It’s British Sandwich Week this week, and during our Sunday morning ritual of all my family (me, Mr and our boys, along with my brother, my sister in law, Amanda, and their children) congregating at my parents house for bacon or sausage sandwiches, the conversation turned to the recent Halal controversy, and from there to animal welfare in general.
As someone who has no strong religious views, I consider myself to be open-minded when it comes to the religion that people choose to follow. I feel that people have a right to choose which beliefs and practices to follow, but I do think that the authentic Halal and similar methods of slaughter are inhumane. Religious slaughter states than the animal must be fully alive prior to slaughter, and although some more liberal leaders allow the use of a pre-slaughter stun (88% of Halal meat in the UK comes from animals which have been slaughtered following use of a stun), many do not. The throat of the animal is cut, and the blood left to drain from the animal, which, according to a study in 2009 (Gibson et al, New Zealand Veterinary Journal), can mean a two minute delay in the animal being rendered unconscious.
That slow and painful death sounds like a pretty big animal welfare issue to me.
I do understand why the halal, or the similar Jewish Shechita, slaughter method is used – it’s not religiously offensive to anyone, and it’s easier (and probably cheaper) to kill animals by one method, than using a variety of ways. But what about those who care that the animal feels siginficant pain prior to its demise? The chickens, cows, sheep and goats who are subjected to intense pain before they slip into unconsciousness?
I am sure there are some of you who will say that if I really care I should be vegetarian (believe me, I am seriously considering it) or maybe even vegan (dairy cows have an horrendous life… more of that later), but then that leads on to the fact that these animals exist purely for our food chain – if they weren’t farmed, they wouldn’t live at all. Is it better to life a less than perfect life than no life at all? Is it suffering, if the animals have never experienced anything else? I think that regardless of life experience, and any comparison between past and present, pain is pain, and animals are more than capable of feeling both physical pain and emotional stress, both of which are felt during traditional religious slaughter, when a stun is not administered.
I don’t care one jot about a prayer being recited before the slaughter, or whether or not this method of killing the animal makes the meat more hygienic, as is the Muslim belief. I care about the treatment of the animal before and during it’s death, and I feel the methods used should be as kind and humane as can be in the circumstances. And I care about my right to choose whether or not the meat I buy is prepared according to my values. The unclear labelling of meat makes this choice impossible, and it’s thought that less than half of the meat slaughtered in accordance with Jewish beliefs is sold as Kosher. The remainder, which is deemed unacceptable for Jewish people to eat (Jewish law forbids the consumption of certain parts of the animal), is sold on the open market, but not labelled as meat that comes from animal which have not been prestunned. Similarly, Halal meat does not specify whether or not the animal was stunned prior to slaughter.
I choose to buy free range eggs, I prefer to buy meat from animals I know has had a more natural life where possible, I don’t use cosmetics tested on animals and I will not visit parks which feature animals where welfare is an issue (Seaworld is one that springs to mind, which I certainly won’t be going back to). It didn’t occur to me that the slaughter method itself could be inhumane, even for organically or naturally reared animals. I will certainly be paying more attention in future.
The only way to encourage farmers to use less intensive, and switch to more humane, farming methods, is to support those farmers who already do. If demand increases, supermarkets will stock more and the positivity will feed back to encourage abbatoirs, farmer and all the middle men to use more humane practices. It’s all about consumer choice, and caring about the welfare of the animals before they become our food.
This latest food scandal has really made me stop and think about what I put on my dining table, and what I put in my family’s mouths. There’s a reason cheap meat is, well, cheap. Because the animals are looked after with minimal input, farmed intensively and with less room to roam before being slaughtered at a younger age, so they cost less to produce. Animals that are looked after well have more space, live for longer (so eat more during their lives) and naturally cost the farmer more during their lives, so he has to recoup that in the sale price.
If I could, I’d have a small holding, with a cow (which hadn’t been bred to be in a state of permanent starvation because they physically can’t consume enough calories to support their milk output), some chickens and a pig or two – and I’d feel happy about eating meat from animals I’d know had had a good life.
So while you’re munching your sarnies this week, be it chicken, ham, bacon, beef, sausage or whatever your filling of choice might be, take a moment to think about the animal you are eating and whether it was happy during it’s short life, and whether or not it had a painful death. And about what you can do to help improve the standard of animal welfare in the UK.