Slaughterhouse rules: Is halal always humane?

Updated April 06, 2015

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Focusing solely on the method of slaughter leaves little attention to be paid to the ethical costs of our demands.—Reuters.
Focusing solely on the method of slaughter leaves little attention to be paid to the ethical costs of our demands.—Reuters.

Several weeks ago, a video surfaced on the internet, documenting outrageous animal abuse at a ‘halal’ slaughterhouse in North Yorkshire, England. A single viewing of the video is enough to make the most compulsive meat-eater drop the steak knife, and re-examine what ‘halal’ means to us.

For those of us who have grown up watching animals bleating and thrashing their legs as they are slaughtered in the front porches of our homes, the video may be only a degree and-a-half above our threshold of tolerance.

It depicts workers angrily throwing and kicking sheep across the abattoir floor, sometimes even cheering as they slit the animals’ throats (often in multiple attempts).

In the United Kingdom, a country where up to 88 per cent of the animals are 'stunned' before being slaughtered, the uproar was ground-shaking.

Also read: Halal food authority?

Practicing Muslims around the world, especially in non-Islamic countries, take great pains to ensure that the food they’re consuming is halal. I’ve met conservative Muslim friends in Europe denying themselves ketchup, and altogether avoiding restaurants where non-halal food is served, for fear of it being prepared in the same cookware as pork.

Similar care is taken by people of the Jewish faith. Such are the similarities between the religious demands of each group that less discerning Muslims in Western states have a rule of thumb that ‘kosher’ food is permissible for them to eat, as ‘halal’ food is permissible for Jewish people.

Regrettably, when we say ‘halal’, we focus solely on the method of slaughter – the correct ritual of zibah by the Muslims, and schechita by the Jews. The preoccupation with the ritual leaves little attention to be paid to the environmental and ethical costs of our demands.

Moderate Muslims generally agree that humane production is an integral part of what makes meat ‘halal’. Theoretically, the animal must be killed as swiftly and painlessly as possible, as long as the blood loss isn’t arrested.

Read on: Politicising the holy cow, alienating India's minorities

In contrast to that ideal, The Telegraph reported a sharp rise in animal slaughter without pre-stunning in the UK, allegedly due to stronger campaigning by Muslims for traditional slaughter practices.

Screen grab from the slaughterhouse video.
Screen grab from the slaughterhouse video.

Meanwhile, the Danish government put its foot down, and revoked the religious exemption to the law requiring animals to be stunned before slaughter. Fighting the dual charge of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, the minister for food and agriculture, Dan Jørgensen, unapologetically stated that “animal rights come before religion”.

Although condemned by the conservatives as an attack on religious values, most progressive Muslims seem to be in agreement with the Danish government.

After all, how does it reflect on one’s faith to stand before the court demanding to be exempted from laws preventing animal cruelty, arguing that one’s (interpretation of) religion mandates said cruelty?

This is not to say that animal abuse is the fief of halal or kosher meat industry. We have enough footage of animal abuse in regular slaughterhouses to prove an epidemic of apathy for the process that turns a non-human creature into a patty to grace those lonely sesame-buns.

Take a look: Seeking a niche in the halal market

As I order a bowl of mutton curry at a restaurant, I may have a list of concerns about its price, taste, calorie count, gluten content, genetically-modified ingredients and whether the meat comes from an animal slaughtered in a ritual consistent with my religious values; the suffering of the animal whose remnant lies before me as my casual meal, seldom appears on that list.

Clearly, we aren’t being picky enough about what we eat. It may be time for a more comprehensive definition of ‘permissible’ food, which as a matter of decency, should flatly exclude the meat of animals that are not treated humanely.