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Religious Slaughter of Farm Animals

Volume 662: debated on Tuesday 2 July 2019

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the religious slaughter of farm animals.

Before I get to the issue in the motion, I must say that free votes in the House are wonderful. Those moments when the party structures and the Whips withdraw from the debate—when there are no Whips to point to which Lobby to go through—allow each individual to engage with an issue using their own reason and judgment and can be incredibly refreshing for our politics. Some of the best-quality debates in Parliament take place under free-vote conditions. Cross-party alliances form and, in the end, the House tends to arrive at a sensible and proportionate consensus.

Of course, the party system developed because, if there were free votes on everything, the Government would not be able to get anything done or deliver any of their manifesto commitments, but issues of ethics and religious conviction have always been universally accepted as free-vote issues. For instance, we have free votes on same-sex marriages and on contentious issues such as abortion. My key contention is that religious slaughter should be made a free-vote issue by every party in the House.

Whitehall feels awkward about dealing with this complex issue and it is not sure what to recommend to Ministers. Governments of all shades have tended to leave the issue in the “Too difficult to address” box and have talked themselves into a stance that says, “Now is not the time to deal with it.” If we made it a free-vote issue for the House, we would liberate the Government of that burden of responsibility and, more importantly, liberate Parliament to address the issue.

I spoke to the hon. Gentleman beforehand to get his thoughts about what he was going to say. In my council area of Ards, there was an abattoir that carried out some of the ritual killings and stunned and so on. It created jobs and stability and there was a system in place, which seemed to be acceptable. Is he looking for changes in the methodology of killing or does he want to stop it entirely?

I will go on to advocate a package of measures to improve our law, having looked at the issue in some depth. I would stop short of banning it altogether, but we could make major improvements, which I will come to.

The history of our current derogation is long. The first regulations governing abattoirs and the humane treatment of animals in them were introduced through the Public Health Act 1875, which said that all animals should be “effectually stunned”. In 1904, a committee of the Admiralty considered in some depth the right methods of slaughter to deliver humane outcomes for animals and recommended that, without exception, all animals should be stunned. Subsequently, however, the Local Government Board issued a circular that drew on the advice in the 1904 report. It recommended that, as a general rule, all animals should be stunned prior to slaughter, but it created what has become a long-standing religious derogation for Jewish and Muslim communities.

I declare a number of interests in the industry. The 2017 Food Standards Agency report revealed that 84% of halal-slaughtered animals were stunned prior to slaughter. That means that when the speed of production is important, people will stun them.

I was going to come on to that. There is no barrier to using stunning for halal, provided it is what is called a recoverable stun. That same FSA report also worryingly revealed that 25% of all sheep slaughtered in the UK are slaughtered without stunning. That alarming rise is difficult to explain.

Our laws were formalised by the Slaughter of Animals Act 1933, where the exemptions for religious slaughter were maintained. They have evolved from that through various stages, but the current position has not changed much since 1995. The principal plank of our national requirements on religious slaughter mainly revolve around standstill times. In the case of non-stunned slaughter, sheep cannot be moved until they have lost consciousness or, in any event, for at least 20 seconds. Cattle cannot be moved for at least 30 seconds, or until the animal has lost consciousness. There is a different requirement for chickens, which cannot be moved to the next stage of production until 30 seconds have elapsed or the bird has become unconscious. The purpose of those standstill times is to prevent stress on the animal.

It is worth recognising how animals die in a non-stun slaughter situation. For sheep, most of the evidence suggests—I have discussed this with officials—that they typically lose consciousness in somewhere between 10 and 15 seconds. It takes slightly longer for chickens, which lose consciousness in between 15 and 18 seconds.

The greatest concern, however, is always the impact on bovine animals—cattle—although they are small in number, because their physiology is complicated by the fact that they have a third artery that goes to the back of the head that continues to supply blood even after the cut has taken place. I apologise to hon. Members for going into the gruesome details, but if we allow such things to happen in our name, it is important to explain exactly what they are. For cattle, it typically takes 40 to 45 seconds for the animal to collapse—not to become unconscious, but to fall off its legs due to the lack of blood supply—and between one minute 20 seconds and two minutes for the animal to lose consciousness. A former Farming Minister, Jim Paice, once described a situation that he had seen when visiting a religious slaughter abattoir where it took six minutes for a bovine animal to bleed to death, which he said was a truly horrific event to watch.

I often hear from representatives of organisations such as Shechita UK that the cut is so precise and clean that it all happens very quickly, but there is not really any evidence to support that. In fact, in the shechita slaughter process, if the blood starts to clot in the throat cut, it is permitted for the slaughterman to push his hand into the wound and disturb the clotted blood to resume the flow. Those are difficult situations. For bovine animals in particular, it is a major cause for concern.

I thank my hon. Friend for securing the debate and for his point about it being a moral issue. We rear animals as farmers and we want them to be stunned when they are killed. It is we—man—who decide how they are killed, not the animal. New Zealand has brought in stunning for all the halal it does across the world, and it exports a lot to the middle east. When we leave the European Union, we will have the opportunity to have a similar system.

With shechita, I wonder whether we could not at least have post-stunning of bovine animals. What my hon. Friend has described is horrendous and we need to do more to relieve the suffering of those animals.

My hon. Friend makes an important point. I will come to how other countries address this challenge.

All sorts of difficulties arise through our current rules on halal and shechita or kosher meat production. There are a wide range of definitions of halal. As hon. Members have pointed out, some statistics suggest that 70% to 80% of all animals slaughtered under halal are stunned. The key requirement for halal is that animals receive an Islamic blessing and that any stun should be recoverable, so that in theory they could regain consciousness. It is very hard to define what is halal, because it ranges from simply playing a recording of an Islamic blessing, right through to non-stun slaughter.

In the case of kosher meat, there is a further problem. The hind quarters of an animal are not deemed kosher, even if the animal was slaughtered under kosher methods. That means that the rump of cattle and sheep ends up going into the mainstream market—usually the service trade through Smithfield, where unwitting customers in restaurants in London and other parts of the country buy the meat not knowing it has been slaughtered by kosher methods.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the labelling of meat, so that consumers know the exact method of slaughter when they order their food from restaurants or supermarkets, might be a way forward to address overproduction and allow consumers to make an informed choice?

Labelling is indeed one option, which I was going to come to. It does not get us all the way, because we have the service trade, where labelling would be ineffective at helping consumers to understand how their meat was slaughtered.

If we had a free vote in Parliament, what types of issues might we want to consider? Although this is a sensitive issue, it is important to ask whether our current derogation accommodates a religious need, or whether it is more a cultural interpretation of such a need. There is wide variance in what is defined as halal, depending on local imams.

I am trying to look at the consistency of what my hon. Friend has said. He has acknowledged that, as far as Jewish koshering laws are concerned, the animal has to be killed in a certain way, and certain parts of the animal are not allowed. He started by saying that he would stop short of banning it altogether—I think those were the words he used. How can he reconcile those two things? If we were to have stunning, it would in effect be a ban.

I was going to come on to that. Even within the kosher community, there is not a universal view on whether post-cut stunning should be permitted.

A couple of years ago, I visited Kuwait and talked to a meat importer about the issue of halal production. He explained to me that the main requirement in Muslim countries in the middle east is that there is no pork contamination in the food they eat, which is why all their protocols focus predominantly on not sharing machinery between pork production and lamb, chicken or beef production, to ensure that there is no pork DNA. That is their primary concern, alongside ensuring that there has been an Islamic blessing of the food. When I explained to him that the issue of non-stun slaughter was contentious, he said it is predominantly a western cultural interpretation of the Muslim faith. Interestingly, non-stun slaughtered meat is not a particular requirement in middle eastern countries. There are exceptions, but generally speaking that is not their primary concern. Indeed, non-stun slaughter is banned in Australia and New Zealand, which are the largest lamb exporters to all countries across the middle east, from Israel right through to Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.

The other point about kosher meat is that Shechita UK insists that it is most certainly not a religious ritual, and a Hebrew blessing is not given. It is simply the case that the ancient holy books describe a method of slaughter that they believe remains the most humane approach. The principal concern for Shechita is that there should be no injury to an animal before it is presented for slaughter. They regard stunning as an injury to the animal—that is their particular concern—but that is not a universal view. There has been some rabbinical support for the idea of post-cut stunning, and we know that some abattoirs producing kosher meat allow post-cut stunning of bovine animals.

I turn now to some of the options that we could consider. My hon. Friend the Member for Clacton (Giles Watling) mentioned labelling, which is a complex area because there is no single definition of halal. The simplest way would be to label meat as un-stunned, because that is a clearly definable legal definition. That causes some concerns for Jewish communities. They argue that if we did do that, we should also list whether an animal has been killed through anaesthetic gas or electrocution, or all manner of other things. Farmwell, which is a leading charity in this area, established a system that all religious groups are willing to buy into: a coded approach of numbers from one to 10, denoting the method of slaughter. However, it does not deal with the problem of food entering the service trade, where unwitting customers would buy it.

There are a number of other things that we could do, including increasing the standstill time on bovine animals. The current limit of 30 seconds was probably due to a drafting error—we know that cattle do not lose consciousness that quickly. We could therefore move the minimum standstill time to at least one minute and 30 seconds or two minutes, to ensure that there is no movement of a bovine animal while it is still conscious. In conjunction, we could require a post-cut stun on all bovine animals, recognising that there is an issue with the physiology of bovines, which leads to a long and protracted death. I do not believe that a post-cut stun would violate the religious beliefs of either the Halal Food Authority or Shechita UK.

As an alternative, we could simply ban the non-stunned slaughter of bovine animals, recognising that there are issues with that. We could introduce a maximum standstill time, which is the approach taken in countries such as the Netherlands and France, where there is a requirement to use a bolt gun if a period of, say, 40 seconds has elapsed after a cut has taken place and the animal has still not lost consciousness.

We could introduce more formal quotas for abattoirs, which is an interesting idea. It is already the law that only food destined for Muslims and Jews is permitted to be slaughtered under our current religious derogation, but we know that there is a real problem with the mainstreaming of religious slaughter. We know that that provision, as drafted in our law, is unenforceable. When I discussed that with departmental lawyers, their response was that if somebody maintains that they thought that the animal was destined for a religious community when they committed the slaughter, that is sufficient to satisfy the requirement, so it is entirely unenforceable. In Germany they have a much more sophisticated quota system. They make an assessment of the need of orthodox religious communities, and abattoirs must apply for a licence and demonstrate that they have an actual market for the food they are producing.

If I am fortunate enough to catch your eye, Mr Rosindell, I will come back to the basic principle. On this specific point, Germany can do it, so why can we not do it? It is not good enough for departmental lawyers to say, “Oh, it’s all far too difficult,” which is effectively what my hon. Friend has said. There is a way through this. We know the market is oversupplied. It should be limited, should it not?

I agree that adopting a German-style model, whereby we put in place the measures and mechanisms necessary to enforce something that has been a facet of our law since at least 1933, makes a lot of sense, and is probably the easiest option for the Government, given the alarm that there has been about the growth of religious slaughter.

We could increase the period of standstill time before chickens move on to the next process. There is a very real concern at the moment that there is typically a moving shackle line for chickens, whose throats are cut randomly by people as they go past, but what happens if they miss a chicken? What happens if the chicken is not stunned through a water bath and they fail to cut its throat? The answer is that it probably proceeds to the next stage of production, which if I am not mistaken is a scalding tank to remove the feathers. It could enter that while fully conscious, which is horrific. We should be doing more to check that those birds genuinely lose consciousness before they move on to the next stage. It should not just be a moving shackle line.

It is known that in many cases stunning fails during the process. Should we not clean up our act on stunning, as well as taking on the issue of labelling? I hate to drag my hon. Friend back to that issue, but why can we not put labelling on menus too?

So-called mis-stunning is also an issue. I am not pretending that religious slaughter is the only welfare issue. Another area of concern, about which I commissioned some work when I was Minister, is the make-up of the gas mixture used in the slaughter of pigs, which was also problematic. Clearly, because it relates to pigs, it has no religious dimension whatever. There are other issues, and mis-stunning is one of them. The point about mis-stunning is that even if they get it wrong, they are there immediately afterwards with a second stun, which can resolve the issue.

I will conclude at that point, because we have only half an hour and the Minister will want to come back on some of these points. I seek to liberate him, the Government and all his successors from having to wrestle with this difficult issue. Instead, they should make it a free-vote issue and give it back to Parliament to decide.

It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. It is good to hear the thoughts of my hon. Friend the Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice), who secured this debate on such an important subject.

Does the Minister agree that there is no conclusive scientific evidence to suggest that shechita is any less acceptable than other forms of slaughter? Does he also agree that this country’s unwritten constitution has always made religious freedom a high priority? The changes that the hon. Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice) suggests risk undermining the central tenet of our unwritten constitution, which is that religious freedom is important in our society.

I completely agree that religious freedom is essential. We had a fantastic prayer breakfast this morning, at which the principles of respect and tolerance were at the forefront of our minds.

On religious slaughter, I restate that the Government’s preference is that all animals should be stunned before slaughter. However, we respect the right of Jews and Muslims to eat meat prepared in accordance with their beliefs. We therefore allow the religious slaughter of animals by Muslims and Jews for intended consumption by them. The Government believe that that is an important religious freedom, and there is a long history of upholding it in legislation, dating back to the Slaughter of Animals Act 1933, which contained an exception from stunning for religious slaughter for Jews and Muslims.

When I spoke about religious slaughter in the debate in this Chamber just a couple of months ago, I said that the Secretary of State and I would be holding a roundtable with a number of interested parties, including religious groups, animal welfare organisations—some of which are here today—and industry representatives. That meeting took place in May, and was a positive and open discussion, with helpful contributions from all who attended. Key issues discussed during that roundtable were the welfare impacts of different slaughter methods, essential ways of improving consumer information, the scope of the labelling scheme and halal assurance.

I strongly believe that the way to make progress—notwithstanding the important contributions of hon. Members from across the political spectrum—is through a roundtable and ongoing constructive dialogue. It is important to remind ourselves that in EU and domestic regulations that protect the welfare of animals at the time of killing, there are additional rules for animals slaughtered in accordance with religious rites, specifically for the production of halal and kosher meat. The primary aim of the welfare at slaughter regulations, which are based on a body of scientific evidence and advice from the European Food Safety Authority, is to ensure that animals are spared any avoidable pain, distress or suffering at the time of killing. It would be wrong to assume that the legal requirements for religious slaughter have not changed in the past 25 years.

I thank the Minister very much for giving way. He is dealing with this issue in a very reasoned way, as always. The European law says that all animals should be stunned, and there is a derogation to allow religious slaughter. We have to be careful not to wrap this up too much in the European situation. As we leave the EU, we must be much firmer on how we label and how we manage it, and we must ensure that more animals are not stunned than are needed for particular religions. We can do a lot more, so will the Minister speed up the operation? I fear that it is one of these slow operations that is not getting anywhere.

I would be surprised if the Chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee did not want faster action, as he regularly does. I hope he sees that we are upping the pace on animal welfare, with his support, for which I am grateful.

There are sensitivities on both sides—from a welfare perspective and a respecting religious freedom perspective— which we have to navigate our way through. This is an important debate, and the points that my hon. Friend the Member for Camborne and Redruth made in his well-considered speech must be taken into account. He mentioned New Zealand. I recently met one of the New Zealand Ministers of Agriculture, and we discussed this subject. I am aware that New Zealand has a quality assurance programme for halal, which we can look into. Some people suggested that Australia has a similar programme, but there is some non-stunned religious slaughter there in eight abattoirs. The focus should be on what New Zealand has to offer.

Mention was made of whether immediate post-cut stunning should be introduced to improve the welfare of animals killed without prior stunning, but when we look at that we must respect religious views. We are committed to continuing this dialogue and debate. The area that we should focus on, because it brings most people together, is labelling.

It is very kind of the Minister to give way. He will understand that there is a great deal of insecurity in the British Jewish community as a consequence of institutional antisemitism in the Opposition party. Will he reassure that community, which feels insecure and anxious, that the Government will under no circumstances ban shechita, which is a central tenet of the Jewish faith, in the United Kingdom?

I assure Muslim and Jewish communities that we respect their freedoms. Through this debate and the roundtable process that we have put in place, we want to balance those religious freedoms with what more can be done to improve the welfare of animals. That is difficult, but not impossible, to juggle. Through dialogue, we can move forward and learn from what has taken place in other countries around the world. It must be done in the unique spirit of co-operation in this country. That should be respected by all parties in this House. I get the sense from this debate that people respect that requirement and the need to look more at animal welfare.

I think that the way forward is to look at these issues, consider the points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Camborne and Redruth, look at the mechanisms we have got through the roundtable forum that we have created, and move that on. We can focus more on labelling. We must engage with the communities and the industry to see how we can take this further forward. Our exit from the EU will provide an opportunity to do that with more conviction and at greater pace. I am sure that will please the Chair of the EFRA Committee. Thank you for your support in this debate, Mr Rosindell.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.