A British veterinarian proposed a ban on halal and kosher slaughter, triggering angry rebuttals from Muslim and Jewish groups. But is an eventual ban on those ancient practices inevitable?

Controversy has erupted in Great Britain after John Blackwell, newly elected head of the British Veterinary Association, called for a ban on “ritual animal slaughter.”

Blackwell demanded that exemptions for Jews and Muslims using kosher and halal methods of religious killing, currently protected by British law, be banned unless both religions adopt what he termed “more humane methods.”

“We do not accept Blackwell’s comments as there are clear, precise methods of carrying out religious slaughter which takes due diligence so as not to cause suffering to an animal,” Dr. Shuja Shafi, deputy secretary general of the Muslim Council of Britain, responded in a statement.

British Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg defended ritual slaughter, telling news reporters last week that “no government of which I’m part” would ban the practices.

“These are ancient beliefs handed down over generations,” Clegg noted. “As a liberal, I believe in trying to protect that kind of diversity, not trying to quash it.”

The key word in that statement is “ancient.” Despite Clegg’s sentiments, the reality is that Denmark and Poland, among EU member states, have already banned ritual slaughter. Denmark passed legislation just last month rescinding kosher and halal exemptions, a law that was quickly labeled “anti-Semitic” by Jewish leaders and “a clear interference in religious freedom” by Danish Halal.

Rabbi Eli Ben Dahan, Israel’s deputy minister of religious services, told the Jewish Daily Forward that “European anti-Semitism is showing its true colors across Europe, and is even intensifying in the government institutions.”

A Continent-wide controversy

Indeed. Across the Channel, the issue of halal meat has become a political hot button in France’s upcoming presidential elections scheduled for next month.

At a rally in Paris in February, French President Nicolas Sarkozy attempted to defuse controversies over halal meat. According to Agence France-Presse, Sarkozy told supporters that, “Every year we consume 200,000 tons of meat in the Paris region, and [only] 2.5 percent of it is kosher or halal.”

However, Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right National Front party, in a thinly concealed attack on France’s growing Muslim population, claimed just last week that virtually all meat being sold in Paris was halal, a result, he said, of a loophole in French law that does not require mandatory labeling of halal meat.

“All the abattoirs of the Paris region have succumbed to the rules of a minority,” Le Pen told a rally. “We have reason to be disgusted.”

Adding to the controversy, a documentary recently aired on the TV channel France 2 alleging that slaughterhouses around Paris have switched their meat production to halal methods to save money.

Even though the politics of halal slaughter are tied up with backlash against Muslim immigrants, as well as concerns about animal welfare, there is a solution to this problem: Change the requirements for killing of food animals.

Granted, Islam is not known as a religion particularly suited to reinventing itself to embrace 21st century lifestyles. Neither was Catholicism a couple generations ago, yet sweeping changes were enacted in both liturgy and doctrine in a matter of a few decades and the momentum of those reforms continues today.

Likewise, millions of otherwise devout Muslims have successfully adapted to American and European lifestyles without compromising their religious devotion.

In terms of doctrine, there is no practical reason, other than a slavish connection to tradition, why the requirement that an animal to be eaten must be killed by having its throat slit would be negated if stunning takes place first. Adhering to the letter of the law would still be possible because technically, stunning does not kill the animal. In kosher and halal practice, the loss of blood is the actual cause of death.

The bottom line is that unless reform comes from within the Jewish and especially the Muslim communities across Europe, and eventually North America, the eventual disposition of the controversy is as clear as the current French campaign ads denouncing halal: Either they change a ritual that only made sense in a time and place completely alien to modern sensibilities, or else secular forces will change it for them.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.