Promoting Interfaith – How not to do it!


A recent Church Times headline read

Canon Goddard apologises for Muslim prayers in his church

Interfaith relations have been dealt a huge blow.

In the article the Bishop of Southwark is quoted:

A spokesperson said: “The Bishop of Southwark takes very seriously his responsibility to uphold the teaching of the Church and to work within its framework of legislation and guidance.”

On Tuesday, the spokesperson said: “Whilst it is very important to build good interfaith relations, it is clear that an act of worship from a non-Christian faith tradition is not permitted within a consecrated Church of England building.”

Further clarification was provided on Wednesday: “Canon B1 sets out what services can be used in the Church of England:  these are the Book of Common Prayer or those authorised or commended through the appropriate processes. This does not include services from another faith tradition.”

Oh dear!

The Rt Rev Christopher Chessun has surely set back interfaith relations back a long way. OK, let’s run with the letter of the CofE rules, however outdated they may be, and accept that Canon Goddard was wrong why go so public with the admonition? Surely the matter could have been dealt with over a cup of tea, in private and very well away from the prying eyes of the media, even the religious media. Words on these lines would have sufficed: “We can’t turn the clock back. What’s happened as happened, There is nothing to be gained by crying over spilt milk, but don’t do it again, my son.”

I am mindful of a column written by a Canon Eric Woods, whose views are probably diametrically opposed to those of Canon Goddard. He wrote of the “Islamification” of our country. I for one made a formal complaint, correctly through the Diocesan offices. The Rt Rev Nicholas Roderick Holtam, Bishop of Salisbury, also refused to make a pot of tea, take Canon Woods to one side and suggest temperance in sensitive times when the country’s established church needs find ways of building bridges.

In their respective ways these two Bishops may have affirmed the Church of England’s inherent “institutional Islamophobia” – that is its fear of Islam arising from ignorance.

I struggle with Bishop Chessun’s ruling in particular. What constitutes a different faith? I have a Methodist background. My home is bounded both by an ailing CofE parish church and an ailing Methodist church. The parish church is very “low church” and for as long as I can remember both churches have held regular joint services. Does the letter of canonical law allow ministers from a non-conformist faith to lead prayers on Anglican premises? Are or have exceptions been made? If they have, is there a case for doing likewise to embrace Islam?

But in reality where do you draw the line? I know of one cathedral where Muslims are made to feel very welcome but they should be excluded if their thoughts and prayers turn to “another God”. How would one identify Muslims who wear western dress?

Sadly, it does not stop there. One of the Queen’s chaplains has attacked Islam in recent days and not only attacked it but very defended his stance after criticism.  A robust but figurative rap on the knuckles would have been in order here.

If these were the actions of a small minority of rogue Anglican vicars it would be easy to brush the incidents to one side but the individuals either hold high office within the Church of England and the “establishment” or are very highly respected for their past work. You cannot get much higher than the rank of bishop. Where are the most senior bishops?

The Rt Revs Chessun and Holtam may well not have thought through the impact of their interventions, or have been badly advised by their administrative support. That’s sad. We have pretty a Islamophobic media – again I use the term phobia in its literal sense of fear (typically from ignorance) – that delight in having pops at Islam whenever they can.

When will the established Church not realise that it has to take one of the lead roles in improving our understanding of Islam.

It could start by teaching Anglicans that Muslims revere Jesus and his mother Mary. They teach the immaculate conception. Arguably they teach that Jesus is the son of God because we are all children of the One Creator, the One God and that we are all brothers and sisters of One Global Family – even if we squabble rather a lot.


Why would I have been blocked by the RSPCA?

I have been openly critical of the a RSPCA’s stance on non-stun slaughter and tweeted a reference to Animals Aid’s covert filming inside slaughterhouses. It’s last hit was a facility where non-stun slaughter for the halal is practised. Animal Aid claims that it did not know that at the outset (posing the question; how do they select their targets?) and seemingly is not playing religious politics.

@RSPCA_official has blocked my Twitter account. It can no longer see what I write. What is the RSPCA trying to avoid?

Animal Aid has now “hit” ten slaughterhouses – only one being halal. Nine facilities killed with prior stunning. Of those nine two were approved by the Soil Association and one was accredited under the RSPCA Freedom Foods scheme. All three would be considered “high welfare status” facilities.

The Animal Aid “hits” are too random to be considered to provide a reliable picture of slaughterhouse practice generally. They film for only a few days and who knows whether or not they were “lucky” to have caught the untoward incidents that make the  news media and are amplified thereafter.

What we can conclude, however, is that things go catastrophically wrong even in the nest run facilities, without or without stunning.  Questions have to be asked about slaughterhouse welfare right across the board. No structure exist for systematically collecting data of welfare practice. I tell a lie. Defra started an audit procedure in 2011 with one repeat in 2013. It collects data on a set week in September – in essence ensuring slaughter operators know well in advance when they are being formally audited.

This tells me that no one can say with any certainty how good or how bad practices are either across the board or at individual abattoirs. Data on the frequency of non-stun practice is not collected routinely – suggesting that in government (not parliament) circles there is no overwhelming concern that the welfare of non-stun slaughter is a bigger issue than across the entire industry. Of course it could be that ministers are merely burying their heads in the sand. It’s better not to collect data than collect information and ignore it.

One way to monitor standards continuously would be to mandate the installation CCTV. There is no appetite to do so to date.

Frankly I do not believe that the @RSPCA_official (nor @Britishvets) actually have robust evidence to support their joint political cause. It (or they) cannot robustly defend their case(s).

I have written to the RSPCA Chairman (via the website). Here is a copy of the letter. I am not expecting a response.

For your Chairman’s attention

Dear Mr Tomlinson

This is a formal complaint prompted by your blocking my twitter account.

As you will be aware if this reaches you I have been critical of your charity’s campaign opposing non-stun slaughter. Frankly the more I think about this the more I am coming to realise that we are not having an informed debate.

Veterinarians do not train to slaughter and it’s counter-intuitive. Now these days most Brits are pretty much disconnected from the source of the meat we consume. Not even farmers have the full involvement that my late father had. In his day many farmers killed their animals on the farm. I gather small animals were not stunned and merely slipped away. There has been no on-farm slaughter for meat for sale for half a century. Many farmers are now not necessarily engaged with the slaughter process.

Dr Temple Grandin says that when non-stun slaughter performed correctly animals do not recoil from the cut. She is an expert as they come. Intuitively this is surely so. At least for small animals whatever sensation animals feel is delayed and unconsciousness must be quick. If not immediate, our own personal experiences of a rapid drop in cerebral blood pressure suggests sense of lightheadedness. Pain? what type of pain? A good shechita/dhabiha cut, an incision actually causes very little tissue damage and no collateral damage. Internal organs do not have pain receptors. Indeed, pain receptors are stimulated but what sort of pain. Intuition suggests it may not be unbearable – nothing like the pain from mis-stunning.

You are not going to be moved by my science but I am curious to know why you would block twitter accounts that oppose your political views. I am now free to criticise with impunity while you have denied your own right of redress. You won’t be aware of my comments.

Just saying

Lost in translation – what is death?

Several years ago my reading pointed me to a suggestion that in a theological context the words “death” and “dead” were often used symbolically  rather than literally. I was interested in the concept but didn’t expect to be blogging anything related to it. I wasn’t then taking my interest in the ancient history and history of religion too seriously. The political climate was also very different.

I am writing this within a year of the emergence of ISIS or ISIL or DAESH, which is a terrorist group that claims to want to  establish an Islamic caliphate. Islamic it surely isn’t. Why? In essence Islam is based on living in harmony with  nature. One of Islam’s underlying principles is that of doing no harm to living beings. This is a sentiment shared by all religions emanating from the Middle East and Asia. The Internet is awash with pictures and videos of horrendous cruelty to fellow humans. These include burning and beheading.

It’s not only ISIS but other Islamic societies that do so. We hear of people literally being stoned to death in a number of Islamic countries. Death is penalty for blasphemy. Blasphemy is taking God and his prophets and Islam in vain. But hang on a moment, was not blasphemy a crime in many western Christian societies until fairly recently?

This blog was prompted by an article by Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali and published in standpoint in March 2015.

My understanding is that Islamic penalties can only be applied to people who have “signed up” for them. There is a similarity with Masonic penalties, which are gruesome to say the least but are clearly symbolic because sworn an oath not to divulge what few “trade secrets” Freemasonry may have one should not divulge them. Masonic ritual is allegorical and symbolic.

Without giving too much away the basis of Craft Freemasonry is a “symbolic” death and rebirth. In Christianity we have the concept of the “born again Christian”. We also have a concept of “life after death”. But what is death?

My original reading pointed to the concept of death meaning “being outside a community”. It was pointing to a person who was not signed up to or accepting the rules or beliefs or ideals of a community. They were spiritually dead. One example given was that of Lazarus who was not physically dead but was spiritually or morally dead but he was persuaded by Jesus to see the wisdom of the community rules. He was admitted and was “raised from the dead”.

If we reverse the concept we arrive at the situation whereby a member of the community either breaks its rules (e.g. a wive, who may have been seen as property, may have been unfaithful) or  denounces the accepted rules of the community (an apostate) will be ejected from the community and thereby be sentenced to death – that’s a symbolic death. One way of warding people off and protecting the community may have been to throw stones at them – hence “stoning to death”.

We can look at this concept of “death” in another way. Once we have signed up to the rules of our community we are raised from the dead and the life we are living now is “life after death”.

I am merely promoting a concept here. There are for sure many practices undertaken, as it were, in the name of religion whose origins have long since been lost in history. Our written history really only begins with the founding of the civilisation in Sumer and the fertile crescent bounded by the rivers Euphrates and Tiger – now part of Iraq – but many then current practices would no doubt have been passed down by the oral tradition. There were taught by rote. There were good and bad ways of doing things – for example preparing meat to eat, ensuring hygiene and even chosing animals whose provenance one knew (so no bush meat, for example). Clearly, as with the party game Chinese Whispers, over the years information and detail have been lost. I guess even today some people like merely to told how to do some things and do not want to get bogged down with reasons. Knowledge is degraded.

The other source of knowledge degradation is a problem of translation. No two languages have dictionaries or lexicons that translate word for word. Translations will invariably reflect the translator’s understanding of a concept, especially if it is allegorical, and interests – as indeed does this blog. Thus much gets “lost in translation”.

Returning to ISIS and its beheadings. Two thoughts occur.

  1. Punishments can only be served on people who are “signed up” to them. They cannot be applied to outsiders or non-believers.
  2. If beheading were ever to be a reasonable punishment there would actually be a humane way of doing it – probably the guillotine or someone weilding a very heavy axe to ensure instant death. The pictures on the Internet suggest the use of a very un-Islamic method of execution.

I have promoted a concept here and invite those better qualified than I to comment and take the ideas for if they are found reasonable.

My letters to The Times and Matthew Syed


As I wait for the 1630hrs debate on slaughter I revisted this blog. Described as “excellent” by one informed tweeter

Originally posted on The Old Brewer's Blog:

Dear Matthew

Below I have copied the letter I wrote to your The Times host on New Year’s Day (2015). I dropped you a private email as a matter of decency as you and your position on halal/kosher meat must be robustly challenged.

I notice that you engaged with Shimon Cohen (@scohen_shimon) and Simon Myerson (@SCynic1) on Twitter and for doing you must be applauded.

The problem is that non-stun slaughter, shechita and zabiha, the terms used by Jews and Muslims respectively, stands up as a humane method of slaughter on its own without theological religious tags. I recently discovered that my dad, a Christian, killed without stunning on his brothers’ farms. His father was a farmer who killed his own livestock to take to market.

It never dawned on me that this would have been so until I expressed my interest in this subject to an older cousin. He…

View original 669 more words

Promoting Religious Study (1) – The Sign of the Cross

Government has produced a new standard for the GCSE in religious studies. It’s intention is to improve understanding of other faiths in part as part of its drive towards combatting violent extremism – especially among disaffected young people on the fringes of Islam. The intention is that student should study at least two religions. I guess there is not requirement to show how some religions historically overlap and in some cases have common roots.

The religions to choose from are one of Christianity and Catholic Christianity, and one of Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism and Sikhism. There is, seemingly, no need to study the three Abrahamic religions as evolutionary strands of a common faith sharing a single Creator God. There is seemingly no need to question a not uncommon yet deep-seated and sometimes extremist Christian belief that Muslims worship a different God – despite Muslims believing that Jews and Christians as well as Muslims are “Peoples of the [one] Book”.

In my post-working life I have taken to studying the history of religious rituals and am following interfaith initiatives. The two elements go together. They complement one another. They provide a basis for interfaith discussion and a reason to discussion apparently odd religious practices with people from different religions. To be honest I have not associated with any Jews in my lifetime and only latterly in my working career associated with Muslims. I was raised in a Christian environment but have led a pretty secular life. I am prepared to describe myself as a Christian but I am not religious. The point is that I am not really bogged down with a great deal of religious baggage and critically I do not wear blinkers. My study is interesting – especially with the application of a little lateral thinking.

Prompting my study is a realisation that most, if not all, religious ritual must have a practical, dare I say profane, antecedent or origin. That origin may have been “lost” over time but it can be teased out.

Anyone who has read my earlier blogs may well have picked up my interest in non-slaughter – so-called “religious slaughter” or “ritual slaughter”. Both phrases are misnomers and I do not want to develop the concept of sacrifice here and now except to say that sacrifice seems to be associated with many religions and in turn we have cleansing rituals.

The statement “cleanliness is next to godliness” has its roots in sacrifice and a need for strict hygiene. That can be developed fully at another time but for now many people know that Muslims perform ritual ablutions before they pray. They literally wash the exposed parts of their body before they pray formally. Why?

Today the practice can only be symbolic. It has no practical value but has huge spiritual significance. Hindus have a cleansing ritual. And so do Christians but few, if any, will connect their rituals to Islamic ablutions. Few will connect their rituals to sacrifice and the need for hygiene. There is now a barrier between two related faiths because followers or practitioners have lost touch with their historical roots.

I want to try to repair some of this loss.

Baptismal fonts are traditionally placed within the main entrances of older churches. It wasn’t until very recently that I clocked this. Traditionally it is to remind you of your reception into Christianity – namely your baptism. Roman Catholic and Anglo-Catholic churches often have a stoup near the main entrance (I have seen them at all entrances). A stoup contains “holy water” and is provided to allow visitors to make the “sign of the cross” as a reminder of their baptism.

Stoups and baptismal fonts apparently have different functions. Really?

On one cathedral visit I made I learned that churches should only have one font. I was informed that that cathedral had two. It was the resting place for a ship’s bell, HMS Salisbury. Traditionally, it appears ships’ bell were used for baptisms but we will pass over this. More strikingly the font at Salisbury Cathedral is a huge running water feature. Although it’s in the centre of the nave, for me it had huge symbolic significance.

How then is it permissible to have a stoup and a font? I have no idea but it may just demonstrate how Christianity has lost touch with its roots.

A little over a year ago I followed a Muslim family out of Lichfield Cathedral. I had already made a link between the Christian Baptism and Islamic ablutions. Significantly, for practical reasons the font at Lichfield has been moved its north transept leaving the original spot marked by a circle of floor tiles that look odd and out of place.

I just had to engage the family and point out the link between the baptism and Islamic ablutions and why fonts are traditionally by the main entrance. Without prompting and no other obvious cue the father described the “four points of ablution”. These briefly are:

  1. The head;
  2. The feet;
  3. The left arm and hand; and
  4. The right arm and hand.

As he went through the motions, as it were, he mused “the sign of the cross”. This was a lightbulb moment.

I have stated my view that most, if not all, religious ritual has a practical origin and here we have the origin to the “sign of the cross”. What other reason can there be?

Baptism takes its roots from a need for priests literally to cleanse themselves before performing sacrificial duties. They like as not may have done so in a flowing stream close to its source and assuredly free from animal excrement. John baptised Jesus in the River Jordan. The Ganges is sacred to Hindus but is not now clean, at least not where modern ceremonies are held. Salisbury Cathedral has a running water feature for its font as does St Martin Church next to Birmingham’s Bullring. Even if it’s modest the St Martin’s font is the first thing you see on entry (or it would be were it not for a floral display). It is literally in front of you as you enter.

Christians mostly do not perform literal ablutions before prayer. Catholics, however, often make the sign of the cross. You often see footballers make the sign as the run onto the football pitch. Symbolically Christians are cleansing their minds of evil and untoward thoughts before entering a place of worship or, in the case of footballers, making a quick prayer asking for help in overcoming adversity and committing themselves to a clean and fair game.

In this blog I have pointed to rituals within religion that must have a common root or origin but over time have evolved to become distinct and apparently very different.

As I wrote, “cleanliness is next to godliness”. So it may well be and it may well explain a number of other peculiar attitudes and beliefs.

The Provenance of Halal

Believe it or not I am not a halal expert but I am learning and am getting quite good even if I say so myself. But enough of the bragging because I really want to highlight that in halal animal welfare and food hygiene rules are (or should be) very nuanced, very nuanced indeed.

The title of this post is inspired by reading that strictly speaking halal meat should remain in sight of a Muslim at all times. Presumably this alludes to concepts of not trusting food from strangers who cannot be relied on to ensure that your meat is wholesome. An equivalent modern rule may be not leaving your drinks unattended in a night club. Whose knows who may have spiked them? Security seals on food packaging are designed to prevent (or make it very difficult for) someone with an axe to grind contaminating the contents.

In the context of meat production we are talking about buying your meat from the a butcher that you know and who is open about source its source. The more locally it has been produced the better.

We are talking about transparency and security of production.

Not many moons ago we had the horsemeat scandal. Several processed products sold by several large retailers were found to be contaminated with horsemeat. Seemingly the meat used in these products came from a number of places in Europe and ended up in large centralised food processing factories. There is no possible way those products can be labelled with details of the sources of the meat. It is not as if the village butcher had raised a steer, killed it and used the meat from that one animal to make all the minced beef he is selling over a period of a few days.

The provenance concept goes further back. In the secular world we do not – or should not – eat meat from animals whose health status we do not know. It extends back to animal rearing and indeed what animals may not be good to eat.

It seems a long time ago but back in 1986 the UK was hit by BSE, or mad cow disease. I needn’t develop the science of the condition except to sat that its sources seems to have been linked to feeding cattle, which are vegetarian ruminants, feeds fortified with (or contaminated with) rendered and highly processed animal protein.

BSE was bad enough for cattle but it apparently spread into humans in the form of Variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, or vCJD.

Halal and kosher codes prohibit eating pig meat. Pigs forage for food and will eat almost anything. They are prone to liver fluke, which can transfer to humans and clearly is a public health issue. Bottom feeding fish are similarly prohibited.

The codes dictate that we need to know what the birds, fish and animals we eat ate themselves.

One prompt for this post if the release of CCTV video footage that was apparently taken covertly in a northern abattoir, Bowood Lamb, by Animal Aid, a charity which ultimately promotes a vegan lifestyle but has a genuine concern for animal welfare and abuse.

Questions have to be asked about the way in which the material was obtained before too many conclusions should be drawn from it. That said, the camera never lies and there were issues within the facilities but were they widespread? We don’t know. The evidence was apparently not presented to the public after fair appraisal. Animal Aid collected evidence only over three days. How typical was the evidence?

I do not want to defend the business operators here but I am not going to pronounce guilt as a kneejerk response to what I have seen. One thought is that all abattoirs encounter welfare issues to a greater or lesser extent. Animal Aid has covertly operated in ten facilities. One was RSPCA accredited. Only one Bowood Lamb was slaughtering for the non-stun halal market and Animal AId claim they did not know that at the outset. They clearly did not set out to expose halal.

I am not going to round on Bowood Lamb because I do not know how typical the covert footage was, nor how their overall standards compare with other similar facilities.

I wrote above about the need for transparency. UK practices between the farm gate and slaughter rooms of abattoirs is far from transparent. Recent Defra/FSA (the government Food Standards Agency) data collected for their Animal Welfare Survey of 2013 show that few abattoirs allow covert observation of stun/slaughter rooms by the official veterinarians. Few have CCTV. Bowood, apparently, does have CCTV and that poses additional questions for others to address on another day.

I am researching the history of what we call “ritual slaughter”. We actually mostly misunderstand its purpose but within days of reading about Bowood I found this statement.

“It is essential that the beast was a willing victim, and that no signs of bad omen were obvious during the ceremony.” (Religion in Roam Britain, Martin Henig. 1995, p3

I guess we are not so much talking about beasts giving informed consent but we are talking about their refusal to move forward, their baulking with fear of what awaits them. At Bowood clearly something wasn’t right. The sheep were certainly under stress.

This raises a trading standards question.

  • Can the carcasses from the animals videoed legitimately be  sold as halal?


  • Can any animal that required more than the absolute minimum encouragement (say, little more than a slight push) to move forward, even from stun slaughter, be traded as halal?

Going back to the top of this post i made a reference to halal codes requiring meat to be under the control of Muslims at all times. The operators at Bowood are not Muslim and apparently only employ two Muslims. Four employees were suspended after the Animal Aid video. At least two, therefore, were not Muslims. That need not be an issue but prompts questions about the awareness training afforded non-Muslims in facilities like this.

Jewish shochet train over seven years. They are not allowed to slaughter in anger. Thus, the mental welfare of shochet is important. In any industrial slaughter facility the sheer number of animals being killed must surely desensitise the operators. Is this good? At the point of kill the slaughterer should experience a sense of guilt at taking a life “that belongs to the gods” (Henig). That why the prayer, the bismallah  should be said as the animal is cut.

Apparently at Bowood spectacles were drawn on sheep as they bled. Slaughterers were laughing. This does not feel very halal (and even less kosher).

Before I close I have to refer to conversations with the local halal pizza shop manager. The ham is turkey ham, but the menu board does not say this. When I asked if the meat was obtained from stunned or non-stunned birds he couldn’t say. Most birds destined for the halal market must be stunned because of the sheer number involved. I haven’t yet asked if the supplier has been licensed by a halal certification board/agency, or even if the restaurant is licensed. I have learned that there is self certification. Seemingly a slaughter operator need only say his operation is “halal” and not use formal external quality assurers.

This post may help others to develop a small but better understanding of halal codes than the reports in the various news media ever aspire to achieve.  Equally It may not. I have asked questions without any attempt to address them. Hopefully the opening analogies taken from the secular world painted a help backdrop to the halal concept.

For me I am left thinking, as I have some time, that best halal (and kosher) slaughter practice does not scale up easily.

In this post I have avoided the stun v non-stun debate. I want to show that halal codes refer to much, much more than the final act of slaughter. In highlighting BSE and the more recent horsemeat scandal I wanted to show that the application of halal codes may have spared us BSE and possibly also the horsemeat fraud.

Hopefully I have also asked questions about how halal codes are understood and applied. Muslims should perhaps ask “How halal is halal?”

In my mind the label “halal” should be a mark of transparency and quality.

100,000 signatures so where now?

The BVA sponsored e-petition against non-stun slaughter has reached the 100,000 threshold that triggers a possible House of Commons debate on the subject. Here is a report published in the Huffington Post:

Petition To Ban Religious Animal Slaughter Reaches 100,000

So where do we go from here?

Government is not mindful of introducing a ban on non-stun slaughter. Frankly, it does not have evidence to support such a move. It cannot do so on religious grounds because non-stun-slaughter is not really a religious and in the absence of science it would be treading a dangerous path. The religious link arises because Jews codified, wrote down, a regional practice hitherto passed down by word of mouth in the first century CE and Muslims codified their understanding in the seventh century. Early Christians will have followed the Jewish code.

An interesting thought is that we would not be having this debate if it were merely a secular matter. Put another way if this were merely a secular issue the shape of the debate would be different for sure. Both sides of the argument would have to use science. They would have to collect data and they would be required at least to listen to their opponents. They would have to listen to challenges and mount an informed defence of their respective positions.

Before going into the politics it is necessary to reprise the biology that appears to have eluded veterinary surgeons and isn’t put to parliamentarians who do not have a life science background.

Importantly, we forget that non-stun slaughter would have been the norm in Britain, at least for small animals, until just after the second world war. My father, actually a Methodist, must have trained to do so. His father was a farmer who would have killed his own livestock to take to market, as would the many other small farmers. Yes, it was not very long ago that even the secular world accepted what it know calls religious slaughter without question.

From what I can make out it would have been public health concerns that would have informed the decision to stop on-farm slaughter for sale for human consumption. How do you supervise and regulate meat inspection on thousands of small farms?

Animal welfare is seriously compromised when stock is taken to slaughterhouses for killing. Stunning facilitates faster line speeds in order to keep costs down. Importantly it also facilitates lesser trained operators and the use of mechanical killing. Jewish shochet undertake a seven years training. Kosher rules extend to the health and welfare of the operator. They are extensive. Muslim rules are much less so. Secular training is minimal.

Merely grasping some of these issues would allow a much more informed debate than the one we are having. The opposing side of the argument would have to collect data and they would not be able to hide behind the screen of “religion” in order to mask their  lack of knowledge.

Jewish and Muslim practices govern the entire process from farm to fork. Their rules require good animal husbandry and high welfare. After slaughter good hygiene is important. Jewsish and Muslim rules demand good practice just like Secular rules.

Here is the problem that veterinary surgeons and parliamentarians need to address. Why would Jews and Muslims go to so much trouble to loving care for their animals and take trouble to prepare them for the table with attention to detail only consciously to make their animals’ lives hell at slaughter? Well of course they do not. If they could improve current practice they probably would.

The point is that shechita. the Jewish term, and dhabiha or zabihah, the Muslim word, are designed to minimise suffering. When the major blood vessels supplying the brain are severed there is a catastrophic drop in blood pressure that causes rapid unconsciousness. Yes, the cut triggers pain receptors but there is a delay before the conscious brain registers the pain. The next time you touch your hot iron you will not feel the pain instantly – even though you are expecting it. There is a delay.

The process involved are similar to fainting, which comes about because of a sudden drop in blood pressure to the brain. If we have never fainted many of us will have experienced a near faint, when we experience light-headedness. We go woozy.

Good shechita and dhabiha practice requires the operator not to show the animal the knife. Animals are very unlikely to have time register that something is wrong before unconsciousness intervenes.

This is basic physiology. It’s nature’s design.

Non-stun slaughter when performed correctly is not innately inhumane. Poor welfare in lairage compromises the kill whether the animal is stunned or not. In both scenarios animals that are not relaxed but are anxious and agitated do not present as good subjects for stunning  or direct cutting. Stuns can fail and cuts may not be proficiently applied.

Slaughter with stunning is superior for sure. There is after all no blood.


Animals are still cut and bled out. Secular slaughter rituals are still messy.

There is no evidence to show that non-stun slaughter is inferior. Equally, politicians, parliamentarians, opinion formers, and both secular and religious community leaders need to appreciate that slaughter with stunning is anything but foolproof. Mis-stun rates across the EU have been said to range from 6% to 30%. In the USA an “acceptable” rate of mis-stunning is said to be 5%. That’s 1 in 20 animals that is required required to suffer in order that the other nineteen experience a slaughter that is not significantly superior.

To be honest I do not believe that in the EU the 30% mis-stun rate is currently valid. It is easy to quote and use this figure but it’s not a recent one. Concern for food animal welfare general has been and is changing. Better welfare and stock management in slaughterhouses must be reducing stress and this will transfer to the point of kill. The more relaxed the animal the lesser the risk of a mis-stun.

What, then, is the rate of mis-stuns?

The reality is that no one has been collecting the information systematically – and certainly not the official vets who are required to keep an eye on welfare in slaughterhouses. No one actually knows how often animals for slaughter are mis-stunned.

Nor, and significantly, no one is prepared to describe the welfare issues associated with mis-stunning. It is not difficult to picture an anxious bovine not standing still and the stun gun operator missing the small target area on the head. Nor is it difficult to imagine a steer who has been mis-stunned now having one hell of a headache and now being very agitated. Re-stunning does not get easier. It gets harder.

So back to the politics.

When you probe people on Twitter you realise that much of their animosity towards non-stun slaughter is either because they have a “go vegetarian” agenda or a strong religious belief that giving thanks to our maker and asking forgiveness for taking life at the time of slaughter is evil. (I cannot think of a better word and some Christians really do believe that Allah is the devil.) Theirs is not primarily a welfare concern at all.

The bigger problem is that there is te unshaken belief that stunning is a clinical procedure. There is a perverse irony here. Religious slaughter was originally taught as a ritual or drill because ordinary people would not really have understood the science. They were illiterate and very little was written down. Their prophets merely knew what worked at what didn’t.

Today, the science of stunning is not taught. What videos of stun-slaughter are easily accessed on the Internet are heavily pruned and sanitised. By contrast non-slaughter cannot be shown with the bloody cut. Videos cannot be sanitised. Our knowledge of stun-slaughter is learned by rote. It is an effective ritual.

Captive bolt stunning of cattle may produce instant unconsciousness but electrical stunning of sheep (and pigs)? If operators do not get it right first time for animals will suffer.

Back to the debate, veterinary surgeons want to ban non-stun slaughter. Defra and government, to their credit, at least recognise that this cannot be mandated. They  may fear a religious backlash, especially from Jews, but they simply do not have evidence to support the argument.

Some parliamentarians have adopted a different tack. They are proposing that meat should be labelled to show if the animal was stunned or not before slaughter. This sound simple but it isn’t.

Proper “kosher” meat will come from animals not stunned at slaughter but the halal market is less clear cut. Most halal meat on general sale is stunned before slaughter. I assume that any labelling requirement may required only non-stunned meat to be labelled – with a presumption of stunning for the remainder.

Sound simple.

The catch is that many Muslims are not wonderfully well informed. Many assume that all halal meat is derived from non-stun slaughter. Once they learn that this is not so surely the demand for non-stun meat must increase. Then where do we go?

It strikes me that this debate has no comfortable outcomes. Veterinary surgeons demand the banning of non-slaughter regardless and without evidence. Politicians want a compromise with a labelling solution that presumably may be counterproductive. If this the case the non-stun ban lobby will redouble their efforts. The Christians and Secular anti-Halal lobby will be emboldened.

The stun v non-stun debate is bound to harden. The energies exhausted in this debate may be the better directed at learning the science.



Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 227 other followers