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Azeem Ibrahim Headshot

Progress? Discrimination? Or Simply a Stunning Controversy?

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The recent banning of religious ritual animal slaughter by the Netherlands parliament has provoked another outcry by Jews and Muslims alike. The Dutch cabinet said on June 27, 2011, that the bill may be unenforceable in its current form due to the ambiguity of a last-minute amendment that says religious slaughter houses may be exempt if they can "prove" that it does not cause the animal more pain than stunning. The legislation still has to pass the Senate which will not happen until after the summer recess.

Each time a ban is suggested by a European government the controversy starts again. Basically, the argument is -- "to stun or not to stun". Both religions claim that theirs is a more humane way of killing animals for food, whereas animal lovers claim that established practice in most Western abattoirs, of rendering an animal temporarily unconscious before having its throat cut, is more humane. Certain countries -- New Zealand, Luxembourg, Norway, Sweden and Switzerland -- have already legislated against religious slaughter. Animals in these countries must be stunned first to render them unconscious, usually with an electric bolt to the brain, before being killed -- presumably painlessly -- by having its throat cut, and then bleeding out until dead.

The Jewish practice of shecita for producing kosher meat and the Muslim practice of dhabihah for halal meat both involve the use of very sharp knives, based on a desire to ease the animal's suffering with a swift and hopefully painless death. But who can decide for the animal whether the mass slaughter techniques in Western mechanized abattoirs are more or less painful than having its throat cut while still conscious?

This is an argument that animal welfare scientists try to be objective about when monitoring animal responses to pain. If an animal shows the same kind of adverse reactions as humans after a painful stimulus, it is assumed that the stimulus is also painful to the animal. Inevitably, however, all experimentation on pain is essentially an interpretation based on indirect measurements. It is currently impossible for example, to prove whether animals are capable of emotional pain, but it is equally impossible to disprove it. The debate is largely a moral one, and comes down to personal perspectives.

Peter Singer, noted philosopher for animal rights says, "So to conclude: there are no good reasons, scientific or philosophical, for denying that animals feel pain. If we do not doubt that other humans feel pain we should not doubt that other animals do so too."

The RSPCA and animal rights groups clamor to have their opinions heard in the argument, and frankly it would be easier of everyone were to become vegetarian. Similarly, the argument about the humane use of lethal injections for convicted murderers seems somewhat perverse, as controversy continues about how painful is the administration of the three lethal chemicals. Ending capital punishment in the United States would be a more enlightened solution to that question.

Studies abound about stunned or unstunned slaughter -- proving that sheep stay alive for up to 20 seconds after their throats are cut, and cattle up to two minutes. There are also some alarming figures about the inadequacy of stunning methods and efficacy. Both Jews and Muslims believe that stunning an animal first would render the meat prohibited by their religion; but stunning, as long as it does not actually kill the animal, is slowly being accepted as reducing the animal's suffering and still meeting the religious proscriptions. This was deemed acceptable in Egypt with a fatwa in 1987, and New Zealand, the largest exporter of halal sheep meat, has developed slaughter and stunning techniques that meet both Muslim halal requirements and animal welfare concerns. Iqbal Patel, president of the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils has conceded that all but a minority of "conservative Muslims" accepted electrical pre-stunning of sheep before ritual slaughter.

Religious sensibilities aside it is interesting to look at developments in world trade of kosher and halal meat, so see what directions the market is dictating to the moralists. Islam is the fastest growing religion on earth with a world population estimated at 1.4 billion. The global halal meat production and exporting industry is huge and increasing, and halal meat is obviously an important sector of the global food chain. In France for example, the first fast food restaurant for Muslims, Burger King Muslim, opened in 2005 for young Muslims desiring halal fast food.

The European Community has established an elaborate quality assurance scheme to ensure food safety and standards of operations to meet halal requirements, so that halal food production quality and hygiene is controlled as well as being within the requirements of Islamic dietary law. The American Meat Institute guidelines for kosher and halal meat have been in place for a number of years, more to satisfy the need for truth in labeling to protect their market than meeting concerns of animal welfare activists. Kosher certification is good for business, with an estimated 10 million deliberate consumers of kosher products a year, only about one-third of them Jewish.

Whether religious slaughter of animals is seen as humane or inhumane, discriminatory, cruel, sacred or medieval depends on the eye of the beholder. Until science comes up with a definitive measure of animals' pain at death, the theologians still look for their justifications in the Koran and the Torah.

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim is a Fellow and Member of the Board of Directors at the Institute of Social Policy and Understanding and a former Research Scholar at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and World Fellow at Yale.

More writings here: www.azeemibrahim.com