by Soeren Kern
The European Union, bowing to pressure from Muslim lobby groups, has quietly abandoned a new measure that would have required halal [religiously approved for Muslims] meat products to carry a label alerting consumers that the animals were not stunned, and therefore conscious, just before slaughter. With the exponential growth of Europe's Muslim population in recent years, thousands of tons of religiously slaughtered halal meat is now entering the general food chain, where it is being unwittingly consumed by the non-Muslim population.
Muslims have the right to choose halal foods, but non-Muslims do not have the right to choose not to eat the ritually slaughtered meat.
Halal, which in Arabic means lawful or legal, is a term designating any object or action that is permissible according to Islamic Sharia Law. In the context of food, halal meat is derived from animals slaughtered by hand according to methods stipulated in Islamic religious texts. One such method, called dhabihah, consists of making a swift, deep incision with a sharp knife on the neck that cuts the jugular vein, leaving the animal to bleed to death without stunning. Of vital importance, according to the Koran, is that the animal's blood flows from its body by "natural convulsion."
Many non-Muslim veterinary experts say the method is cruel and should be outlawed. In Britain, for example, the Farm Animal Welfare Council (FAWC), an advisory body to the British Government, says in a report that cutting an animal's throat without stunning induces "significant pain and distress." The FAWC also says: "Slaughter without pre-stunning is unacceptable and the Government should repeal the current exemption."
The British Veterinary Association (BVA) says: "The BVA believes that all animals should be effectively stunned before slaughter to improve the welfare of these animals at slaughter. However, as long as slaughter without stunning is permitted, the BVA has argued for any meat from this source to be clearly labelled to enable all consumers to fully understand the choice they are making."
Animal-welfare legislation in Europe requires that abattoirs stun all animals prior to slaughter unless they are being ritually killed according to the practices of a non-Christian religion. But critics say the religious slaughter exemptions are being abused and millions of cows, goats, turkeys and chickens are being slaughtered according to halal standards and then sold to unwitting, non-Muslim customers, providing producers with a large and profitable market.
In Britain alone, it is estimated that more than 150 million halal animals are killed each year. Critics say this number is far more than is needed by the Muslim community, and that the growing success of halal products in Europe is being driven by the fact that the non-Muslim public is unaware of the halal origins of the meat. They say the ability to sell halal meat products by stealth has opened up vast new markets across Europe, which, by extension, is leading to a huge increase in the number of animals slaughtered using halal methods. The European halal food market is currently valued at €50 billion ($67 billion), and is expected to grow by at least 25% by 2020.
Critics of halal say that by dropping the halal labelling requirement, the EU effectively is institutionalizing a discriminatory two-tier approach to identifying the origins of meats. This controversy, as with so many others, highlights the growing assertiveness of Europe's Muslim community, and demonstrates once again how the rise of Islam is stealthily overwhelming the daily lives of hundreds of millions of non-Muslim Europeans.
Amendment 205 to the EU food information regulations, passed by members of the European Parliament in June 2010 by a vote of 559 to 54, would have required all meat or meat products from animals slaughtered without stunning to be labelled as follows: "Derived from animals that have not been stunned prior to slaughter." Although halal meat is well labelled in specialist butcher shops and food outlets, the EU regulation would have alerted non-Muslim consumers to supplies entering the mainstream food system.
Not surprisingly, the move to require halal meat producers to provide consumers with more information on the packaging of their products has enraged Muslims, who claim that the move has little to do with animal welfare, and reflects a bias against Islam. In any event, halal slaughter is permitted in all but four European countries (Iceland, Norway, Sweden and Switzerland) and halal-related controversies are becoming increasingly commonplace.
In Britain, for example, a London Daily Mail investigation has found that the country's major supermarket chains, fast-food restaurants, even some hospitals and schools are serving halal food without telling those who are eating it. Cheltenham College, which boasts of its strong Christian ethos, is one of several top British schools serving halal chicken to pupils without informing them. Even Britain's biggest hotel and restaurant group Whitbread, which owns the Beefeater and Brewers Fayre chains, admits that more than three-quarters of its poultry is halal.
In London, the Harrow Council has provoked a storm of protest after announcing plans to offer Islamic halal-only menus in the borough's 52 state primary schools. Parents are outraged that meat prepared according to Sharia law is being pushed on non-Muslim children. In Derby, the Dale Primary School has only halal meat on the school menu for certain days of the week to avoid cross contamination with non-halal meat. In Blackburn, the Daisyfield Primary School has become the first non-Muslim school to become certified by the Halal Monitoring Committee.
In Birmingham, the Domino's pizza chain has opened a halal-only outlet that does not offer its customers ham or bacon. Critics say the new policy discriminates against non-Muslims. Domino's says it has "thought long and hard" about not offering pork products at the store, which serves an area with a large Muslim population. The company says there are "alternatives, such as turkey ham." Meanwhile, most of the in-flight meals on British Airways could soon be halal.
Also in Britain, the 2nd World Halal Forum Europe 2010 recently was held in London. The theme of the World Halal Forum Europe was: "Halal Products & Services -- Going Mainstream."
In Spain, Muslims have rejected efforts by the Spanish rail company RENFE to offer halal menus on its high-speed trains. The Muslim Council of Spain says it is not enough for RENFE to simply remove alcohol and pork from its menu. The company must also take into consideration how the animals are slaughtered, what type of oil is used in cooking, as well as comply with a list of other demands.
In Spain as a whole, the Muslim population has undergone an almost twenty-fold increase in just two decades and the internal market for halal products is now estimated to exceed 2 million consumers, in addition to the estimated 7 million Muslims who pass through Spain each year as they cross the Strait of Gibraltar to and from North Africa.
In Belgium, the Justice Ministry recently launched a pilot project to train prison guards, as well as doctors and nurses, about practical problems related to halal. Muslim inmates in Belgian prisons often refuse medication because it contains animal fat, and Muslim patients in Belgian hospitals sometimes refuse medical care during Ramadan. As part of its halal training efforts, the Justice Ministry commissioned a practical guide titled "Comprendre le halal" (Understanding halal).
Also in Belgium, the parents of children attending the De Kleine Kunstenaar kindergarten in the town of Houthalen recently signed a petition objecting to their children being forced to eat halal meat on a school trip. "Due to their religious beliefs, Muslims can only consume halal meat, but that does not mean our children must eat it," the petition says. The parents are asking for an alternative burger for their children, but the school says that request is "practically impossible."
In Denmark, an investigation found that thousands of tons of beef in Danish supermarkets are halal slaughtered. In Finland, a separate investigation found that McDonald's secretly served its Finnish customers chicken meat that was slaughtered according to Sharia Law.
In France, the Franco-Belgian fast-food chain, Quick, has removed bacon burgers from its menu and replaced them with a version using halal beef and a slice of smoked turkey. René Vandierendonck, the socialist mayor of the northern French city of Roubaix, says the move amounts to discrimination against non-Muslim customers. He has filed charges with justice authorities against Quick for what he says is prejudicial religious catering. He has also lodged a complaint with France's main anti-discrimination authority on the matter. Marine Le Pen, vice president of the National Front Party, says Quick's halal option is "an Islamic tax" on diners. Xavier Bertrand, secretary general of the ruling conservative Union for a Popular Majority (UMP) says Quick's menu change is undermining France's secular, integrationist social model.
Elsewhere in France, where the halal food sector has doubled in five years and is now valued at €5.5 billion ($7 billion), animal rights activist Brigitte Bardot says that 80% of French slaughterhouses are now halal because the method is cheaper and faster, and thus more profitable.
In Italy, the government in July 2010 signed an agreement with the Italian Islamic Community to establish a halal certifying organization. The Halal Italia certification scheme will guarantee compliance with Islamic laws for Italian food products such as tortellini and lasagne. The Italian market for halal is valued at €5 billion ($6.5 billion). Foreign Minister Franco Frattini says the Islamically-correct "Made in Italy" certification is designed to facilitate "the progressive integration of Muslim communities resident in Italy into the social fabric."
In Sweden, which has banned the religious slaughtering of animals since 1937, the Muslim Association of Sweden (SMF) is demanding that halal slaughter practices be legalized. SMF chairperson Mahmoud Aldebe says the Swedish government should respect the democratic rights of Sweden's Muslims to exercise their "religious freedoms" and help find a way to permit the practice.
In Holland, an elementary Catholic school in Weert decided to serve only halal food for its Christmas meal. The school has about 400 students, only ten of whom are Muslim. Margo Janssen, the school principal, says that serving only halal food for Christmas is a Christian thing to do because it puts others -- Muslims -- first.
Also in Holland, several Dutch prisons are now serving only halal food. The Dutch Justice Department says it is too expensive to offer prisoners both halal and non-halal menus, so it has decided to offer only halal food. The prison in the Dutch town of Sittard is now being sued by a prisoner; he says that by being forced to eat halal food, he is receiving extra punishment.
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