LONDON – British Jewry became the latest European community to face shechita (Jewish religious slaughter) problems last week when the newly elected head of the British Veterinary Association called for a ban on all forms of “ritual animal slaughter.”
The ban specifically referred to shechita and halal, the Muslim standard for matters of daily life, including form of slaughter and acceptable food and drink.
John Blackwell, the president elect of the British vets trades body managed to secure a front page story in The Times and a sympathetic editorial for his call to “stop ritual slaughter of animals” on the grounds that it caused “unnecessary suffering.”
He demanded that the exemptions for Jews and Muslims over their methods of religious killing, which is enshrined in UK law, be ended and “ritual slaughter” methods banned if both religions refuse to adopt what he termed “more humane methods.”
But Jewish and Muslims leaders independently and jointly rejected the calls, pointing out that the way the majority of animals are slaughtered in the UK – by use of a “captive bolt” before they have their throats slit – often causes far more suffering and pain, especially when in up to a third of cases the bolt misfires and the process has to be repeated.
Blackwell, who sources suggested wanted to make a name for himself as he takes over the vets organization, said that poultry, cattle and sheep should be pre-stunned first and then killed, then added that if Jewish and Muslim leaders refuse, then the government should consider introducing a ban similar to that recently brought in, in Denmark. It was, the Times noted, the first time the Vets association had made such a call.
Animal welfare organizations in the UK have long campaigned for a ban, and they have been repeatedly backed by the government appointed advisory panel, the Farm Animal Welfare Council.
However, successive governments have always rejected such calls knowing that not only would Britain’s estimated 280,000 Jewish community find the ban unacceptable but the increasingly politically active estimated 3 million Muslim population too, would be affronted by such demands.
Director of Shechita UK Shimon Cohen told The Jerusalem Post that all Blackwell was doing was repeating the same old science from the animal welfare organizations, such as the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, who “fail to recognize that there is an ample body of scientific evidence that confirm our Jewish Community position that shechita is at least as humane as other legal methods of animal slaughter for food.”
It is wrong, he added, to claim that shechita is not humane.
With Britain’s halal market estimated to be worth up to £2 billion, and Muslim communities holding sway in a number of marginal constituencies, political leaders will always be wary of upsetting a significant part of the electorate – Britain’s next general election is due in 14 months.
While Shechita UK has been working alongside halal authorities on the issue, there have been problems with fighting a common cause with the Muslim community, as some of halal’s leaders accept pre-stunning – a practice prohibited in Jewish law.
According to the UK’s Foods Standards Agency’s latest statistics, 10 percent of poultry, 4% of sheep and 3% of cattle were killed without stunning. Of the poultry some 600,000 birds were slaughtered for the Muslim market and 70,000 for Jewish consumption.
One of Britain’s most eminent doctors, Jewish Lord Robert Winston recently told House of Lords peers that in his view, shechita is far more humane than the way the other poultry are killed in the UK. For the non kosher or Muslim market, poultry are mechanically strung up then immersed head first into a large vat of water where they are electrocuted. When there is insufficient electric current, birds suffer from epileptic shocks and paralysis.
He said that the most accurate method of brain scanning showed no pain-related activity two seconds after the poultry’s blood supply is cut by the Shechita method. Jews, he wrote in a letter to the Times “believe the scientific evidence which suggests this is the most humane method of obtaining meat to eat.”
All three major political party leaders have made clear they do not intend to remove the exemptions for Jews and Muslims. Deputy Premier Nick Clegg, speaking on his weekly radio show, said he disagreed with Blackwell. Referring to Jewish and Muslim religious exemptions, he said that no government of which he would be part would follow Denmark’s path.
“These are ancient beliefs handed down over generations. As a liberal I believe in trying to protect that kind of diversity not trying to squash it.”
Henry Grunwald, chairman of Shechita UK, accused Blackwell’s attack on religious slaughter as an affront to faith communities.
Even if Blackwell ignored the “ample scientific evidence” on shechita, showing it to be at least as humane as the industrialized methods used in conventional mechanical slaughter houses, he was “startled” that the Vets leader overlooked the “unspeakable cruelty” uncovered by animal welfare groups in UK abattoirs over the last five years – findings of an “unacceptable” amount of animals incorrectly mechanically stunned before slaughter.
Blackwell called for the labeling of all meat and poultry that is sold without first being stunned. But he has since been advised that there ought to be a level playing field on labeling and that all meat and poultry should display signs on how they were killed, including shooting, gassing, drowning and electrocution.
Editor of the Jewish Chronicle Stephen Pollard suggested that such labeling would probably increase the sales of kosher meat.