The EU’s 2009 Slaughter Regulation requires all animals, including poultry, to be stunned before slaughter. Stunning is defined as any intentionally induced process which causes loss of consciousness and sensibility without pain, including any process resulting in instant death.
The UK has invoked the “religious exemption” from the EU’s “slaughter directive” and in practice now carries out more halal slaughter than the rest of Europe. Traditional halal meat is expected to be killed by hand and must be blessed by the slaughterman. The exception allows for animals to be slaughtered without being stunned first.
The halal market is worth £2.6bn in Britain alone, and the export market is also growing particularly in the Middle East. Most of us eat halal meat unwittingly on a daily basis, since it is sold in most major outlets, including big brand-name supermarkets, without being labelled as such.
No one knows at present what form Brexit will take. Will we still be part of the “single market” and therefore bound by common rules? Will we, on the contrary, be free to develop our own set of rules and standards, even if these go beyond EU requirements?
Personally, I much regret that the UK invoked the “religious exemption” in the first place. I don’t believe that religious convictions, however deeply held, justify unnecessary cruelty to animals – a position which, I am glad to say, has been vigorously maintained for some time by organisations such as the British Veterinary Association, the Humane Slaughter Association and the RSPCA. I would be happy to see specific UK legislation, drafted to replace the EU slaughter directive, explicitly preclude the “religious exemption” from pre-stunning requirements.
I recognise, however, given the strength of feeling in some quarters (and given the explicit commitments in the Conservative 2015 Manifesto to “protect methods of religious slaughter”), that “dropping the religious exemption” may be difficult to achieve in the present context, however desirable in the long term.
But there is, happily, another way of rapidly achieving an important step forward as far as the halal issue is concerned and that is to introduce in the UK a mandatory labelling scheme whereby any and all halal meat offered for sale (including for exports) would be clearly labelled as such.
The EU Commission at present is investigating just such an option but it’s likely to be a long time coming. Nor do individual EU member states have much freedom in this area to take unilateral action. Mandatory labelling schemes devised by individual EU member states for application in their own territory are almost always struck down by the EU authorities as being contrary to the principles of the Common Market. And, of course, EU-wide labelling schemes may no longer affect us at all.
But as far as the halal issue is concerned, Brexit might allow us to devise and implement precisely such a national labelling scheme. The key building block here is of course the operation of informed consumer choice. If the consumer actually knows what he or she is buying, we would – I believe – in very short order see in a major reduction of halal products without at the same time offending the sensibilities of religious groups.
More generally, well-judged “post-Brexit” action by the UK in the field of animal welfare and the environment may act as a spur and a stimulus to our continental, but no longer-EU, partners to up their own game.
Many years ago, the UK banned the rearing of veal calves in crates. The EU eventually followed suit. UK rules on animal experimentation were eventually followed by EU directives. We may no longer be able to throw our weight around in the EU, but there is a wider world out there – UN specialised agencies, for example – dealing with international animal welfare and environmental matters where we should be proud to take a lead.
Stanley Johnson is a former Conservative MEP, author and journalist. He was the Founder-Chairman of the European Parliament's Intergroup Group on Animal Welfare and holder of the RSPCA’s Richard Martin Award for Outstanding Services to Animal Welfare
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