Government backs down on religious slaughter ban

A confrontation between ministers and Muslim and Jewish communities was avoided yesterday when the Government backed down from legislating on the religious slaughter of animals.

A confrontation between ministers and Muslim and Jewish communities was avoided yesterday when the Government backed down from legislating on the religious slaughter of animals.

In a move that angered animal welfare groups but was welcomed by Muslim and Jewish leaders, the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) said legislation would not change, to enforce the stunning of livestock before slaughter.

The decision will no doubt raise suggestions that the Government is bending over backwards not to antagonise Muslim leaders when it needs their support to help counter the threat of Islamic terrorism.

Strict halal and kosher practises require that animals are conscious when their throats are cut for bleeding, and slaughterhouses operating under religious supervision are exempt from some animal welfare legislation. Most slaughterhouses stun animals before killing.

Ben Bradshaw, a minister at Defra, said that in a multicultural society it was important to respect the views of all religious groups.

Acknowledging that the issue was "deeply contentious" Mr Bradshaw said: "We ... accept that there are deeply held beliefs on both sides of this argument. We will not ban the production of halal or kosher meat. A ban could in any case simply result in kosher and halal meat being imported. We would, therefore, be exporting the problem, resulting in no overall improvement in animal welfare."

The decision goes against the recommendation of a report last year by the Farm Animal Welfare Council, a government advisory body, which said it was "unacceptable" not to stun livestock before slaughter.

Mr Bradshaw said there was "some merit" in the council's recommendation that cattle slaughtered by having their throats cut should receive an immediate post-cut stun because it normally took about two minutes for the animals to lose consciousness. But, he said, Defra did not want to legislate on the issue. Ministers will consult with the Jewish and Muslim communities on the way forward.

The religious stipulations in both faiths stem from the belief that animals should not eat an animal that has undergone hurt or injury in dying. They say the swift severance of the jugular vein and the draining of blood, consumption of which is forbidden, causes the animal to feel virtually nothing.

Almost all halal meat is slightly stunned before slaughter, although this is not acceptable to strict Muslims. Jewish law does not allow this option in shechita, the kosher method.

The RSPCA said it was unhappy with the decision. Dr Julia Wrathall, head of the charity's farm animals department, said: "By rejecting these changes the Government is accepting that animals will continue to suffer and is denying consumers the chance to make an informed choice about the meat they eat."

Muslim leaders had indicated that any changes in legislation were liable to be challenged under the Human Rights Act's guarantees of religious freedom.

Dr Shuja Shafi, chairman of the health and medical committee of the Muslim Council of Britain, said the council was "pleased and content" with the Government's decision.

He said the council was still considering its response to the idea of a "post-cut stun" which required further investigation of problems such as contamination of meat by brain tissue which might be infected with BSE.

Henry Grunwald, president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews said that while he welcomed the Government's commitment to allow Jews to practise shechita, he was "deeply concerned" that the council's claims about the pain suffered by animals had been accepted. "Their conclusions have been reached without any published scientific confirmation. We are particularly concerned by the false message that this sends about shechita and the Jewish approach to the treatment of animals.''

More than 90 other recommendations of the FAWC report on the welfare of red meat animals were accepted by the Government, but they are also being put out for consultation.

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