Photo for illustrative purposes only. Students eat lunch at Salusbury Primary School in northwest London June 11, 2014. REUTERS/Suzanne Plunkett
The decision by a local authority in northern England to end the supply of non-stunned halal meat to its schools was branded “oppressive” and “abhorrent” by a local Muslim leader.
Earlier this month, Lancashire County Council voted to stop supplying meat from animals that had been slaughtered without first being stunned, citing animal welfare. The new policy will begin with the next school year, which starts in September.
The move follows a month-long public consultation launched in February in which two-thirds of 8,500 respondents strongly disagreed with the proposal. The council also acknowledged in its review of the policy that “there is currently no demand for stunned halal meat from any school within the authority's catering service”.
“This is a big issue, it has multiple implications,” Lancashire Council of Mosques chief executive Abdul Hamid Qureshi told Salaam Gateway. “The council is adamant about it: they just want by hook or by crook [to put an end to] non-stunned meat.”
He said that his organisation could not accept the move on principle, and the council’s decision had been reached through an “oppressive process”.
“It is against our religious needs. [The council] just wants to impose on us a decision that is not acceptable to us at all,” he added. The council declined to respond to Salaam Gateway over Qureshi’s comments.
A largely industrial county in the northwest of England, Lancashire has a significant 96,600 Muslim population, representing 5 percent of its residents, according to the last census in 2011.
The issue of halal slaughter raises an inconsistency in English law, which outlaws the non-stunned killing of animals but allows the practice for religious purposes in monitored abattoirs.
Lancashire County Council has used this loophole to follow advice from the Department for Education which states that schools should make reasonable adjustments for pupils with particular requirements such as cultural dietary needs, and that school lunches should be designed for the majority of the school population.
Currently, the authority supplies school meals for up to 12,000 children at 27 schools. From September, these schools will have the option of ordering stunned meat from the council or seeking their own alternative suppliers of non-stunned meat.
“We supply halal meat to a small number of schools where it is served in dishes as one of a number of options able to be chosen by students whose parents have specifically requested it,” said Lancashire County Council leader Geoff Driver when announcing the policy.
He pointed out that the authority had considered “animal welfare issues surrounding the supply of halal meat”, which shaped its decision.
“We accept that a small number of schools may choose to use different suppliers for halal meat, however we hope that people understand how the council has arrived at this decision, which has been taken solely on the grounds of animal welfare with due consideration for the impacts outlined in the responses to the consultation,” Driver added.
The council’s position on animal welfare matches that of a number of interest groups. Among them, the British Veterinary Association (BVA) asserts that 64 percent of vets believe that welfare at the time of slaughter, specifically a requirement for stunning, should be a priority.
The National Secular Society (NSS), an organisation which works for the separation of religion and state, said in its response to the council’s consultation: “Stunned halal meat is the only ethical option and it is accepted by the majority of Muslims.”
This view is based on Food Standards Agency data from 2012 that say 84 percent of cattle, 81 percent of sheep and goats, and 88 percent of poultry were stunned in Britain before slaughter under halal conditions. A more recent British Veterinary Association study found that almost a quarter of sheep and goats slaughtered between April and June 2017 had their throats cut without first being stunned.
“The scientific consensus is clear that it is more humane to stun an animal prior to slaughter than not doing so. That is why animal welfare legislation requires all animals to be stunned before slaughter in order to minimise suffering, with exemptions given only to animals slaughtered by halal or kosher methods,” added the National Secular Society.
LOCAL MUSLIM GROUPS RESPOND
In contrast, the Muslim Council of Britain believes that non-stunned halal slaughter “which causes a rapid loss of consciousness” is “equivalent to the stunning of the animal” and makes the death of the animal as quick and painless as possible.
“Although there is a difference of opinion, a large proportion of Muslims do not accept that pre-stunned methods of slaughter conform to the criteria of halal,” the council said in a statement to Salaam Gateway.
“Lancashire County Council has chosen to opt for a local ban on what the national law permits, ignoring the views of 65 percent of people who responded to their own questionnaire. We hope the Council will reconsider and reverse its position.”
While Britain’s two biggest halal agencies, the Halal Food Authority (HFA) and the Halal Monitoring Committee (HMC), agree on many things, their most notable difference concerns the issue of stunning animals before slaughter. The HFA allows this in certain conditions, while the HMC is generally considered to be more orthodox in its interpretation of Shariah and refuses to endorse stunned slaughter in all cases.
The HMC did not respond to several requests by Salaam Gateway for comment, but the HFA’s chief executive said it was for Lancashire County Council to decide what it thinks best for the community, though it should expect some backlash.
“I understand the sensitivity around this,” Saqib Mohammed told Salaam Gateway. “It could be a politically motivated agenda, but we were not exposed to that. If the fear is about the supply, in the UK over 80 percent of halal-certified meat is stunned anyway. That is a fact.”
JW Youngs, the only supplier of non-stunned halal meat to Lancashire County Council, will see its contract end before the start of the new school term. Notwithstanding, only around 20 percent of its supply is of beef rather than poultry, which is not stunned due to the delicate physiology of the animals. No decision has yet been made by councillors how to proceed in securing a supplier for halal meat in the future.
Non-official distributors of halal meat which makes its way into schools in Lancashire are generally unmoved either about the ban or their customers’ perception of stunned and non-stunned meat.
“If I were to move to a halal certifier that didn’t insist on non-stunned meat, it might affect 5-10 percent of my customers,” Gulam Jasat, owner of HMC-certified Jasat Halal Pies in Blackburn, told Salaam Gateway.
“I don’t foresee any problems so far, though we don’t supply schools to a huge extent. And outside schools the majority of my customers don’t care if we’re with HMC or not. They’re not fussed as long as they know it’s halal.”
Omar Bhamji, managing director of Bradford’s CK Foods, says it is unlikely that the Lancashire schools he distributes meat products to will continue to opt for non-stunned meat due to the issue’s exposure in the media.
“Joe Public will be under the impression that only stunned products can be served now and won’t be aware of what sort of leeway schools have, and that they can work on a different model. That’s the general feeling,” he told Salaam Gateway.
“I think the problem we have here is this is a commercial or an ethical decision to make. Methods of slaughter vary throughout the UK and stunning methods vary too, but what it always boils down to is the halal method which is put under the microscope. We’ve done our research into the different modes of slaughter available and we believe the most ethical method is the halal method.”
A council spokesperson told Salaam Gateway a greater impact on business could come from a wider boycott of all school meals supplied by the council.
When the county passed a similar ban in 2013, which it later repealed, the Lancashire Council of Mosques asked all Muslim families to say no to Lancashire school meals completely. It resulted in a significant drop in meal uptake and thus income to the council and halal and non-halal suppliers. In one school district, meal uptake fell by seven percent.
In Blackburn, at the Lancashire Council of Mosques, Abdul Hamid Qureshi has no intention of letting the issue die, though he has yet to decide what course of action to take.
He recognises that most Muslim-owned slaughterhouses have two production lines, for stunned and non-stunned animals, and expects businesses to adapt to any change in school orders. For him, it is a question of morals, and whether it is ethically right for a council to decide what Muslim children can or can’t eat.
He brushes aside Lancashire County Council’s stated position that it cannot “come to any judgment on what is and what isn’t halal” and says he is exploring the possibility of taking the authority to court to challenge the ban.
“It is oppressive, it is abhorrent and we are fighting against this.”
(Reporting by Richard Whitehead; Editing by Emmy Abdul Alim firstname.lastname@example.org)
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