Speaking at the recent conference of the British Meat Processors Association, food and farming minister Jim Paice reaffirmed the government’s commitment to launch a public consultation later this year.
“Killing an animal without stunning is not acceptable in the western world,” said Paice. “But we need to be tolerant and understanding of religious communities who want their meat produced in that way.”
While the government would “prefer to see all animals stunned before slaughter”, it would continue to allow the religious slaughter practised by faith communities, he said.
Recalling witnessing religious slaughter at a UK abattoir, Paice said said: “I’ve rarely felt so bad in my life watching cattle take six minutes to bleed to death [without stunning].”
But religious slaughter methods were applied to only about 3% of cattle and 4% of lamb and poultry, he added.
Statistics from the Food Standards Agency (FSA) in 2011 confirmed that 84% of cattle, 81% of sheep and 88% of chickens produced for halal meat were stunned before slaughter.
One option that may be discussed in the public consultation was to adopt different rules for different species. “Sheep appear to lose consciousness in seconds rather than the six minutes I saw that it took to kill cattle. That to me, is wholly unacceptable,” he said.
Another option would be to label the meat produced from religiously slaughtered animals. That would allow consumers to make a choice about how their meat was produced.
At the end of last month, the government faced renewed pressure to outlaw the slaughter of animals that have not been made unconscious.
Current rules order that stock must be stunned before slaughter – by electrocution, gassing, or shooting retractable rods into their brains. But there are exemptions for animals to be killed without stunning, according to Muslim and Jewish traditions.
In a debate in the House of Commons on Thursday May 24, Conservative backbencher Greg Knight has told MPs that such exemptions were "unacceptable".
Yet slaughtering cattle, lambs and chickens in this way was "rife", he added.
Stunned before slaughter
In mid May, Angie Bray, Conservative MP for Ealing Central and Acton, claimed that "more than 25% of meat sold in our shops comes from animals that have not been stunned before slaughter”, according to a BBC News report.
Some abattoirs were using the exemptions for kosher and halal meat as an excuse to cut costs, she claimed.
Meanwhile, earlier this week (June 5) Hans Bleker, Dutch agriculture minister, signed an agreement with Jewish and Muslim religious leaders and slaughterhouses to prevent a ban on religious slaughter.
The agreement specifies that animals can continue to be ritually slaughtered provided they lose consciousness within 40 seconds of their throats being cut. After 40 seconds, the animals must be stunned, which is prohibited under Islamic and Jewish law.
The EU demands that all animals be stunned before slaughter but makes exceptions for religious slaughter. But the practise is banned in Luxembourg, Norway, Sweden and Switzerland.
- Captive bolt gun: Retractable rod causes concussion or brain damage. Commonly used for cattle and pigs.
- Electrocution: Current applied to the animals’ head. Used for sheep and pigs. Poultry dipped in electrified pool of water.
- Gassing: Pigs and poultry are sometimes suffocated with carbon dioxide.