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New Questions About Ritual Slaughter as Belgium Bans the Practice

No, Animal Welfare is Not Religious Bigotry

Another country has banned the cruel practice of ritual slaughter––kosher slaughter, sanctioned by Jewish law and halal slaughter, sanctioned by Islamic law. In both practices, cattle, sheep, goats and poultry have their throats cut while they are fully conscious and capable of experiencing great fear and pain.

Starting in 2019, Belgium will no longer grant exemptions from humane slaughter laws (that require an animal be stunned before it is killed) for ritual slaughter, joining Sweden, Norway, Iceland, Denmark and Slovenia which also outlaw the practice.

Other European countries are considering tightened slaughter laws. The Netherlands, for example, has considered a law that states that no more animals can be killed for kosher and halal meat than “necessary to meet the actual need of the religious communities present in the Netherlands” and that if an animal is not “insensitive to pain” within 40 seconds of slaughter, it must be put out of its misery and shot.

The US Humane Methods of Slaughter Act

In the US, humane slaughter, requiring that an animal be stunned before it is killed, became the law of the land (the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act) a year after a disturbing film of hog slaughter was shown to Congress in 1957. President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the act and remarked that “if I depended on my mail, I would think humane slaughter is the only thing anyone is interested in.”

The Humane Methods of Slaughter Act was opposed by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) who last year allowed US slaughterhouses to kill 175 chickens per minute, up from 140 birds per minute––a move that greatly pleased industry. Even without the increased speeds, chicken kill lines in the US move so fast that 700,000 chickens a year miss the stunner (to render them insensitive to pain) and are boiled alive.

In 1978, former Sen. Bob Dole (R-KS) introduced amendments to strengthen the Act, which had originally only applied to suppliers of meat to the federal government. Also added were methods for enforcement.

Still, the US allows ritual slaughter––religious exemptions to the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act––and according to one USDA administrator I spoke to, regulation can be almost non-existent. One halal slaughter facility, says the administrator, was not visited by a religious figure for six years, though a visit is required every year.

Ritual Slaughter is Falsely Believed to be More Humane

It is ironic that many believe ritual slaughter to be “more humane” than traditional slaughter when it is just the opposite.  In 2004, undercover video at the Agriprocessors’ kosher slaughterhouse surfaced, showing cows that did not die from having their throats cut but got up and thrashed around in heartbreaking agony. The video led to a USDA investigation that reported many violations of animal cruelty laws at the plant. (US President Trump commuted the sentence of an Agriprocessors’ owner for financial wrongdoing late last year.) The undercover activists who shot the video were later identified as Hannah and Philip Schein, a married couple who keep kosher themselves, dispelling charges that their motives were anti-Semitic.

When the grisly video surfaced, a coalition of rabbis and kosher certifying agencies in the United States was quick to defend the images. “After the animal has been rendered insensible, it is entirely possible that it may still display certain reflexive actions, including those shown in images portrayed in the video,” they wrote on a kosher-certification website.

“These reflexive actions should not be mistaken for signs of consciousness or pain, and they do not affect the kosher status of the slaughtered animal’s meat.  There may be exceptional circumstances when, due to the closing of jugular veins   or a carotid artery after the shechita cut, or due to the non-complete severance of an artery or vein, the animal may rise up on its legs and walk around. Cases when animals show such signs of life after the slaughter process are extremely rare, and even such an event would not invalidate the shechita if the trachea and esophagus were severed in the shechita cut.”

Animal Expert Weighs In

Temple Grandin , Professor of animal science at Colorado State University, disagrees and contends that ritual slaughter is capable of causing great suffering. “Some plants use cruel methods of restraint, such as suspending a conscious animal by a chain wrapped around one hind-limb,” she writes. “They persist in hanging large cattle and veal calves upside down by one hind-leg. There is no religious justification for use of this cruel method of restraint. The plants that suspend cattle/calves by one hind-leg do so in order to avoid paying the cost of installing a humane restraint device. Humane restraint devices can often pay for themselves by improving employee safety.” The cries of agony can be heard outside the plants writes Grandin.

“At no time, either during or after stunning should the animal vocalize (squeal, moo or bellow). Vocalization is a sign that a sensible animal may be feeling pain,” continues Grandin. “It is easy to evaluate insensibility after an animal is hanging vertically on the bleed rail; it should hang straight down and have a straight back, and the head should be limp and floppy. If the stunned animal has kicking reflexes, the head should flop like a limp rag. If the animal makes any attempt to raise its head, it may still be sensible. An animal showing a righting reflex must be immediately re-stunned. There should also be no rhythmic breathing and no eye reflexes in response to touch. Blinking is another sign of an animal that has not been properly stunned and thus may still be sensible. As slaughterhouses are increasingly privatized with no federal inspectors these humane guidelines are thrown out the window.”

It is important to note that halal and kosher slaughter do not represent the only time animals experience terror and pain at the end of their lives because they have not been stunned before slaughter. In 2001, the Washington Post ran a shocking expose of fully conscious animals routinely killed at traditional US slaughterhouses.

Ritual Slaughter Holidays

Animal rights advocates are especially strong critics of ritual slaughter when it comes to the holiday of Eid al-Adha during which Muslims ritually slaughter sheep and other animals, often in public.

Turkey, particularly, has had a hard time with the Eid al-Adha animal sacrifice holiday. In 2017, Forestry and Water Affairs Minister Veysel Eroğlu finally announced that animals should “be slaughtered rapidly” to prevent recurring images of suffering animals fighting for their lives that have horrified Western tourists.

Eid al-Adha is not a sight for the squeamish writes Gamal Nkrumah on the Egyptian website Al-Ahram. “One can tell from the nervous restlessness that the defenseless animals sense danger. The darting eyes and incessant bleating are tell-tale signs.” The “look of absolute terror in the eye of the beast is hard to miss” and some “streets are awash with blood,” writes Nkrumah.

Religious Persecution or Animal Protectionism?

After the Netherlands sought to tighten its ritual slaughter laws, Joe M. Regenstein, a professor of food science who runs a kosher and halal food program at Cornell University said, “This is not about animal rights”––”It’s an invitation to Jews and Muslims to leave.”

The Belgian decision has raised similar ire. Such animal protection laws are a disguised attempt to stigmatize or even drive out religious minorities, some claim. The ban violates “the Belgian freedom of religion” says Joos Roets, a lawyer representing Islamic institutions. “The government could take other steps to reduce animal suffering.”

The new law has the effect of making it difficult for observant Jews to live according to their traditions said Rabbi Schmahl of Belgium whose duties include fielding halachic queries and certifying kosher restaurants. Belgium has roughly 500,000 Muslims and 30,000 Jews.

Even the New York Times, in an editorial, called bans on ritual slaughter possible “smoke screens for bigotry against Jews and Muslims.” It warned that “those who really care about the welfare of animals should be wary of making common cause with right-wing nationalists whose hostile intent is to make life more difficult for religious minorities.”

Charges of religious persecution might be heightened as they come on the heels of “cow protection” laws passed by India’s Hindu nationalist party in 2018 through which hundreds of Muslims in the meat trade industry lost their jobs.

Yet animal lovers contend there are ways to preserve the intent of ritual slaughter––that an animal is in perfect health and disease-free––without inflicting such suffering. They also question where religious boundaries end and secular laws begin. “If a religious practice specified beating a child would it prevail?” asked one animal rights activist.

There is a final irony in this battle between the religious practice of ritual slaughter and animal protection. Kosher and halal slaughter are so similar to each other that Muslims often substitute kosher foods when their own ritually produced and certified halal foods are not available. Yes–slaughter is one of the few precepts that fundamentalism Islam and fundamentalism Judaism agree upon.

More articles by:

Martha Rosenberg is an investigative health reporter. She is the author of  Born With A Junk Food Deficiency: How Flaks, Quacks and Hacks Pimp The Public Health (Prometheus).

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