There is something deeply bogus about the hysteria which has gripped many of the nation's meat-eaters since The Sun exposed "The Halal Secret of Pizza Express". It was not, of course, much of a secret. The core disclosure – that all the chicken served by the company is killed in ways acceptable to Muslims – was already featured on the company's website. The firm's PR people had tweeted it. And it had been reported in The Guardian six months earlier. But then "exclusive" is a relative notion in the populist press.
Halal food, here, is a proxy for airing some dubious prejudices about Islam. The dog-whistle semiotics are that halal is here used as a synonym for a cruel kind of killing in which animals are slaughtered without being pre-stunned.
The problem is that the facts tell a different story.
The RSPCA, citing a 2012 Food Standards Agency report, estimates that 97 per cent of cattle, 96 per cent of poultry and 90 per cent of sheep slaughtered under halal procedures in British abattoirs are stunned before being killed to make them insensible to pain and distress. Only a tiny minority of animals are dispatched by throat-cutting without stunning, in the manner prescribed by the most hardline Muslims and orthodox Jews.
All the halal chicken served in Pizza Express – and Nando's, KFC and Subway as well as sold in all the main British supermarkets – differs only from other chickens killed in British slaughterhouses in one respect: a blessing is said as the creature dies. This may outrage the religiously intolerant who like to use weasel terms like "sharia creep". But it has zero bearing on animal welfare. The whole hullabaloo seems more intent on causing suffering to Muslims than it is on sparing animals from pain.
It all adds an interesting dimension to what animal ethicists call the meat paradox. Most people love animals – or at any rate disapprove of harming them – but they also like eating meat. There are three classic ways of resolving this inconsistency: some people become vegetarian; some deny any moral status to animals; but most of us live with a cognitive dissonance which compartmentalises our thinking so that we can handily forget that pork is really pig and beef once wandered our fields as cattle.
Psychologists have shown how this works. They pictured 27 non-human animals – from snails and starfish, through snakes and bats, to cows and sheep, then kangaroos and chimps – and instructed volunteers to indicate which animals they felt morally obliged to show concern for. Then they showed them a photo of a cow and asked the experimenters to rate its mental capacities. Those volunteers who had been given an apple to eat before the experiment consistently rated the cow with greater empathy than those who had been given a piece of beef jerky to chew throughout the process.
We see cows as more stupid than they are. Horses, by contrast, we rate higher than they deserve, probably because we do not eat them, except unwittingly in supermarket lasagnneigh. We feel queasy at the thought of eating dog yet we salivate at the smell of bacon from a beast far cleverer than most canines. We are outraged by the idea of whaling while happily tucking into fish and chips.
This is why the current cry – endorsed by religious leaders and animal rightists alike – for improved labelling to describe how animals are slaughtered is unlikely to succeed. A waiter asking if you would like to know how the chicken was killed before he serves the Pizza Pollo ad Astra is most likely to receive the reply: "No thanks, I'd rather not think about it ever having been alive, just at the moment."
If you eat meat, animals die for you, but most of us prefer momentarily to forget that fact. Mental confusion abounds in our daily life – which is why we smoke, binge, booze and drive gas-guzzling cars despite knowing none of these is a bright idea. And when it comes to animals it seems odd that some people get far more agitated about a battery chicken's brief dying moments than they do about its long years of tortured confinement in a shoebox-sized cage.
Money, not morality, is the key determinant here. The industry strives to keep costs down by using one method of production rather than several. More than 70 per cent of all New Zealand lamb in our supermarkets is processed according to Islamic tradition because much of the rest of that nation's produce ends up in the Middle East. Muslims in the UK constitute less than 5 per cent of the population, but they eat more than 20 per cent of English lamb.
For retailers and restaurants it makes no economic sense to have two suppliers for the same type of meat. They want to meet the requirements of the 5 per cent of customers who demand halal meat for the same reason that they strive – not always very imaginatively – to accommodate vegetarians who are just 3 per cent of the population.
The logic of all this is lost on the bigots who got the halal story trending on Twitter with the hashtag #BoycottPizzaExpress. Opportunists such as the National Secular Society tried to climb on the Islamophobic bandwagon with a statement lamenting that "unsuspecting members of the public" are "routinely being duped into buying meat from religious slaughter methods".
The truth is that most of the public are happy to eat a halal curry or kebab. Even bigots, I would wager, after a night out on the booze.
Paul Vallely is visiting professor in public ethics at the University of Chester