How do we slaughter the animals which we eat? This is one of the most fundamental questions affecting our diet, and also one of the most contentious. In many countries, certain religious groups are granted an exemption from the mandatory stunning of animals prior to slaughter on religious grounds. In light of modern stunning techniques, can this exemption still be justified? Hugh Westbrook investigates.

Religious members of Jewish and Islamic communities slaughter without pre-stunning because they believe an animal has to be completely healthy before it is slaughtered for food. The issue has recently become topical in the United Kingdom, where advisory body the Farm Animal Welfare Council has called for the exemption to end in a report now being studied by the Government's Environment department. Jewish and Islamic authorities are in uproar. just-food.com spoke to representatives of both sides of the debate to try and ascertain the facts.

Judy MacArthur Clark, the chairwoman of the FAWC, believes strongly that the exemption should end. She explained that her organisation is purely interested in the welfare of animals, particularly ensuring that they should not feel pain when slaughtered, and that is the reason behind the recommendation. "Most of us want to think animals were killed in a humane way," she said.

The main issue worth focusing on is whether animals feel pain when slaughtered without stunning as opposed to when they are stunned. "Pain is strictly subjective so it is difficult categorically to state what happens," she said. "You can't ask the animals. But they are restrained so they can't show any pain and their windpipe is cut so they can't express pain. In addition, they are prey animals and behavioural evidence shows that they would not show pain in any case."

Animals "do experience pain"
She also cited the results from electroencephalographic methodology (EEG), which suggests that animals are not instantly killed or immediately rendered insensible. "The evidence shows that they do experience pain. There is immediate pain from the cut."

MacArthur Clark agreed that stunning is not 100% perfect but added: "At least it gives the opportunity of a humane death."

She is also concerned that not all meat slaughtered by religious methods finds its way to the groups for which it is intended. For example, some of every carcass slaughtered for the kosher market is rejected, while some carcasses are turned down in their entirety. They end up in the mainstream food chain. "We think this is significant," she commented. "It is a labelling issue. There is public sensitivity to welfare standards."

Government intervention necessary
As for whose role it is to decide on how animals should be slaughtered, Dr Macarthur Clark added: "It is the role of government to determine if a practice which contravenes legislation is permissible. Religious communities have to decide if it's acceptable. Then it's up to the individual." She wants to see religious authorities adopt a middle ground and accept that stunning is within the spirit of the bible and cites New Zealand, where all halal meat is stunned before slaughter. Much of this meat is exported to the Middle East.

So can the FAWC expect a compromise from Jewish and Islamic authorities? Unequivocally not. Ronny Stekel, chairman of the UK's Shechitah Board, said that the exemption cannot be repealed. "In Nazi Germany in 1933 there was a ban on shechitah. The rabbis tried to find some exemption then and could not find a way to do it, and if they could not find one then they won't find one now. The animal has to be perfectly healthy and pre-stunning injures the animal. In addition, CJD can be spread by certain stunning techniques.

"There is no scientific data in the FAWC report but we have scientific data. For example, US experiments have been done with loosened restraints for the animals. But animals have not pulled away and they would pull away from pain. In addition, laboratories will often only use tissue from animals killed by shechitah and not animals which have been pre-stunned as the tissue has been damaged."

Political agenda in play
Stekel is in no doubt that there is a political agenda behind the report. He takes issue with the idea that religiously slaughtered meat in the general food chain should be labelled. "People have a right to knowledge. But if being killed by schechitah is the only information, that's not enough. The whole life story needs to be told, all the other welfare issues such as the freedom code."

The issue has led to cooperation between Jewish and Muslim authorities. Dr Majid Katme, spokesman on Halal for the Muslim Council of Britain, said that there is a gap in education of British Muslims which his body is working to address. "Education on halal is a weakness and people do not know the facts about halal." He cites lack of knowledge as the reason for regimes such as those in New Zealand.

He said there is data which demonstrates that animals do not suffer pain, while certain stunning methods can be even worse and can lead to restunning. "If a chicken is being dragged with its head in electrified water, there is lots of pain.

"Our method has a cut in the neck with a very, very sharp knife going through two major blood vessels. Blood comes out instantly in an explosion, the brain loses blood instantly and therefore we do not believe there can be any pain.

"Welfare is a major issue in Islam. There is no abuse of animals, no antibiotics, no genetically modified crops.

"Also, we do not eat animals which were already dead before they were slaughtered, and with pre-stunning it is impossible to tell if an animal is already dead from the stun. It is also prohibited to consume blood, and more comes out of the animal if the cut kills it.

Does ritual slaughter produce healthier meat?
"If the animal is already dead, there is less blood pressure and more blood stays in the body which is less healthy. Stunning affects the meat. Natural meat, purified of blood, is healthy." The Schechitah board's Stekel also says upcoming research will show that animals ritually slaughtered produce healthier meat.

Peter Davis, the director general of the World Society for the Protections of Animals, is not swayed by the religious arguments and believes that Muslims may be persuaded to allow stunning in the future. "Moslems appear to be moving towards a more modern perspective," he said.

"Every investigation has shown that without pre-stunning, pain is caused to the animal. We have to stick to our guns and we think the Moslems will accept." He also said he knew of no convincing scientific evidence for the CJD claims.

The battle lines are clearly drawn and the government will now ask for comments from both sides as it reaches its conclusion. And what will it decide? Both sides argue their cases convincingly and both sides have evidence which backs them up. For every claim on one side, there is a counter-claim on the other. Is there a piece of incontrovertible evidence on either side which wins the argument? Probably not. Is it too emotive a decision to end the exemption? Probably yes. So it is hard to see the status quo changing.

Yet in many ways, all the people spoken to by just-food.com are on the same side. All passionately believe in the rights of the animal and put the welfare of the animal at the top of their list. But because they believe welfare is best served in very different ways, this disagreement will continue to come up. It is almost impossible to believe that an accord can one day be found which will satisfy everybody.

Useful links:
Farm Animal Welfare Council
Jewish Board of Deputies
Muslim Council of Britain