You’d think there was little that as solidly respectable a chain as Pizza Express could do to offend, but with the realisation that it has been using halal chicken in its dishes without indicating so on their menu, it has managed to do exactly that.
The reaction has been fierce. Stephen Evans from the National Secular Society said that we had all been ‘duped’, and for a while #boycottpizzaexpress was even trending on Twitter. Now the company says it will review their policy.
It seems like something of an overreaction. Pizza Express is hardly the only chain to serve halal meat – KFC, Nando’s and Subway all do too, for example – and if you’ve ever eaten in your local curry house then you may well have unknowingly had halal food there. Nor can Pizza Express really be accused of hiding that it uses halal meat; it’s mentioned on the company website, and it has tweeted about it in the past.
You can see the rationale behind its decision: it’s far more economically viable to have a single supplier, and since religious slaughter is an issue that is of vital importance to someone with faith, and largely irrelevant to most without, it would seem sensible to source meat that comes from a halal abbotoir.
But is it really irrelevant? Personally, I’m not too concerned if the animal I eat has had prayers uttered over it before it is has its throat cut by hand, as the Islamic law of dhabihah dictates. And the knowledge that the chicken in a Pollo ad Astra is halal certainly won’t stop me from ordering it, but this is because Pizza Express has been clear on one vital point: the meat that they use comes only from animals that have been stunned before they have been killed.
All methods of religious slaughter were originally introduced as a way of improving both public health and, significantly, the welfare of the animal. It was the most humane way of killing available at the time. The animal had to be alert and healthy right up until the moment of death since this was the best way of ensuring that the meat would be fit for consumption. It’s also worth noting that the laws grew out of communities where relatively small numbers of animals were eaten. But now animals are killed on an industrial scale, and the ways of ensuring that this is done humanely and safely have advanced.
Pre-stunning - so the animal is insensible to pain - and religious slaughter can, and do, work together. Currently, between 84 and 90 per cent of animals in the UK that are killed for halal meat have been stunned. But this is not enough. Just like Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Switzerland, this country should make it illegal to kill an animal without stunning it first, with no exceptions. Why should religious dogma be a reason to inflict utterly needless pain on an animal?
Because the mass of evidence is unambiguous: an animal that is not stunned before it is killed will suffer unnecessary pain and stress. A 2009 report by the Farm Animal Welfare Council found that chickens and turkeys were likely to be conscious for up to 20 seconds after having their throats cut, while undercover filming by PETA has shown cattle taking as long as eight minutes to bleed to death, with as many as 14 per cent attempting to stagger to their feet. A 2009 study in New Zealand scanned the brains of calves while they were being killed, and found that those which had not been stunned felt pain for up to two minutes post-cut. Those which had been stunned felt none.
Last month, The British Veterinary Association (BVA) launched a campaign to end non-stun slaughter. “BVA has long believed that slaughter without pre-stunning unnecessarily compromise animal welfare at the time of death” their President said. “It affects millions of animals every year and action is long overdue. The RSPCA agrees: “Our concern does not relate to the expression of religious belief” they say, “but to the animal welfare compromise associated with the practice of killing by throat cutting without pre-stunning.”
If we, as a society, have an obligation to ensure that we are not subjecting animals to avoidable cruelty and distress, and I firmly believe that we do, then this barbaric practice needs to be stopped.
But I also wonder: how many of the people who called for the closure of Pizza Express are using the current furore as a cover for lazy Islamophobia? There’s a simple test: Will they be eating battery farmed eggs for breakfast tomorrow? Will they happily tuck into cheap sausages made from pigs that have never seen daylight? Do they, in fact, have any concept of how the food that they eat is farmed and killed?
Yes, this country has a serious problem with the way it produces its meat, but blaming it on religion is far too easy.