Animal welfare

We support the reduction of animal suffering resulting from human behaviour and see compassionate attitudes to animal suffering as a hallmark of a humane society. For this reason we support restrictive laws on experiments on animals, while recognising that some such experiments are justified in the cause of finding cures for diseases.

As we wish to reduce suffering, humanists are concerned about the treatment of food animals, both during their lives and when they are slaughtered. Many bodies, including the Farm Animal Welfare Committee, recommend that pre-stunning of animals prior to slaughter is the best way to minimise suffering. Pre-stunning is mandated by law but there are exemptions for religious groups to provide kosher (or shechita) and halal meat. We believe these exemptions should end, as has happened in some other countries. We note that there is in fact widespread certification of meat as halal with pre-stunning.

If the exemptions enabling religious slaughter are not to be brought to an end, then we think at the very least rules should be introduced requiring all such meat to be labeled as such.

In depth

UK regulations on the welfare of animals at the time of slaughter or killing provide that all animals must be stunned prior to slaughter, other than animals slaughtered ‘by the Jewish method for the food of Jews’ or ‘by the Muslim method for the food of Muslims’. This arguably should be understood to mean that non-stunned kosher and halal meat should only be sold to Jews or Muslims, respectively. However for reasons of efficiency/cost most such meat enters the general market, which is possibly unlawful. Professor Bill Reilly, a former president of the British Veterinary Association, has also questioned the legality of the methods due to the amount of distress caused to the animals.

A 2013 animal welfare survey of Great Britain by the Food Standards Agency showed that about 1% of cattle, 0.2% of sheep and goats, and 0.1% of poultry, was slaughtered using the shechita (kosher) method – none of which was stunned. 3% of cattle were slaughtered using the halal method, 25% of which wasn’t stunned (or less than 1% of the total); 41% of sheep and goats were slaughtered using the halal method, of which 37% wasn’t stunned (or 15% of the total); and 21% of poultry were slaughtered using the halal method, of which 16% were not stunned (or 3% of the total). In total, this works out to about 650,000 animals being slaughtered without stunning each week.

We are not alone in campaigning against ritual slaughter: the Farm Animal Welfare Committee, the Government committee responsible for advising the British governments on farm animal welfare, has long recommended that farm animals should be stunned before slaughter. This mirrors the view of the Royal Society of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA), the British Veterinary Association (BVA), and the Humane Slaughter Association (HSA), who have issued a joint statement on the issue. They all recognise that the balance of evidence shows that not stunning animals prior to slaughter causes additional distress.

For more detailed information on our position, read our response to the Defra consultation on the proposal for a Council regulation on the protection of animals at the time of killing and our response to the consultation on the Farm Animal Welfare Council Report on the Welfare of Farmed Animals at Slaughter or Killing. We want the removal of the exemption from the law allowing the ritual slaughter of animals for food.

What we’re doing

In June 2010 the European Parliament approved legislation that would have obliged producers of non-stunned meat to label their produce as ‘Meat from slaughter without stunning’. This was achieved through the adoption Amendment 205 of the Proposal for a regulation of the European Parliament and of the Council on the provision of food information to consumers, and pertained to all ‘Meat and meat products derived from animals that have not been stunned prior to slaughter, i.e. have been ritually slaughtered’. In July 2010 we wrote to Defra concerning the government’s position on Amendment 205 and religious slaughter in general. Jim Paice MP, Minister of State for Agriculture and Food responded stating the Government had no plans to review their approach to ritual slaughter and would wish to see such issues to member states’ discretion. Subsequently, in December, Amendment 205 was dropped after the European Council blocked it.

In April 2011, the issue returned again to the European Parliament as two new amendments (353 and 359) were passed to the ‘Proposal for the Provision of Food Information to Consumers EU Regulations’ which again called for the label of ‘Meat from slaughter without stunning’. Humanists UK wrote in support of these amendments.

In May 2011, Jim Paice responded to a further letter from us and said that the Government also considers the issue of labelling of non pre-stunned meat to be primarily an issue of animal welfare, and that the Government supports the principle that consumers should know what they are buying. The Minister said he was keen to work with Humanists UK on this area of work as it develops.

However, in June 2011 the European Parliament agreed with the Council to withdraw the amendments in lieu of a more wide-scale review into the matter. Humanists UK subsequently gave oral evidence to the scoping phase of this review. The subsequent report was published in June 2015, and found that 72% of respondents to the survey conducted supported labelling. But the report did not recommend a change in the law, and further moves have not been made since.

Meanwhile in 2012 Humanists UK responded to a Department for Food, Environment and Rural Affairs (Defra) consultation on welfare of animals at the time of killing, calling for non-stunned slaughter to be made unlawful. Defra rejected this call in 2013. And in 2014 the BVA and RSPCA organised a petition, endorsed by Humanists UK, calling for the labelling of non-stunned meat. The petition gained over 100,000 signatures and was debated in parliament.

In 2010, in response to a number of reports in the media concerning the sale of products that have not been correctly labelled as having been ritually slaughtered, Humanists UK wrote to food retailers to see if they are committed to only to selling meat that has been pre-stunned. We received the following responses:

Get involved

Humanists UK consults with its members on animal welfare and many other scientific and ethical issues. We welcome your comments on these subjects, which help us to form our campaigns.

You can email your MEP to urge them to support the accurate labelling of all meat products that have been slaughtered without pre-stunning. Or you can email your MP requesting that s/he support any legislative changes to abolish religious exemptions from animal welfare laws that permit slaughter of fully conscious animals, and to require that all meat and meat products are clearly labelled as to whether the animal was slaughtered humanely or not.

You can support Humanists UK’s campaigns by becoming a member. Campaigns cost money – quite a lot of money – and we need your financial support. Instead or in addition, you can make a donation to Humanists UK.

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