Thursday, 8 May 2014

Halal or Not Halal? That is the Question.

Today's news is full of stories that Halal meat is being sold in the UK without being labelled as such. Now let's get this clear: according to the BBC, 90% of UK Halal meat is from animals which have been pre-stunned, so they conform to legal requirements without the religious exemption. So what's the issue?
During the Foot & Mouth crisis, having seen videos of a man running around a field with a bolt gun after a sheep, I decided to look into legal slaughter practices, (he should have been imprisoned in my opinion), and in doing so I also looked into Halal practices.
The biggest issue for me, way bigger than whether someone speaks magic spells over my food, is that correctly carried out, to the spirit and letter of the law, legal slaughter in the UK is as humane as it's reasonably practical to be. And in my view it's far preferable to death from predation or disease in the wild.
The problem I have is that human nature does not pre-dispose us to treat other humans, let alone other animals, with the dignity, respect and humanity required when there is so much potential for suffering. So we need far greater safeguards against the darker side of our nature in the slaughtering process. I have some in mind, which include routine oversight by independent observers, but the cost would be unacceptable to many people who just want a cheap meal to feed their families.
There are three main requirements for the practice of Halal slaughter: ritual cleanliness; hygienic cleanliness; and minimising the suffering of the animal being slaughtered. Whatever you think of Islam today, these requirements clearly underlie Halal practices and they are entirely consistent with the best ethical practice in humane animal slaughter.
Considering the time when these requirements were established, there was not the knowledge of disease causes we have today, and the distinction between ritual and hygienic cleanliness was entirely blurred. Speaking magic spells over the animal was just as important as ensuring that the animal did not have a communicable disease. The strict requirements of the blade, and the manner in which it is used, are clearly intended to minimise pain and bring about unconsciousness as quickly as possible, both requirements for humane slaughter.
The prohibition on pre-stunning prevents botched attempts which could cause unimaginably greater suffering than a clean Halal kill. And given the state of knowledge over a thousand years ago, when these requirements were founded, I cannot in all conscience condemn it. And having read the scientific literature examining both sides, I find it hard even to insist on pre-stunning, but on balance I do support it.
So, the Halal requirements for cleanliness and the humane treatment of animals are precisely the same as those which underlie our legal requirements today. If Halal practices could be refined in the light of new scientific evidence, then I have no doubt that they would allow carefully prescribed pre-stunning, and place less emphasis on magic spells. Halal practices were introduced for precisely the same reasons we want humane slaughter today, and dogmatically holding to the letter of scripture, while denying improvements in the light of new knowledge, which support its spirit and clear purpose, can be neither just nor holy.
According to the BBC, 90% of UK Halal meat is from animals which have been pre-stunned, so they conform to legal requirements. There is no legal prohibition on magic spells, since we all know they do nothing so cannot possibly do us harm. Therefore, I would be perfectly content to buy and eat Halal meat from animals treated according to secular law, including careful pre-stunning, with or without the magic spells and added Halal requirements, and whether labelled as such or not.
The final issue troubles me as a secular Humanist: compare two circumstances.
1) The legal, ritual slaughter of animals by a devoutly religious person, who believes he is being watched over by an invisible master who requires the animal to be treated with respect.
2) The slaughter by the hand of the kind of person I can imagine applying for and doing the job of slaughterman in a secular abattoir, without independent oversight.
In the light of this comparison, and knowledge of the requirements for Halal slaughter and secular slaughter, I do have a hard time condemning Halal practice.
This is an emotive subject, but I do have one request. Before condemning my heresy, please do read up on the details and argue from a position of knowledge of the subject. Then please feel free to weigh in.

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