It’s a food fight but not as we know it. The battle lines are being drawn in a row over the way in which animals are slaughtered.
On one side of the debate, Dutch animal rights groups and far-right parties are coming together in an unusual alliance with a common goal but, one suspects, different motives.
They want a ban on the ritual slaughter of cows, sheep, chickens and all of our other farmyard friends. And with a majority of Dutch MPs on their side, it looks like they will get their wish.
The EU bans the ritual slaughter of animals except where it is done for religious reasons, essentially for Halal and Kosher meat. For meat to meet traditional Jewish and Muslim standards, the animal must be fit and healthy when its throat is cut and it bleeds to death. In other words, the animal cannot be anaesthetised or stunned before its execution.
The argument put forward by animal rights groups is fairly simple: they say cutting an animal’s throat without anaesthetic is barbaric and cruel and the practice should end regardless of religious persuasion, full stop. It’s a point that can be made fairly forcefully. One French umbrella group, keen to launch the Dutch debate in France, has led a nationwide billboard poster campaign. On its website, it provides diagrams that compare anaesthetised and ritual slaughter methods. For the former, the graphic shows a cow calmly waiting for death, presumably thinking to itself ‘Oh well, at least it won’t hurt, how jolly thoughtful of them to put me to sleep before they slice me open.’
The description of ritual slaughter includes a grizzly photo of a butchered cow. There is also a video of a cow being ritually slaughtered on the site but I will not provide a link. If you want to see it, you’ll find it. But I wouldn’t watch it while you’re eating.
So the animal activists’ argument consists of appealing to our sentimental rather than our rational side. “Religious freedom isn’t unlimited,” says Dutch MP Marianne Thieme, the leader of the intriguingly-named ‘Party for the Animals’ who proposed the ban. In other words, animal rights come before the right to religious expression.
For far-right anti-immigration parties it is a good bandwagon to jump on, a chance to portray Muslims as maniacal, throat-slitting lamb killers. They may well like animals too but the debate is, above all, a political point-scoring exercise. The Dutch Freedom Party’s Geert Wilders, whose objective is to de-Islamicise the Netherlands, had Halal meat in his sights in 2007, when it was being dished out in Dutch schools. “Muslims at our schools must adjust to Dutch norms and values and not the other way round,” he said then.
Another element to the debate involves the labelling of meat from ritually slaughtered animals. The fact is that most non-Muslim and non-Jewish meat-eaters consume ritually-slaughtered animals even without knowing it. Once a cow or sheep for example has been killed according to Muslim or Jewish procedure, it does not necessarily follow that is Halal or Kosher. Some parts of the livestock are simply not eaten by Jews and Muslims; sometimes blemishes are found on the animal after it has been killed, meaning it doesn’t meet the required standard. In these cases the meat gets passed on as normal to supermarkets.
There are many groups, such as the British Humanist Association or Britain’s National Secular Society who want all ritually-slaughtered meat to carry a label so that anyone buying a steak knows whether or not the cow it has come from was conscious or not when it had its throat cut.
The European Parliament has already voted in agreement with such groups but the labelling law got shot down by the Council of Ministers. The issue will return to the European Parliament next week.
So on one side of the battle, animal rights groups, far-right parties and the non-religious are all taking up arms together. But their opponents won’t be going down without a fight and have some hefty weapons in their arsenal of arguments, ranging from angry rants to rational thinking.
For the former, read Bruce Walker in the New American. He argues that animal welfare activists are really “practicing their own pagan worship of nature”. In reference to the looming Dutch ban, he argues that “This is not the first case of a European nation banning the Kosher killing of animals. The Nazis did so as well, and their rationale was also preventing cruelty to animals.”
Shimon Cohen of Shechita UK# also believes in an anti-Semitic plot, claiming that labelling Kosher meat is “the 21st century equivalent of the yellow star, but on our food.”
Those are strong words that give an indication of the depth and passion of feeling among defenders of ritual slaughter.
The more measured arguments include the one from British MEP Sajjad Karim who explains to his constituents that labelling would “penalise minority religious communities in the UK and Europe.” He is probably right: if the general public have a choice between eating an anaesthetised dead cow and a conscious dead cow, many will choose the former, which will push up the price of Kosher or Halal beef.
Then there those who say that Kosher killing is humane if performed correctly. Ruben Vis, spokesman of a Dutch Jewish umbrella group, says that “there is no conclusive scientific evidence that slaughter without stunning is more harmful or painful for animals.” And who can argue with that? The animals might if they could talk. But they can’t. Maybe that’s where they’re going wrong.
Defenders of ritual slaughter are already taking action: one Halal group is threatening Marianne Thieme, the sponsor of the Dutch ban, with legal action.
And, according to the Jerusalem Post, the Jewish community in Europe is asking Israeli ministers to help their case “by finding a major Israeli university to conduct a comparative study of the Jewish and European animal-killing methods.“
This food fight involves both Muslims and Jews as well as atheists, far-right as well as animal rights activists.
Let’s hope it doesn’t get too messy.
By Mark Davis