Jim Fitzpatrick on halaal meat

Image of the New Statesman's front page from 14th May 2012, with headline "Halal: Britain's most feared meat" with a cut of meat hanging from a hookThere is a letter in this week’s edition of the New Statesman from Jim Fitzpatrick, Labour MP for Poplar and Limehouse, an east London constituency which includes a very large Muslim population (it is the neighbouring seat from Bethnal Green and Bow, which George Galloway was elected to in 2005). The letter was in response to an article on halaal meat in the previous edition by Mehdi Hasan, who presented the arguments for and against halaal slaughter and, in particular, halaal slaughter without stunning. He accepted the point made in Hasan’s article that 90% of halaal meat sold in the UK is from pre-stunned animals, but believes that meat should be clearly labelled if it is HMC-approved (i.e. no stunning) because most people are “concerned about halal because they think it is cruel, not just Muslim and different”.

I go to halaal restaurants all the time and those that use HMC-approved meat clearly advertise the fact, because many of their local Muslim customers will not eat meat from stunned animals and other Muslims will eat either. As for why Muslims often prefer HMC meat, there are, as I have said before, various stories floating around the community about halaal meat approved by other authorities, like the Halal Food Authority, not really being halaal, such as being mechanically slaughtered or the blessing being played by loudspeaker rather than being pronounced by a Muslim as the animal is slaughtered. While I personally would eat meat from a stunned animal if I knew that it had been stunned and not shot, and I suspect that many others would as well, the other concerns mean I prefer HMC meat because I know it’s done by the book. (However, the HFA emphatically denies these rumours and their requirements (PDF) do actually include that the slaughterman must be Muslim and must recite the tasmiyah or shahadah at the time of slaughter, mandate that the slaughter be done in one cut, and prohibit captive-bolt stunning or, for cattle, any stunning.)

There are quite sound economic reasons for continuing to allow non-stunned halaal (and kosher) slaughter. Muslims eat a lot of meat and the meat has to come from somewhere; while many who currently prefer HMC meat will eat other halaal meat if slaughter without stunning is banned, others (and these are many) will stop eating meat altogether, or try to source it from countries where stunning without slaughter is still allowed. If they cannot, they will eat fish, which could easily put greater strain on fish stocks or cause price rises. There would also be the huge knock-on effects on the thriving restaurant trade in certain parts of London where large parts of the population will not eat non-stunned meat, and they will not go out just to eat dhal and vegetarian dishes (and their fish dishes are expensive). The majority of HMC-approved meat is sold in HMC-approved restaurants and butchers, and there is enough demand for it in places with substantial Muslim population of Indo-Pak origin to ensure that little of it ends up in college canteens or anywhere else that non-Muslims will unwittingly eat it.

There is another letter in the same magazine, saying that as a child, the author had leaflets posted through her letterbox claiming that kosher slaughter was cruel and should be banned, which her father told her were produced by anti-Semites, not animal welfare activists. She also wrote that concern for animal welfare in religious slaughtering was only valid (and not racist) if it is matched by concern for other aspects of animal welfare. Fish, for example, are not slaughtered at all but simply dragged out of the water — the equivalent of drowning for a land animal — sometimes with a hook embedded in its mouth. In the words of Jonathan Safran Foer, “no fish gets a good death. Not a single one. You never have to wonder if the fish on your plate had to suffer. It did” (Eating Animals, Penguin books, 2009). Yet, of all the issues that are raised around fishing, to do with sustainability, bycatches, fish thrown back into the water dead and so on, the manner of death is never an issue.

As Mehdi Hasan said, the hysteria over halaal meat was just the latest in a long line of tabloid-generated Muslim controversies — he listed only a few of them (there were also the various tales about piggy banks, ablution sinks in college toilets, “Winterval” and blacked-out swimming pool windows which appeared in local and national newspapers on a regular basis in the past decade, until the present government took power and “benefit scroungers” became the preferred target) — and manufacturing concern about religious slaughtering is a bigots’ tactic of long standing. The fact is that very few people were concerned about halaal slaughter until the tabloids made it an issue, and that most non-stunned halaal meat is clearly labelled and always has been. Jim Fitzpatrick has clearly not done his research and is giving credibility to racists with his argument.

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