It has been widely reported in the press this week that the chain restaurant Pizza Express has been serving halal chicken on its pizzas, without informing its customers. This has led to wider reporting of the sale of unmarked halal meat in supermarkets in the UK, echoing similar debates that pre-empted the ban of halal slaughter in Denmark, earlier this year. One (Muslim) commentator in the Daily Mail went so far as to claim ‘[t]his is covert religious extremism and creeping Islamic fundamentalism making its way into Britain by the back door’.While the correct marking of meat and animal welfare are both legitimate concerns, the question is still raised: are those objecting to the sale of halal meat really concerned about animal welfare or is the debate just a manifestation of intolerance against Muslims? Why is the serving of halal meat in restaurants ‘creeping Islamic fundamentalism’ rather than a restaurant providing an option for its Muslim customers? How is the sale of unmarked halal meat in supermarkets ‘creeping Islamic fundamentalism’ when the majority of Muslims are unaware that the meat sold is halal?
Halal slaughter requires that the animal’s neck be cut in one stroke with a sharp knife, in order to cause the animal the least amount of suffering possible, whilst a prayer is recited. Doctrinal differences mean that there is no agreement in the Muslim community about whether animals can be stunned prior to slaughter. An exemption from the requirement to stun animals has been available for Muslim and Jewish communities in the UK since 1933 (Slaughter of Animals Act 1933 s 6; Welfare of Animals (Slaughter or Killing) Regulations 1995 Reg 22 and Schedule 12). However, the Food Standards Agency reported that 88 percent of animals were stunned prior to halal slaughter in the UK in 2011.
In the UK, the majority of non-halal(and Shechita) poultry is gassed. However, the other method of slaughter, still used, involves the animals being hung upside down by the legs (prior to stunning), having their heads dunked in a water bath with an electrical current running through it in order to stun them and then being decapitated on a conveyor belt using a mechanical neck cutter (which similarly to religious slaughter, cuts the major blood vessels in the neck). Given that the majority of halal meat is stunned prior to slaughter, it is not clear what makes the sale of halal chicken so objectionable to the public. The slaughter of animals is a gruesome business.
Given that the majority of halal meat in the UK is stunned prior to slaughter (including the meat served at Pizza Express and in supermarkets), the concern expressed about halal meat does not appear to be a matter of animal welfare. Indeed, if is was, those concerned about halal meat would also be concerned about whether the chicken being served is free-range and treated humanely during its life, as well as its death. Thus, the furore about halal meat appears to be about Muslims and Islam rather than animal welfare.
A report carried by for the Greater London Authority in 2007 revealed that over 90 percent of media reporting about Muslims has a negative connotation. More recently, the Leveson Inquiry also highlighted the negative portrayal of Muslims in the media to be particularly problematic (paras 8.34-8.45). Sensationalist reporting risks breeding intolerance against Muslims in the UK (paras 8.34-8.45). In 2001 the Advisory Committee to the Framework Convention on National Minorities (AC-FCNM) expressed concern about the British media reporting about Muslims ‘in a manner that is often biased, stereotyped and inaccurate’, going on to note ‘[t]he Advisory Committee is concerned that such negative and prejudicial reporting is contributing to a climate of fear and hostility and aggravating community relations. A feeling of exclusion from mainstream society appears to be prevalent among the Muslim … populations’ (First Opinion on the United Kingdom, para 18). More recently, in 2011, the AC-FCNM continued to express the same concerns, ‘Islamophobia also continues to spread in society, sometimes triggered by politicians and disseminated through the media’ (Third Opinion on the United Kingdom, para 101). The AC-FCNM has consistently requested that the UK government take steps to ‘reduce inflammatory attacks in the media’ and, in particular, make the Press Complaints Commission more effective in this respect (First Opinion on the United Kingdom, para 115). Similarly, the Leveson Inquiry questioned ‘whether articles unfairly representing Muslims in a negative light are appropriate in a mature democracy which respects both freedom of expression and the right of individuals not to face discrimination’ (para 8.45).
There is a reasoned debate to be had about the correct labelling of meat. However, this is a debate to be had with the supermarkets, Pizza Express and other food outlets that have not been upfront about selling unmarked halal meat. There is not a debate to be had about ‘covert religious extremism and creeping Islamic fundamentalism’. On the contrary, there should be a discussion about how the press can report on these issues in a more balanced and accurate manner, that does not stir up intolerance against an already marginalised community.
Stephanie E. Berry is a Lecturer in Public Law, University of Sussex