How halal is halal (2) – getting close and personal

In the first part of my series, “How halal is halal …” I introduced the matter of a prayer offered at the moment of slaughter. The prayer gives non-Muslims (and non-Jews) grief but frankly it’s not especially religious. I drew an analogy with the grace offered before meals in Christian families and typically before formal black tie dinners.

How many people who are not religious would attend a formal dinner and not take their seats before the guest of honour enters the room? Very few.

I suggest that the purpose of the prayer is to express thanks to our maker for his bounty and request forgiveness for the wilful taking of a life. Is that really primitive and something belonging to a long since bygone era? I am sorry but even humanists and secularists have to concede that.

If you go to YouTube and search on Mercy halal slaughter you should easily find three videos explaining non-stun slaughter. The critical element is the need for the slaughterman to form a relationship with the animal to be slaughtered.

The animal has to made to feel at ease and unstressed for the practical reason that the carcass will produce better meat. In the videos the animals can be seen not to be ill at ease. This is very difficult to achieve in industrial settings. I guess they must be aware of the smell of death – hence burning incense in the tabernacle of Old Testament days to help put animals at ease.

Industrial slaughterhouses haven’t always been organised to optimise good welfare. Beating and the use of electric prods to make animals go where are required seriously increases stress. Shutting the animal in a box that restricts its movement for stunning purposes increases stress. Stunning will fail if the animal moves at the critical moment. Importantly the industrial process is impersonal.

The halal slaughter is personal and this is the key point – the slaughterman effectively has to look the animal is the eye when he does the deed. It’s not unlike a soldier confronting his enemy face-to-face. This contrasts with use of aircraft that attack from a distance possibly without seeing the enemy. The uses of drones is considered to be a very detached way of engaging with enemies.

Halal slaughter is clearly close and personal while the second could be seen as cowardly.

As I have been researching this I have become increasingly aware that secular people are detached from their food. Meat is bought from supermarkets in plastic packs. Consumers have little or no idea what happens between those pretty pastoral scenes of cuddly animals grazing in luscious meadows and the supermarket chiller cabinets. Even farmers disconnect from the process when their livestock pass through the farm gate – at one time they may have slaughtered their own animals.

Structly speaking Jews and Muslims are required to think about the entire process from farm to fork. Christians have no such commitment.

This article has the subtitle “getting up close and personal”. I have described a one-to-one personal relationship in a slaughter facility. Industrial settings make this difficult. I’ll probably return to the issues surrounding stunning in a follow up paper. For now I need to relay a brief chat with my Subway franchise owning neighbour and second cousin. In picturesque Devon there hasn’t been a need for a halal Subway outlet but I discussed an experience in Blackburn. I was told that the chicken were slaughtered en mass with a recorded prayer playing in the background.

Two issues arise. The first is that the slaughter is not close up and personal. Is this halal? Some halal certification authorities think so but is it really?

That’s a discussion for another day.

Many people who have worked in slaughterhouses or even merely visited report how they have changed their meat eating. If more of us recognised that all slaughter was cruel would we eat less meat? Would that be good for our health and possibly for the environment.

How halal is halal (1) – my lay introduction to dhabiha

My background briefly is that I am a sort of Christian, not a Muslim, and I have had no explicit religious training. I have a farming background and a life science degree, pharmacy.

My interest in halal was stimulated by after reading up kosher rules and recognising that they were based on a solid foundation that will withstand any comparison with modern food hygiene and animal welfare standards. From hereon I’ll just refer to “halal” rather than “kosher”. The two terms are not fully interchangeable but for this article they can be so considered. Both originate from the times in which the Old Testament books of Deuteronomy and Leviticus are set – the Bronze Age. That’s a long time ago.

Detractors assume that because our religious ancestors did not possess microscopes they cannot possibly have had any idea of the causes of infection. Detractors refer to a sky pixie and primitive peoples. These detractors may be wrong.

The peoples of the age that I am referring to were established civil engineers. They had a mastery of metallurgy. They could work artistic wonders with gold and learned how to make metal alloys. They worked out how to harden copper with tin to make durable tools. We do not need to read to deeply into the Bible to realise that they understood the priciples of good hygiene – hence the saying “cleanliness is next to godliness”.

Neither historical records nor archeological evidence fully supports the Biblical story of the exodus but for the purposes of this article the picture of the exodus and the importance of the tabernacle serves as a useful backdrop. The Bible record must have related to something real. For me the picture is one in which a large body of people were exiled from Egypt where they would have led a reasonably civilised lives. They would have lived in established settlements – cities or villages and quite probably have had some concept of sanitation. They went into exile and overnight had to learn a nomadic lifestyle. Hygiene would have been critical – not least because water was a scarce commodity. Food hygiene would have been a big issue. If they got it wrong gastro-intestinal disease would have been a huge issue. Their prophets would surely have worked out good and bad ways to handle meat.

I referred to a sky pixie. I want deliberately to minimise my using the word “God”. In any event, I am not a religious or tehological mission but it’s worth reflecting on the origin of “religious” practice. Look at all the religions of the Middle and Far East and the “sanctity of life” is critical. People would have been intensely spiritual. Where did they come from? Why were they there? What was their purpose? Where were they going? All animal life will have been held in high regard.

Briefly, it is inconceivable that they would have developed any practice that killed for the sake of killing – and certainly not merely to appease a mythical sky pixie. On the other hand they would have asked what they had done wrong when their encampment was inflicted with dysentry – “Oh God, why me, why us?”; “Oh God how have we sinned?”

How many of us, today, mutter even utter the words “Oh God” or “Jesus” when our computer freezes or our houses are flooded or after some other calamity?

For sure they killed to eat but how often? Probably not that often and only on high days and holidays, as it were. Apart from chicken most domestic animals were too big for one family to consume within one or two days so killing the fatted calf would have been a community event – a festival where the meat was shared around.

Let’s try fitting this together. We have a concept of good hygiene that hold to this day. The laver was a vital piece tabernacle furniture. I’ll skip the background to halal food restrictions (the bar on pigs, for example) except to say that today a farmer would not dream of eating an calf that died. He would not know why it died. Was it diseased? Our forebears would surely have worked out eating fallen animals was not good.

Returning to the sanctity of life our ancestors would surely have worked out that bludgeoning and animal to death would have caused unnecessary suffering. Stone Age flint cutting tools had serated edges. Copper was a soft metal so even if they could give a knife a sharp edge it would be easily damaged. Bronze was different.

Go onto YouTube and search on “kosher”. You should easily find clips showing what lengths Jews go to to ensure that their chelafs (slaughter knives) have no nicks or blemishes that are bound cause pain.

Thus far I am seeing nothing but good practices being developed. I see only practices that most people would regard as “humane”. I see practices that were broadly adopted by many cultures. I cannot see why there is so much controversy.

But why a prayer? What is invoking God (or another sky pixie) so important? The clue lies in the recognition of the sanctity of live. In a Christian grace thanks are given to God, or our creator. When our forebears killed to eat it is not difficult to envisage their offering a prayer thanking God for his bounty and asking for forgiveness for taking the life of one of his (or nature’s) creatures.

I’ll return to prayer in part 2.

In Biblical days there was no means of stunning animals to cause unconsciousness from which they could recover. The heart needs to be beating when an animal is slaughtered so stunning to cause instant death was not an option.

It is quite clear that in Biblical days there would have been standard ways or doing things. The maodern jargon is “standard operating procedures” or “SOPs”. We write ours down and in detail. Our forebears had to rely largely on the “oral tradition”.

In this article I have tried to develop the core attributes of halal slaughter. The specific Arabic word specifically transliterated dhabiha or zabiha. The term halal is actually an umbrella term and in this context actually covers all aspect of animal welfare from “farm to fork”. Good halal practice can be likened to organic practice.

Understanding halal does not require rocket science yet science can be used to validate halal (or kosher) practice. Sadly we have a clash of minds. The secular “scientific community” does not easily cope with anything vaguely religious while the religious community may have lost touch with its roots and struggles with the “knowledge” our religious ancestors must surely have had. In fact I wonder if way back many practices were so common place that they were taken for granted – being taught by rote.

Finally I am inclined to believe that much was taught by rote and by the oral tradition that some practices had become corrupted and the Prophet Mohammed was inspired to write it down and to codify the traditions – but that’s for another day.

My week on Twitter

While not being sure that non-stun slaughter is superior or inferior to stun slaughter, I am certain the difference is marginal. John Blackwell, the British Veterinary Association’s incoming president, told The Times that he wanted non-stun slaughter to go. Something wasn’t right.

I was aware that stunning is not foolproof so searched the world wide web for data on failed first stuns. Failed first stuns can cause death and animals are or should be removed from the food chain. Dead animals do not bleed properly. These animals die needlessly. Other failed stuns do not knock animals out. They remain conscious with a stonking headache and will be restunned. This is clearly inhumane and is needless suffering.

How often does this occur?

I have seen figures of between 6% and 31%. I do not know what these figures mean but they are significant. Even one in one hundred (1in100) is significant. Non-stun slaughter is consistant. Deaths are rare and rapid unconsciousness is assured. Cutting the major blood vessels in the neck in one movement causes a catastrophic fall in blood pressure. There can be no awareness of pain in other than in the lowest level of unconsciousness/coma but how long does even a large animal remain in that state?

The problem for me is that neither the British Veterinary Association (@BritishVets) nor the RSPCA (@RSPCA_Official) hold data on failed first stuns. There is an assumption that the technology – a stun gun is technology – must be superior. This is a common failing in life sciences – especially in human medicine (the NHS).

I know that John Blackwell’s predecessor was challenged off-air after his Channel 5 appearance with Mohammed Ansar (@MoAnsar). He did not deny that there was an issue. The RSPCA asked to do its research. I will do so but at a cost to ensure they accept ownership of the conflicting data.

Needless to say John Blackwell provoked the inevitable anti-religious response from secularists who have no connection with their food production – it’s messy.

I had to throw my weight behind the no-stun advocates. I have been researching shechita (kosher) and dhabiha (halal) rules. They cover all aspects of animal welfare before slaughter and good hygiene after slaughter. It simply doesn’t make sense to knowingly make an animal suffer at death. On the contrary anyone trying to understand halal will know this.

I had to challenge the ban no-stun brigade. Most people just were closed to discussion but some were offensive. I know where Twitter’s ‘block’ button is.

I am not Muslim but apparently do a convincing job. Apparently I “get halal” and know more than “most Muslims”. Needless to say I have had a little experience of the “Islamophobia” denied by the “establishment” – that’s the church, the press, the BBC, even parliament. Coincidentally, a west country MP used a House of Commons debate on badger culling to make a gratuitous pop at Jews and Muslims, who support non-stun slaughter.

I am acutely aware of the nature of Islamophobia. It presents in many forms. It does not have to be hate and often arises from ignorance. In the context of slaughter it’s a failure to understand what’s involved. I learned something some livestock farmers stop caring for their animals when they leave the farm. In days past they may well have slaughtered their own animals on-farm. Now slaughter is out of sight and out of mind. The result is disinformation.

Bad use of bad science

The president elect of the British Veterinary Association reportedly attacked religious slaughter this week according to a front page article in The Times, March 6th. Other papers carried the same story as did the BBC.

I do not doubt John Blackwell’s credentials but question his so publicly using his soon-to-be position to attack Jews and Muslims. I guess this is an “institutional” issue rather anyone being antisemitic or Islamophobic. Key elements of the news media (possibly including the regulators) are for sure “institutionally Islamophobic”. Much is due to genuine ignorance.

My issue is one of very simple science. When shechita is correctly applied there is a catastrophic loss of blood pressure to the brain. Unconsciousness will be almost instantaneous. Pain sensation is lost before unconsciousness. How do I know this?

Many years ago I had gas, nitrous oxide, to facilitate a tooth extraction. At the time I did not know but you are not rendered fully unconscious. Indeed I can recall to this day seeing a hazy dentist and assistant but there was no pain. Today we associate nitrous oxide with pain management after trauma. Pain sensation goes before going into unconsciousness.

There may be no feeling of pain but the pain sensors are probably still working and sending messages to the brain where reduced consciousness means they are not registered consciously.

This does not mean there is no place for a debate. Proper kosher/halal meat is not easily produced in industrial abattoirs. It is expensive. Industrial abattoirs introduce a different level of welfare concerns. In some cases pre-slaughter care is not halal thereby negating the halalness of the slaughter method.