When Ali Ditta first moved to Poland in 2005, there wasn’t a halal meat industry
Ditta, a Londoner who had been living in Belgium, had a hard time persuading Polish farmers that halal was a good business prospect. But he gradually recruited a few Muslim employees and placed them in slaughterhouses to meat compliant with Islamic law.
Just 15 years later and he estimates that the export market for halal meat is worth billions of zlotys a year to Polish farmers.
He recently sold his own slaughterhouse - to another Muslim firm - and, in October, had planned open a new production plant employing up to 80 workers.
That is, until Poland’s government passed a law on Friday that could ban ritual slaughter, including the production of both halal and kosher meat. The law, proposed by the ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS), split Poland’s governing coalition and could pave the way for new elections.
It is believed to be a pet project of PiS ideologue and founder Jaroslaw Kaczynski, whose party had to rely on votes from the liberal opposition after its two right-wing allies voted against. As well as religious slaughter, the law bans the fur trade in Poland and the use of animals in circuses.
Poland is a major exporter of halal meat to the Islamic world, and one of Europe’s primary exporters kosher meat to Israel. Poland’s National Council of Agricultural Chambers said that religion-compliant beef alone is worth €1.5 billion to the country’s economy, accounting for 5% of exports of agri-food products. Meanwhile, 40% of poultry exports are of halal and kosher meat.
Critics have spent the last 24 hours debating why the PiS would not only allow the breakdown of its governing coalition just months after an election over a law on animal rights, but also why the party would deal such a body blow to Poland’s farmers, previously the party’s electoral base.
But for Mohammed El Hadi, who runs a halal certification company that also supplies halal-certified employees to Polish slaughterhouses, despair has turned into confusion, and finally anger.
“We don’t understand what’s happening. They’ve put a knife in our backs,” he told Euronews.
It isn’t the first time that Poland has banned ritual slaughter, which is controversial because it forbids the stunning of animals before their throats are cut. In 2013, the government outlawed the practice, only to see that law overturned in 2014.
Ditta, who has well established in Poland at the time of the first ban, moved his entire business to Romania in response, only to move it back again when the ban was lifted. Since then, he says, business has been booming in Poland: “It’s ridiculous, it’s crazy,” he said. “For them to stop it now...”
El Hadi, meanwhile, lists a dozen countries in the Islamic world with which he currently has contracts, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia among them. Poland also exports to the UK and elsewhere in Europe, offering cheaper prices than competitors in France, another major market.
“One month ago I was talking to the minister for agriculture here in Poland and he was happy with how fast the industry was growing. I’m confused why they are doing this now,” he said.
Poland’s footprint in the global market for religious compliant meat is outsized given its relatively small Muslim community, of around 40,000 people. But despite the government’s hostility to taking refugees from Syria and elsewhere in the Islamic world and reports that instances of Islamophobia are on the rise in Poland, El Hadi doesn’t see the law in that light.
“It isn’t about Islamophobia or antisemitism, I don’t think it is about that. I’ve lived in Poland for 11 years and I’ve never had an issue with that,” said El Hadi.
But the banning of religious slaughter has attracted support from some dark corners over the decades. Adolf Hitler’s Nazi party banned the practice in 1933 due to concerns about cruelty to animals, the same argument being made today by animal rights activists.
When religious slaughter was banned in Belgium in 2019, the law was proposed by a right-wing Flemish nationalist, while across Europe a professed opposition to animal rights has often been a convenient foil for far-right antisemites and Islamophobes to attack religious minorities.
Indeed, the European Jewish Association believes that the animal welfare law has "discriminatory undertones", not least in the language used to garner support for it. It was presented, said Rabbi Menachem Margolin said in a statement, as a law that "all good people" would support.
"This immediately categorises Jews who might oppose this law as 'bad people' evoking memories of scary times for our communities," he said.
Whether the Muslim and Jewish technique of slaughtering an animal by cutting its throat with a sharp blade while still conscious is inhumane is a subject of significant debate. It has been argued that the non-religious practice, of stunning an animal with an electric bolt to the head before killing it, is actually more stressful to the animals involved.
“There have been tests,” said Ditta. “They have proved that stunning an animal before killing it is torturing it more.”
While confusion reigns over why the law has come in now, at a time when the industry is growing and a time when PiS’s governing majority is at stake, Ditta says both the halal and the kosher meat industry plans to oppose it.
“It has gone through - but there’s an appeal period,” he said.
“We’re having a meeting next week and I think we’ve got 14 days. We’re going to meet with the Jewish community too. And we’re going to fight it.”
If not, he says, the lucrative trade will have to up-sticks to countries in Europe that are willing to open their doors to the trade, including Romania and Ukraine.
Adam Traczyk, German Council on Foreign Relations, believes that the animal welfare law and the decision to push ahead with it has little to do with animals and a lot to do with politics.
"It's not about fur. It's not about Kaczynski being an animal lover. It's a proxy war with his smaller coalition partners. He had the feeling that [...] the tail was wagging the dog," he said.
It didn't hurt, also, that in forcing through the law the PiS is able to appeal to liberal voters and the young, and presenting himself as a Green Conservative, Traczyk said, but key to the animal welfare bill was putting the government's two junior partners in their place.
As for the impact on the meat industry and Polish farmers, Traczyk is not convinced that it will be sizable. Even the fur industry, he said, the chief target of the bill, is only worth around €60m a year.
"It was already banned between 2013 and 2014 and it didn't influence the industry at all," he said.