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?

Likewise

  • 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.

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