Animal rights campaigners and consumers are justified in their outrage over the ambiguity of food packaging labels. But anyone leaping into the latest Halal meat controversy should mind the Islamophobic bandwagon, warns Yvonne Ridley.
It was the Sun ‘wot dunnit’ this time when it, and the Daily Mail, reignited the food debate on Halal meat after it emerged that Pizza Express serves Halal chicken. Now a series of big supermarket chains have admitted to selling similar products without informing the consumer that certain meats are halal.
Notwithstanding the fact half the nation was consuming horse meat without knowing it, it’s hardly surprising there’s been genuine outrage over this story. We all have a right to know exactly what we are eating, from where it is sourced and the method by which it reached our tables.
However, two issues must be highlighted in this foodie brouhaha which has exploded out of all proportion. The first, widely discussed one focusses on the animal rights aspect of the story. The second – less prominent yet, in some ways, far more sinister – issue is to do with how the media has managed to turn this whole discussion into another opportunity for whipping up even more hatred towards Muslims – and, by default, Jews (since they, too, eat religiously-slaughtered meat).
The Royal Society for the Protection Against Cruelty to Animals makes no distinction between pre-stunned halal meat and conventionally-slaughtered meat. In either case, stunning an animal involves discharging an electric shock – and yes, this involves a degree of pain. Indeed, stunning was introduced not as a more humane way of killing animals, but for the safety and benefit of slaughterhouse staff tasked with preparing the animals for slaughter.
So to the animal lovers I would say: if you are really concerned about the preparation of meat and insist the animal you eat suffers no pain at all then it is time to turn your back on the meat industry and become vegan or vegetarian.
Moreover, the corporate meat market is worth billions of pounds, employs thousands and is seen as a vital arm of the British food industry. Religious slaughter or not, it is up to the consumer to make an informed choice on the issue – but don’t call for the banning of Halal meat just because you don’t like Muslims. Sadly this latest media scrap has mixed the issues to such an extent that it is becoming difficult to untangle these two distinct threads.
When Adolf Hitler came to power, one of his first actions, in 1933, was to ban kosher food. In this context, the latest rants against “Muslim food” smack of the same rhetoric deployed by the Nazis against “Jewish food”. Those who dismiss the Islamophobic tone of anti-Halal hysteria do so at their peril. Islamophobia is very real, as real as anti-semitism, and we all know where that led in 1930s Europe.
The reason I’m taking such an interest in the issue is that I live on a farm in the Scottish Borders and have started keeping livestock – my turkeys, geese and hens run around on a free-range basis and, despite losing some stock to a pesty fox (and I doubt he’s that bothered about the pain and distress he causes), they seem very happy with their lot.
When it is time for them to be religiously slaughtered this will be done within an Islamic context: They will have a last meal and, when it is time, they won’t even see the knife coming because in Islam we believe that the animal’s death should be as painless as possible; that the act should take place away from the other animals so there’s a minimum of distress.
A prayer is also delivered during the ritual which can, in principle, be carried out by a practising Christian or a Jew as well as a Muslim. Such considerations cannot be accommodated, I believe, in a fast food industry where huge efficiency demands are pushed on slaughterhouses. Still, it is up to the Halal and Kosher food authorities to rigorously enforce them.
The reality is that animals, whether religiously-slaughtered or not, do feel pain when killed – by any method. So, yes: have a rant, by all means, but do it for the right reasons.
This article first appeared on Ceasefire, an independent political and cultural quarterly publication.