By Pete Wedderburn
2 June 2010
Three days ago, New Zealand joined a small group of countries in banning ritual slaughter (Sweden, Switzerland, Norway and Iceland are the others). They’ve obviously done this on animal welfare grounds, but already, accusations of discrimination and anti-semitism are being made. In his latest blog from Israel, Daniel Gordis says “You think that New Zealand just coincidentally decided this week to make kosher slaughtering illegal?” He seems to be suggesting that the ban was brought in as a reaction to the Gaza aid flotilla crisis, despite the fact that the ban happened a full day previously, and that it was the culmination of a lengthy debate.
Ritual slaughter, for those who don’t know, involves the killing of animals without pre-stunning. The throat is cut with a sharp knife, and the animal bleeds to death. In conventional slaughter, the animal is first stunned (e.g. with a captive bolt applied to the brain) so that it is completely unaware when its throat is cut.
In the past, scientific opinion has often sat on the fence when assessing the welfare aspects of ritual slaughter, with some studies claiming to show that when it’s well done, there’s minimal pain felt. My understanding is that more recent studies strongly dispute this, so it seems as if any scientific argument supporting the killing method on humane grounds is fading. Of course this is what has prompted the New Zealand decision, rather than any imaginary anti-Israel sentiment, but that doesn’t stop the accusations.
On the face of it, the argument is straightforward: if we have standards for animal welfare that we believe in, we should stick to those standards, even if it means stopping ritual slaughter. But as the New Zealand case has demonstrated, the political aspects of banning the slaughter method are more complicated than they may first seem.
Bans of ritual slaughter clearly target Jewish and Muslim minorities, so legitimate animal welfare concerns get mixed up with anti-semitic and anti-immigrant voices. As I’ve said before, this makes it difficult to be against ritual slaughter without being accused of being racist. I’m not an avid reader of commentaries from the Jewish and Muslim world, but I’m sure that Daniel Gordis is not alone in accusing the New Zealand authorities of motives other than animal welfare.
Should the UK follow? Would animal welfare concerns justify the stirring up of a heated debate about religious rights of minorities, with accusations of oppression and discrimination?
Whatever about an outright ban, consumers should have a right to know what they’re eating, and a right to decide whether they as individuals have contributed to no-stun slaughter. At the moment, meat from animals that have been ritually slaughtered sits on our supermarket shelves alongside conventionally slaughtered product. There’s no way for consumers to tell what type of meat they’re buying.
There have been calls for compulsory labelling of ritually slaughtered meat, but those who support religious slaughter methods are against this, because it will reduce the size of the market for the meat, increasing the cost for the minority communities.
I don’t want to eat meat from animals that have been slaughtered in a way that I feel is unfair: why should I be forced to do so? The new UK government, in the spirit of openness and transparency, should insist that such meat is labelled. We should be able to choose what sort of death we want animals to have before they land on our plates.