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Many humanists and atheists are vegetarian or vegan. My own personal anedata suggest we’ve got a much larger proportion for veggies/vegans than the general population. Even where not full vegetarians, humanists tend to be interested in the life of the animals that we’re eating: we want them to have lived reasonably well, and sustainably, without adversely impacting on future generations. Or at least, that’s what we say when we’re asked about it. I can’t claim to have ever seriously quibbled about the provenance of a sausage sandwich when I’ve a hangover, even if I try to buy ethically in the cold light of day.
Anyway, let’s talk about non-stunned meat. There are a lot of myths about stunning, so let’s start with some simple definitions.
Halal meat: Halal meat is, unsurprisingly, meat from an animal killed in a halal-compliant fashion. For the Halal Food Authortity (HFA)- the group who certify Halal food in the UK- this means killing the animal while a prayer is recited. It also means using a certain method of slaughter, and hanging the animal long enough for the blood to drain. According to the HFA, stunning is permitted, as long as the method does not kill the animal. There is some debate within Islam about stunning, however. Certain fatwas (“legal” or official interpretations of the Qur’an) say that no stunning at all is permissible. The UK Food Standards Agency figures from 2011 suggest 84% of cattle, 81% of sheep and 88% of chickens slaughtered for halal meat were stunned before they died.
Why is there so much halal on the market these days? It seems like I see it everywhere I go! That’s because, in order for a slaughterhouse to produce any halal meat (as certified by HFA), the whole slaughterhouse needs to be operating in a halal-compliant fashion, in order to avoid cross-contamination. Therefore, in order to market to Muslims and non-Muslims alike, slaughterhouse owners have been converting the whole process to halal-compliant. There’s nothing “conspiratorial” about it- just plain old fashioned capitalism at work!
Kosher meat: Kosher killing requires that the animal not be stunned. It is killed in a similar fashion to halal, and the blood is drained. For the hindquarters of the animal to be kosher, they must be porged (stripped of veins, fat and sinew), and because of the expense of this process, the hindquarters of commercially killed kosher animals often end up in the non-kosher market.
Jhatka meat: You might not have heard of this one, but Jhatka meat is from an animal slaughtered by a single-striked beheading. It is favoured by Sikhs and some Hindus. While commonly available in India, it is sometimes on offer in the UK.
But why is this an AHS issue, I hear you cry?
Because in 2010, Mike Paynter, Richy Thompson and Dom Wirdnam conducted a FOI survey of UK universities, to find out how many were providing non-stunned meat to their students, and how many were labelling it as such. An abridged version of their report and its findings is available here and the full version is available on request from the Campaigns officer (email@example.com). In short, 30 universities responded that they did serve non-stunned meat. Another 15 were “maybe”s, where not enough info was given to determine whether the meat was stunned or non-stunned halal. Of the 45 that potentially sold non-stunned meat (where not enough information was given to know definitively) 5 had no labelling, and 25 mentioned only “halal” with no further details. Only Birmingham City University replied that yes, it was stated “on the packaging” the meat had not been stunned.
Yes, you read that right. Out of 154 institutions surveyed, with 45 potentially serving non-stunned meat, only one labelled it adequately.
This is a problem. It’s a problem for students who want to know what they’re eating, whether they’re Muslim or not Muslim. The AHS promotes choice for everyone, and that’s why we’re in favour of, wait for it, CLEARER LABELLING ON PACKAGING!
It’s worth noting that this is not a sneaky attempt to marginalise the needs of religious students: last year (May 2014), the government hinted that it was considering legislating for clearer labelling, and it was greeted with approval by both Muslim and Jewish leaders. Unfortunately, it was subsequently shelved.
So, what can you do?
Firstly, if you’re planning on doing something, get in touch with me! firstname.lastname@example.org. Consider taking a look at the results of the survey, or contacting your university or students union directly with a FOI request (See our guidance on FOI requests here). Once you’ve got the facts to hand, it’s time for some good old fashioned lobbying. Write to your university, your SU, your student newspapers. Make people aware of what they’re eating. Consider teaming up with Isocs or Jsocs, or with animal welfare groups on campus.