome such a debate.

My Lords, the organic farming of animals has nothing to do with religious slaughter. I take on board what the Minister has said but, when he goes round mosques and synagogues, how will he explain to the worshippers that this Government and this country have agreed with European legislation that is both illogical and unfair?

My Lords, the noble Lord knows that I have the utmost respect for him, but I have already made the point that this judgment does not alter practice in this country; that was altered in January when the last organic body indicated that it would not certify as organic products that were not pre-stunned. I have to say to the noble Lord that I have been to hundreds of synagogues and mosques over the last three years and this has not been raised once.