Debating religious slaughter over 200 years: from spatial concealment to social controversy

Posted on October 25, 2018 by John Lever

I first become interested in the issue of stunning and animal slaughter while working as a post-doctoral researcher on the EU funded Dialrel project at Cardiff University between 2008-2010, which reviewed national legislation and research in the area alongside analysing the prevalence of various practices. I became particularly interested in the historical background to the debate and how it has evolved over the years and I recently co-authored the book: Religion, Regulation, Consumption: Globalising Kosher and Halal Markets with my colleague Johan Fischer to give a comprehensive insight into the consequences of globalising kosher and halal markets.

I continue to find the evolution of the global kosher and halal markets fascinating and, as we look to the future and what Brexit holds, I believe it is important to also look back on the historical context to understand how these debates around religious slaughter developed so we can approach them with perspective and understanding.

The origins of the religious slaughter debate

Religious (non-stun) slaughter has been debated in England for over two centuries. Indeed, the earliest legal dispute over schecita (Jewish) slaughter was heard in London in 1788, when the Lord Chief Justice gave local rabbis’ sole authority over such matters. Throughout the 19th century, Jewish migration from Russia and Eastern Europe facilitated the rise of ‘voluntary ghettos’ made up of poor Jewish labourers in cities such as London and Manchester. It was here that small religious societies (chevroth) flourished, as it was here that the orthodox, working poor could find religious services they couldn’t afford elsewhere, including slaughter facilities and the provision of kosher meat.

As awareness of these practices increased throughout the 19th century, regional branches of the RSPCA, originally founded in the 1820s, began to intensify campaigning against shechita on animal welfare grounds: towards the end of the century, in a period of rising anti-Semitism, this was closely linked to negative political stereotyping that portrayed Jews as inhumane. The UK Government attempted to restrict Jewish immigration through the Aliens Act 1905, but it was not until the Slaughter of Animals Act 1933 that pre-slaughter stunning was made compulsory for all red meat animals; the Act also set up a Rabbinical Commission that allowed the chief rabbi to license religious slaughterers to kill red meat animals without pre-stunning. Despite ensuing controversy, growing Nazi propaganda throughout the 1930s meant that political interest in religious slaughter waned considerably.

Animal welfare and the growing power of the media

After the Holocaust, debate about religious slaughter began to focus more on animal rights and animal welfare. In the post war period, attention also began to focus on the UK’s growing Muslim population and their traditional method of halal slaughter (dhabiha). As the UK government started to look for ways to restrict commonwealth immigration prior to the Commonwealth Immigrants Act of 1962, media driven, anti-immigration discourses began to surface more regularly. However, despite campaigns by the Humane Slaughter Association and the RSPCA, successive UK governments consistently opposed the abolition of slaughter without stunning in the post war period. At the same time however, animal welfare began to move up the policy agenda; in 1967 pre-stunning for poultry was made compulsory through the Slaughter of Poultry Act 1967. 

When the UK joined the European Economic Community in 1973, the consolidation of slaughter legislation across Europe was raised, though once again there was a recognition of the need to respect the rights of minorities to practice religion, as enshrined in the current derogation from EU legislation. Controversy over halal meat and religious slaughter first erupted in Bradford in 1984, when the headmaster of a local school, Ray Honeyford, wrote an article on education and race for The Salisbury Review criticising British multiculturalism, anti-racist policies and the wider impact of immigration on education and society. This ignited opposition to religious slaughter at the national level.

As the Muslim population expanded from 1.55 million to 2.71 million in the decade to 2011, the production and visibility of halal meat increased rapidly and calls to ban non-stun slaughter by the Farm Animal Welfare Council (FAWC) and their partners intensified. Lack of transparency in the meat industry over halal production methods contributed greatly to the social and political sensitivities that emerged during this period. This culminated, during 2014, in a period of media reporting characterised by some as national halal hysteria. Indeed, it was widely reported over a number of years that all halal meat produced and sold in the UK came from non-stunned animals, when the majority actually came from pre-stunned animals. This situation undermined public understanding significantly, contributing to widespread unease about the place of Islam in British society.

Animal welfare and post-Brexit trade opportunities

As debates about post-Brexit trade have intensified, it has been reported that the number of animals that are not stunned before slaughter is on the increase in the UK. While not so long-ago, animal welfare was ostensibly compromised by a growing demand for halal meat from Muslim consumers within the UK, it is now under threat because of the halal meat trade opportunities that are being welcomed as we leave Europe and need to look for alternative trade partners. Going forward it will be important to keep the historical context of these debates in mind if we are to fully understand their significance for British society and their wider importance for animal as well as human and environmental health.

Find out more

Join us at BVA Congress at the London Vet Show for John’s session ‘The evolution of slaughter – how science, politics and society shape the way we kill animals’, Friday 16 November 9.30 am to 10.50 am.

John Lever

Written by John Lever

John Lever is an interdisciplinary social scientist with a background in sociology, human geography and management. He has been researching various aspects of food production and consumption, including farm animal welfare in the meat industry, for over a decade.