Far too many people (and media) conflate halal slaughter and radical Islamist terrorism. But it took an animal welfare critic to make the salient point: One has nothing to do with the other.
In the wake of the mass murders of the staff at the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, anti-Muslim sentiments have run rampant. Not without some justification.
In scanning a recent commentary in Great Britain’s left-leaning Guardian newspaper, title “Sorry Islamaphobes, this is about animal welfare, not religion,” I expected a screed that trashed both Islam and animal ag.
The lead of the story was headed in exactly that direction.
“When I was nine, I watched the slaughter of poultry on a French farm,” wrote columnist Owen Jones. “I was there as part of a language exchange program, and watched as chickens had their necks slashed and were hung upside down until they bled to death. Not something a small child should have seen, certainly, but equally something that should not have happened full stop.”
“There is always a level of hypocrisy involved in meat-eaters such as myself complaining about the treatment of animals before they are killed for our consumption. Yes, I would like you to kill sheep and chickens so I can eat bits of their dead corpses, but could you do it as nicely as possible please?”
On that long-ago field trip, I assume Jones was referring to a conventional farm somewhere in France, rather than a commercial halal facility. On-farm harvesting of food animals is by necessity more graphic than what takes place at a modern packing plant.
Which ought to be an endorsement of modern meat and poultry production methods, rather than a blanket condemnation of meat eating, full stop.
The trigger for the column was allegations of animal abuse at a contemporary halal processing plant in the northern English county of Yorkshire. And guess what? The accusations resulted from an animal activist group that turned over to the media some video clips made surreptitiously at the plant.
“Undercover video shot by an animal welfare group appearing to show the brutal treatment of sheep at a Yorkshire abattoir has rekindled the debate over whether animals need to be stunned before they are killed,” the Guardian story began. “Footage gathered by campaigning group Animal Aid shows sheep being kicked, threatened with knives and thrown into solid structures. In one case a worker appears to be pinning a sheep’s head down with his foot. Four slaughtermen at Bowood Lamb, a halal slaughterhouse in Thirsk, North Yorkshire, have had their operating licences suspended and the company said one worker had been sacked.”
(I don’t know. Can you “threaten” a sheep with a knife? Like, “Get in that stunning chute, or I’ll cut you where you stand.”)
Despite the allusion to “other horrific forms of mistreatment” depicted in the video footage, columnist Jones made a point likely to surprise most critics: That contrary to popular belief, most livestock in a halal plant are actually stunned first, followed by the ritual cutting.
Even more surprising, he took to task those who jump on incidents of alleged abuse that are regularly proffered by every animal activist groups on Earth as an excuse for fomenting anti-religious sentiments.
“For the obsessive anti-Muslim brigade, the horror is all too convenient. Islamaphobes display no interest in gay rights until Muslims are involved, and then suddenly drape themselves in the rainbow flag. They berate the left on Twitter for complaining about sexual harassment while supposedly ‘ignoring’ female genital mutilation, a horrible practice inflicted by people of various faiths, which this newspaper and other campaigners have been at the forefront of combating.
“And so it goes in cases such as this: those with no prior interest in animal rights (and who devour meat as readily as me) suddenly seem to become paid-up members of the Animal Liberation Front.”
Powerful stuff, and much needed.
People are the problem
Although both are capable of sparking highly inflammatory sentiments, there is a clear separation between ritual slaughter and anti-Islamic extremism. One has nothing to do with the other, and it is refreshing to have a columnist make that point in no uncertain terms.
According to many experts — including the preeminent authority on animal welfare, Temple Grandin — halal or kosher slaughter done properly is a humane way to dispatch the animals. However, as the incidents that allegedly occurred at Bowood Lamb demonstrate, “done properly” is the operative phrase. No matter how sophisticated the handling and stunning systems at a packing plant might be, they’re only as good as the personnel who operate them.
That’s something Grandin has stressed repeatedly: Humane handling isn’t just about engineering better systems, although that’s a crucial component. It’s about training — and supervising — the staff responsible for all phases of handling, stunning and slaughter.
That’s the issue here. No matter what kind of operation is involved, proper training and rigorous enforcement of handling and stunning techniques is critical. In even the most egregious incidents that undercover videos purport to show, the “fix” is always the same: Get rid of abusive employees and re-institute strict procedures across the board.
Ironically, Jones began his piece with what he considered to be a gruesome childhood memory of chickens getting killed on a farm.
What his didn’t articulate is the reality that farmers have no choice. They have to clobber animals with a mallet, chop off their heads with an ax or hang them up and slice their throats.
The humane alternative to those “natural” ways of obtaining meat can only take place in the very plants activists can’t wait to implicate as abusive monstrosities.
Done properly, commercial slaughtering is among the most humane, painless ways an animal can die. Other than pets, virtually every other creature not considered livestock succumbs to either starvation, exposure or predation — none of which is preferable to humane stunning and slaughter.
Even if it’s Muslims running the plant.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.