Of hegemony and halal – A talk on the globalisation of kosher and halal meat by John Lever

[Heads-up: this blog contains some information about the specific ways through which animals are killed, focusing on both kosher/halal and Western/industrial practices]

Last week, I attended a talk organised by the Centre for Regional Economic and Social Research (CRESR) on the globalisation of halal and kosher meat. Researcher John Lever (University of Huddersfield) began his presentation by outlining historical practices of religious slaughter carried out by Jewish immigrants, in his native Manchester, in the 19th century. In the mid-1800s, Jewish migrant populations began to slaughter animals according to religious prescriptions at the local synagogue. Soon, however, a diversification along class lines took place within the migrant population, and small Jewish working class communities (chevroth) began to set up their own independent slaughterhouses, which were not overseen by the local synagogue. As a result of the spread of religious slaughtering practices in the city, a need for regulation emerged and the London Board of Schechita (this term refers to the slaughter of animals according to Jewish dietary laws, you can read more here) was given the authority to issue licenses to Jewish slaughterers (Lever, 2016). As the 18th century moved towards a close, Jewish migrants began to face increasing discrimination. Practices of religious slaughtering featured in processes of ‘othering’ through which the Jewish population was portrayed as different, uncouth and separate from their English fellow city dwellers.

Fast-forward one hundred years and Lever draws parallels between the treatment of the Jewish immigrant community then, and the Muslim community now: ‘we see the same debates taking place, but now with Muslim populations as their referent’.

Similar to the Jewish Schechita, the Islamic requirement for meat to be halal requires animals to die through blood loss, e.g. bleeding to death. Within both these practices it is very important that the animal is killed through a single swipe with an ‘instrument of surgical sharpness’ and that all blood is drained from the animal as both the Quran and the Torah contain a prohibition against the consumption of blood (Halal Food Authority 2017; UK Schecita Board 2009). The key difference with current Western practices of killing animals is that it is believed that under schechita and dhabiha (the Arabic term for ritual slaughter) animals remain conscious for longer – and thus feel more pain – than when animals are stunned. Within the media, the question of stunning is highlighted as the key issue of conflict in debates surrounding kosher and halal.

EU law (European Union Council Directive 93/119/EC) issued in 1993 sets out which methods of stunning are permissible (see Annex C of the document cited above). These are: ‘the use of a captive bolt pistol; concussion; electronarcosis; and exposure to carbon dioxide’. The actual killing of the animal – as it is still only unconscious – may then be done with a ‘free bullet pistol or rifle; electrocution; or further exposure to carbon dioxide’ (e.g. gassing) (Annex C, EU Council directive 93/119/EC). The ‘competent authority’, however, may also authorise ‘decapitation, dislocation of the neck and the use of a vacuum chamber as a method of killing’ (ibid) provided the other criteria stipulated in the directive are met. For poultry, other methods of stunning are used but these are not discussed here. It must be highlighted, however, that stunning methods are not always effective and that animals may regain consciousness. This can occur after electrical stunning as well as during bleeding out (CIWF 2000). A survey of pig abattoirs in England and Wales showed that ‘15% of pigs which were not restrained at stunning had to be re-stunned’ and that ‘some stunning currents and tong positions resulted in double stuns’, which ‘shed doubts about the instantaneousness of electrical stunning in some manual stunning systems’ (Anil and McKinstry 1999, cited in CIWF 2000, above).

This information shows that the discursive opposition between halal and kosher meat and meat produced through non-religious slaughtering practices is not very straight-forward at all, because the main claim upon which a large section of the debate rests (i.e the absence of pain and the ‘humanity’ of killing practices) is not self-evident. The dubiousness of taking this apparent distinction for granted, becomes yet clearer when it is considered that over 80% of all halal meat actually comes from stunned animals, due to the Halal Food Authority’s acceptance of this practice (Lever 2016), thereby technically erasing the difference between halal and non-halal meat.

Nevertheless, as was the case in 18th century Manchester, the practices of producing halal and kosher meat continue to pose a conundrum to liberal-minded secular governments (see Ibrahim 2017). John Lever argues that in spite of the de facto similarities between practices of religious and industrial slaughtering processes, the public visibility of immigrant communities, religious slaughterhouses and religiously sanctioned foods, provokes backlashes (see for example: ‘Halal Horror House’, The Mirror, 1 May 2016 or ‘Halal meat being eaten by millions without them knowing it’, Daily Mail, 7 May 2014). Lever argues that in such a context, the debate over halal/non-halal is instrumentalised and used to reinforce hegemonic liberal values that are not necessarily related to meat itself (Lever 2017). When arguably – as this blog post has sought to make clear as well – the more pressing questions refer to the general non-transparency of the (global) meat industry and the standards maintained therein. Moreover, from an ethical point of view, the obvious question is whether the killing of animals – whether it is done according to halal, kosher or modern industrial conventions –  is morally justifiable at all.

For an in-depth discussion of some of the themes discussed in this post see Lever and Miele, ‘The growth of halal meat markets in Europe: An exploration of the supply side theory of religion’, Journal of Rural Studies 28 (2012). You can find out more about John’s work here. The question whether killing animals for food is morally justifiable at all will be explored in a future blog post.

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