Neil Parish MP leads debate on animal welfare and religious slaughter

Neil Parish, Member of Parliament for Tiverton and Honiton and Chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for Beef & Lamb led a debate in Westminster Hall to discuss Meat Slaughtered in Accordance with Religious Rites.


Neil Parish (Tiverton and Honiton) (Con): It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I welcome the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice), to his place. I thank Mr Speaker for allowing me time for this vital debate. It is good to see the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies), here.


When the all-party group on beef and lamb, of which I am honoured to be the chairman, decided to conduct an inquiry into the welfare of animals slaughtered in accordance with religious rites, I knew we were entering a highly polarised and often poorly understood area of public discourse. Discussions in the media have often produced more heat than light, and I hope the group’s report and today’s debate will provide more of the latter.


There are no easy solutions to what is legally, scientifically and culturally a complicated set of circumstances. However, given the legitimate concerns of the public, animal welfare organisations and religious communities, it is worth having the debate in a calm and transparent way. For that reason, the group proceeded on the basis that the inquiry’s ultimate aim should be to improve animal welfare at the time of slaughter. Throughout the inquiry, we were careful to make distinctions between halal and shechita, the different methods of non-stun slaughter and the species being considered. We took evidence, in writing and in oral evidence sessions, from a wide range of stakeholders, including industry experts, Shechita UK, the Halal Food Authority, veterinary professionals, the Minister and the European Commission.


European law requires that all animals are stunned before slaughter. However, a derogation permits member states to allow non-stunning in the case of slaughter in observance with religious beliefs. That is an important point. By law, animals have to be stunned before slaughter to ensure they suffer as little pain as possible, and the relevant laws were informed by scientific and veterinary evidence. Halal and shechita methods of slaughter are exempt from those scientifically established regulations not because they meet a different set of animal welfare standards, but because they are a matter of freedom of religious and cultural expression. In an ideal world, I would like all livestock to be stunned before slaughter, but that must be reconciled with the United Kingdom’s proud record of religious tolerance and our history of allowing communities to eat meat prepared in accordance with their faith.


The report has identified several areas where greater research is needed, and I hope the Government take our recommendations on board when considering regulations on food labelling and welfare at the time of slaughter. As we move forward, it is particularly important to note that, under the halal method of slaughter, the animal must be killed as a result of a sharp blade cutting its jugular vein, so that death is caused by bleeding out. The way the animal dies is important, and there is much diversity of opinion among UK Muslims on whether stunned slaughter is halal. Some in the Muslim community believe that there is a danger that stunning the animal will result in its being killed by the stunning rather than by bleeding out, and that stunning is therefore not halal.


About 90% of lambs and 88% of chickens slaughtered under halal are stunned before slaughter, so the likelihood and duration of pain at the time of slaughter is likely to be much less. However, that still leaves a large number of animals that are not stunned before slaughter. It is estimated that 3% of cattle, 10% of sheep and goats, and 4% of poultry slaughtered in Great Britain are not pre-stunned. One estimate is that 114 million animals are killed annually in the UK using the halal method, while a further 2.1 million are killed under the shechita method. The value of the halal market is estimated at between £1 billion and £2 billion.


Being able to prove that the stun is recoverable and will not kill the animal, but will instead render it insensitive to pain, is vital if we are to increase the number of animals stunned before slaughter. Some witnesses we took evidence from will accept no stunning during the slaughtering process, while others, including the Halal Food Authority, will permit some, but not all, methods of stunning.


We took evidence, for example, on the use of post-cut stunning—stunning immediately after the animal’s neck is cut. Although it is not as desirable as pre-stunning, evidence from studies in New Zealand shows that post-cut stunning reduces the duration of pain at the time of slaughter, while ensuing that the cause of death is bleed-out, making this method of stunning halal-compliant.


Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): I pay tribute to the work the hon. Gentleman did in chairing the all-party group. Some of the evidence we received showed that New Zealand has developed a process called “stun to live”. An animal that has been stunned is used to demonstrate that if it is not slaughtered, it will regain consciousness and continue to live. That is satisfactory to some Muslim people.


Neil Parish: That was exactly what we heard. The crux of the matter is that any stunning that takes place under a halal system must be recoverable to be seen as halal-compliant. Not all in the Muslim community agree with that, but many do, and I would like the Government to do more research on that. I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention.


The inquiry highlighted that the majority of studies have been about halal slaughter. There is therefore a deficit in our veterinary understanding of the shechita method of slaughter in the Jewish community, which permits no form of stunning. In its evidence, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said it had sought to include the shechita method of slaughter in its studies, but that it had not yet been successful in doing so. I therefore urge the Government to carry on that work and to look at the shechita method.


David Simpson (Upper Bann) (DUP): I declare an interest in the agri-food business. I have been listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman, and I congratulate him on the work he has done on the issue. Does he accept that those who export meat right across the world are put in a difficult position? They want to ensure the welfare of the animal, which is vital, but they are forced to go down a certain route when they export. They also have to look after their employees. In order to win contracts, therefore, they sometimes have to change their methods.


Neil Parish: There is a balance to be struck. New Zealand exports a lot of meat to the middle east. It still does partial stunning, and the Muslim community seems largely to accept that. Work can therefore be done on the issue. There is also an argument that stunning in the slaughterhouses makes things easier and safer for the slaughtermen. There are therefore issues about the welfare not only of the animals, but of those doing the slaughtering.


Eric Ollerenshaw (Lancaster and Fleetwood) (Con): I add my congratulations on the way my hon. Friend chaired the work on this fairly balanced report. One of the issues that we did not get to the bottom of, certainly in the meetings I attended, was the sheer scale of mis-stunning. That was raised by Shechita UK. Nowhere did there seem to be any particular figures on how much mis-stunning there is.


Neil Parish: Yes. I am hoping that in a moment the Minister with responsibility for farming will give us more figures. I think we should have closed circuit television cameras in all slaughterhouses, whether they are using shechita or halal methods, or stun systems for the general meat trade. I think that the amount of mis-stunning is sometimes exaggerated. On the other hand, mis-stunning of animals should not happen. It is very bad animal welfare, and we need to stamp it out. We need to be certain how big the problem is. If the system of stunning in a slaughterhouse is not correct, it should be replaced. I have no time for mis-stunning.


Miss Anne McIntosh (Thirsk and Malton) (Con): I know that my hon. Friend works closely with the British Veterinary Association, for which I am sure we all have the highest regard. Is it the case that if an animal is stressed, that is reflected in the state of the meat? Is that not damaging for the market?


Neil Parish: Yes; my hon. Friend, the Chair of the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, makes an interesting point. We believe that if an animal is stressed, there will be an effect on the flavour of the meat. It is in the interest of not only the animal but the industry to make sure that it is as little stressed as possible when it comes through the slaughterhouse, but of course, the act of slaughter is in itself very difficult.


The revelations of horsemeat contamination in 2013 highlighted the importance that consumers place on the origin of their food, and the trust that they place in retailers to guarantee that. When that trust is broken, it is felt across the industry. An animal passes through a number of stages from the farm gate to the fork. That is why it is important that the meat should be properly labelled to allow consumers of all faiths to make informed decisions when they buy their meat. It is the all-party group’s belief that labelling should be considered, and it should be on the basis of stun or non-stun methods—not halal versus kosher—because consumers are thought to have a sufficient understanding of what the terms “stunned” or “non-stunned” mean. The group believes, however, that more work can be done to clarify, for consumers of halal and kosher meat, and the wider public, what the terms entail, specifically. That applies particularly to halal, where there is disagreement about the permissibility of stunning, as I mentioned earlier.


The report also makes a recommendation for research to be reviewed and new research to be undertaken where necessary to determine the effect of stunning on the residual blood content left in meat, in comparison with that produced from slaughter without stunning.


Roger Williams: I was very pleased by the all-party group’s conclusion that meat should be labelled as stunned or non-stunned. That will give consumers greater understanding. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that in the hospitality trade—restaurants and pubs where meat is served—it is sometimes very difficult for traceability to be established for consumers?


Neil Parish: That is a good point. The labelling system is more difficult in the case of restaurant meat, processed meat, and meat products. We need to remember that quite a lot of meat from animals slaughtered in the halal system and the shechita system—the kosher system—does not land up in that particular food chain. Quite a lot of it goes into the general meat trade. That is an issue that requires us to think seriously about labelling.


In addition to existing research, a report has recently been published by Colin Brewer, an academic psychiatrist, and Peter Osin, a consultant pathologist, comparing halal and kosher beef with ordinary beef and a piece of venison from a shot deer. Microscopic slides revealed that they all retained similar amounts of red blood cells. Their report concluded:


“If ritual slaughter not only causes levels of avoidable pain and distress to meat animals...but also fails in its stated purpose of removing as much blood as possible, compared with other methods, then it becomes more difficult to justify and defend”.


There are measures that the Government can introduce in the short term to help improve the welfare of animals slaughtered in accordance with religious rites. First, the Government should review whether compulsory CCTV in abattoirs should be introduced to make sure that there is oversight and that guidance is being followed for all—I emphasise that I mean all—methods of slaughter. There must also be a review of the current guidance available to operators conducting religious slaughter. There is some guidance available, but during the inquiry we were concerned about the lack of guidance that we found on the actual methods of cutting the neck of the animal. Providing greater guidance would undoubtedly minimise the risk of mis-slaughtering and reduce the duration of pain felt.


The Food Standards Agency does not publish information on the number of mis-slaughtered animals, and holds details only of when mis-cuts have occurred—not of whether the associated slaughter was carried out using a stun or non-stun process. That makes it hard to judge its effectiveness and how it compares with different stunning methods. What is clear is that there are gaps in our understanding of the slaughter process. Our inquiry identified several areas where more research is needed, such as on the measurement of pain in animals at the time of slaughter and on demonstrating the recoverability of certain stunning methods to reassure religious communities that they are compatible with their religion.


There is a danger that an outright ban on religious slaughter would not improve the welfare of animals at the point of slaughter. At the moment about 80% of the halal meat produced in this country has been stunned. Driving our halal and shechita meat industry abroad to countries without our robust animal welfare standards and our supply chain traceability might result in more animals being slaughtered without stunning.


I want to thank Weber Shandwick, which is retained by EBLEX, the organisation for beef and lamb levy payers in England, to act as the all-party group’s secretariat. I thank all the individuals and organisations who submitted written evidence and who appeared before our oral evidence sessions, as well as the other members of the all-party group. My particular respect goes to the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Roger Williams), who attended all our meetings. We conducted the inquiry in a pretty cool, calm way, and took some good evidence. I hope that the Minister will take many of our points on board. We present our report as a serious piece of work. I should like there to be some animal welfare benefit, and to be able to deal with our Muslim and Jewish communities to find a way forward, so that more animals will be stunned at slaughter.


The Minister, George Eustice MP gave the Government’s response to the debate.


The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (George Eustice): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) on securing this important debate. As many Members have said, this issue is complex and sensitive. I had the pleasure of giving evidence to his all-party parliamentary group, and I thought that the report was engaging and got to grips with the details. As many hon. Members have said, it addressed the issue calmly and dispassionately, focusing on the evidence. I welcome his approach. Over the last six months or so, I have met representatives from all sides of the debate, including from Shechita UK, halal meat processors and Compassion in World Farming, to ensure that I have the fullest perspective of everyone’s views on the issue.


I will start by setting out a little of the historical and international context to the debate. Like many debates, it has been running for a long time. Today, European and domestic regulations apply to the welfare of animals that are to be slaughtered, requiring that all animals be stunned before slaughter. However, as every hon. Member here knows, there is a derogation to allow slaughter without stunning in accordance with religious rites for the production of halal or kosher meat only. The aim of the regulations is to ensure that animals are spared any avoidable pain, distress or suffering at the time of killing.


However, our current national requirements on religious slaughter have a long history. Government first set down powers to prevent cruelty in slaughterhouses in the Public Health Act, which was as long ago as 1875. Byelaws made under that legislation required that animals be “effectually stunned”. After that, in 1904, a Committee was set up to ascertain the most humane practicable methods of slaughtering animals. The Committee’s report recommended that all animals to be slaughtered, without exception, should be stunned.


Following that report, the Local Government Board issued a circular proposing that the Committee’s recommendations should be implemented, but that stunning should not be obligatory where slaughter was carried out by a Jew licensed by the Chief Rabbi, provided that no unnecessary suffering was inflicted. Interestingly, a similar requirement for shechita slaughter—that it is carried out by a Jewish slaughterman licensed by the Rabbinical Commission for the Licensing of Shochetim—still exists in our current national legislation.


The first national legislative requirement in England and Wales for stunning before slaughter was in the Slaughter of Animals Act 1933, which also retained an exception from stunning for religious slaughter by Jews and Muslims. Over the years, the national rules governing religious slaughter have developed to provide protection to animals slaughtered in accordance with religious rites.


Our existing national rules on religious slaughter provide greater protection than those contained in the European regulation. For example, there are requirements for how cattle can be restrained. In particular, we prohibit inversion during slaughter, and require bovines to be restrained only in approved restraining pens. The requirements for bovine restraining pens are set down in national legislation. Other national rules concern so-called standstill times for cattle, sheep and goats; following the neck cut, the animal cannot be moved until at least 30 seconds have passed and the animal is unconscious, in the case of bovines, or at least 20 seconds have passed and the animal is unconscious, in the case of sheep and goats. The standstill times are aimed at providing protection from avoidable pain, suffering and distress caused, for example, by unnecessary movement while the animal is still conscious after its neck has been cut.


I turn now to what other countries are doing, to make some international comparisons. European legislation allows for national rules on religious slaughter, so there are differing rules across Europe. For example, in Germany abattoirs have to prove the “religious needs” and define the number of animals to be slaughtered so as to satisfy the needs of the religious community concerned before they are granted a licence. In the Netherlands, all animals must be stunned if they have not lost consciousness within 40 seconds of the cut being made. In France, there must be a post-cut stun if cattle are still conscious after 90 seconds. Other countries, such as Finland, Denmark, Austria, Estonia and Slovakia, go further by requiring immediate post-cut stunning. Further afield, under Australian law stunning at slaughter is required, but there is an option for a state or meat inspection authority to provide an exemption and approve an abattoir for religious slaughter without prior stunning for the domestic market, but post-cut stunning is still required for these animals.


The hon. Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson), who was here earlier, mentioned the potential impact on exports and the concerns that some people have about what might happen to exports if we place additional restrictions on religious slaughter. I completely understand that argument. However, last year I met a farmer from Australia, who said that all Australian sheep are effectively slaughtered in accordance with halal requirements, because they are exported to some very important Muslim markets in Asia, but those sheep are also stunned post-cut.


The reason I highlight both the historical and the international context of this issue is that there has been a long-running debate about it, which legislators have wrestled with for well over a hundred years. I am not sure that we will resolve all the issues here today in this debate but we have had a very calm and insightful debate, which has certainly helped.


I will pick up on the points that some hon. Members have made. As my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton pointed out, one of the issues with halal is that there is no single definition of what constitutes “halal”. Often in the case of halal meat, the relevant Muslim authorities are content that the animal is stunned. Where that stunning is carried out during the course of religious slaughter, the stun must be effective under the legislation and the animals must also be stunned using a lawful stunning method. As was pointed out by a number of hon. Members, the majority of halal meat is stunned; around 88% of poultry in the UK is stunned.


Also, the EU welfare at slaughter regulation allows for “simple stunning”, which is sometimes referred to as “recoverable stunning”. Simple stunning does not kill the animal but renders it unconscious and insensible to pain and, if it is used, it must be followed as quickly as possible by a procedure that causes death, such as bleeding.


I will pick up on some of the issues that other hon. Members have raised. First, however, I will underline the Government’s position today, which builds on the long-standing position we have adopted in this country. Our position is that we would prefer that all animals are stunned before slaughter, but we recognise and respect the needs of religious communities, so we have always maintained this limited exemption, which is to be used only for meat produced for Jewish and Muslim communities. Last year, the Prime Minister made it very clear in a speech that the Government have no intention of abolishing religious slaughter in this country. However, it is equally important to note that none of the derogations that we have in place, which are set out through the Welfare of Animals (Slaughter or Killing) Regulations 1995, exempt anyone from the requirements of the Animal Welfare Act 2006, which requires all abattoirs to avoid causing an animal avoidable pain.


My hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr Djanogly) and a number of other hon. Members questioned the evidence that non-stunned slaughter causes more pain and suffering to an animal. I understand the arguments that he made; I have met representatives of Shechita UK and heard those arguments from them. However, that is not a view that is widely shared in the scientific or veterinary community.


Put bluntly, the situation is clear from most of the evidence. There are a number of reports. The Farm Animal Welfare Committee issued a report in 2003, which concluded that there was significant pain and distress where there was not stunning before slaughter. Likewise, in 2004 the European Food Safety Authority issued a similar opinion, maintaining that there was more pain and suffering if there was no stun. There was also the EU Dialrel report and project, which was conducted in 2009 and looked at the neurological behaviour of animals once they are slaughtered. That report, too, reached a similar conclusion, as my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton said, and more recently there has been research in New Zealand, which reached the same conclusion. So there is a large body of research that concludes that it is better for the welfare of the animal for it to be stunned, and it is for that reason that the Government would prefer it if all animals were stunned.


It is important to make that point, because although the Prime Minister has made it absolutely clear that we have no intention of banning religious slaughter, we must understand the basis on which that is done. It is not that we believe that there is no difference between the two types of slaughter, nor that we believe shechita is a more welfare-friendly method of slaughter, but because we respect the rights of religious communities. That has been the long-standing position of every UK Government, going back some 100 years.


A number of hon. Members, including the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies), raised the issue of labelling. The European Commission is conducting a study on labelling at the moment; we expect it to conclude in December. Initially, it was planned that the study would be published this summer, but as usual—because this is a very contentious issue—it has taken the Commission rather longer than it thought. Nevertheless, we hope that the study will come by the end of the year, or perhaps the beginning of next year.


A number of hon. Members made the point that it would be wrong just to label meat as “stunned” or “unstunned”, and that a fairer way would be to list all the different methods of slaughter. The only thing I would say in response is that, from the EU perspective, “stunned” has a clear legal definition in the legislation, and it is simply that an animal is rendered insensible to pain almost immediately. As I say, that is a clear definition and the scientific evidence does not support the argument that a cut without prior stunning achieves that. In addition, it would be complicated to list all the different methods of slaughter and, as the hon. Member for Ogmore said, I am not sure that there would be a huge consumer appetite for us to try to differentiate between all the different methods of slaughter.


I know that previously people have said that perhaps we should label meat as being “halal” or “kosher”, so that people know what they are buying. However, there are also difficulties with that, in that there is no single definition of “halal”, as many hon. Members have said, and a further complication is that not all meat slaughtered by kosher methods is deemed “kosher”; for instance, the hind quarters of an animal are not deemed “kosher”, even though the animal is slaughtered by kosher methods. As I say, there are complications in the area of labelling, but we await the report from the European Commission and look forward to following it up.


I will also cover mis-stunning, which many hon. Members have mentioned. I can confirm that the Food Standards Agency has reviewed the way that it approaches mis-stunning. Previously, it only reported critical breaches that were observed by the official veterinarians in the slaughterhouse. We always accepted that that would not pick up every single mis-stun. Following representations that have been made, which is proof that this Parliament works when people ask questions of Ministers, I can confirm that we looked at this issue again and in future the FSA intends basically to monitor and record all breaches, whether or not they were critical.


The important thing to understand is that just because there is a mis-stun, that does not necessarily mean that the welfare outcome for the animal was dire. On occasions, and this usually happens with bovine animals, what a mis-stun means is that the first shot taken by the captive bolt did not quite achieve the intended task, and within seconds—almost literally—a second bolt is fired, which finishes the job. So it is wrong to equate mis-stunning with dire outcomes from an animal welfare point of view. Nevertheless, we are concerned about mis-stunning and will therefore monitor it.


I will finish by referring briefly to a few other points. CCTV in slaughterhouses is an issue; the FAWC is looking at it. The last time we had a consultation on it, we ruled out its use, on the basis that we did not think it would necessarily identify where there were problems, but we keep the issue under review.


Also, when it comes to the point my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton made about consistency of approach, I have asked the FSA and our vets in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to consider the approach they take to these issues, to ensure that there is consistency.


Finally, I will finish on the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Roger Williams) made, namely that there is a difference between animal species. We know that sheep and chickens lose consciousness relatively quickly but sadly the same is not true for bovines, which can take up to 1 minute 20 seconds to lose consciousness.


Hansard source (Citation: HC Deb, 4 November 2014, c147WH)