Halal meat is being served in schools, hospitals and pubs – even though veterinarians say Islamic slaughter is cruel and inhumane.
UK DAILY MAIL A few hours before dawn, and even through the inky blackness it is clear this is no ordinary warehouse. Outside the building, gusts of wind send hay and straw flying, and the air is thick with the acrid sent of manure.
Despite the darkness, I can see blood trickling down the gutters and a group of men clutching knives. Every so often, the eerie scene is punctured by the sound of lambs bleating.
I am standing outside one of Britain’s slaughterhouses. To the casual observer, it is no different to any other slaughterhouse, though it’s strange to find one so close to a city centre that it’s within walking distance of Birmingham’s branch of Harvey Nichols.
I have visited several slaughterhouses for research purposes over the years, and by their very nature they’re noisy and messy places, with vats of blood and entrails.
The main difference here, though, is that this slaughterhouse produces halal meat, in accordance with strict Islamic guidelines. Put simply, this means the animals killed here are not stunned with an electrical current — as they are at conventional slaughterhouses — to render them unconscious before they are dispatched.
Instead, they are fully conscious as their throats are slit by a slaughterman as he utters prayers to Allah to ‘bless’ the animal. The creature then bleeds to death in a process that can take more than 30 seconds.
Killing an animal by cutting its throat without stunning is, in fact, illegal in this country. However, there is a legal loophole allowing this if it is being done for religious reasons — in other words, for the production of halal meat.
But this is an exemption that the British Veterinary Association and the Government’s advisers, the Farm Animal Welfare Council, are objecting to, saying this form of slaughter causes ‘intolerable cruelty’. They have repeatedly demanded that it be banned.
‘In the Holy Book, it says that the animal should listen to the prayers of Allah. If it’s unconscious, then it won’t be able to do that.’
For their part, many Muslims claim it is their religious duty to eat only halal meat from unstunned animals. It is vital, they say, that the animal be slaughtered while fully conscious so it can receive Allah’s blessing.
Yet recent reports have suggested that it is not just devout Muslims who are consuming halal meat. Two months ago, it was revealed that supermarkets such as Waitrose and Tesco, fast food chains including McDonald’s, schools, hospitals, pubs and famous sporting venues such as Ascot and Wembley are serving up halal meat to unwitting customers.
So where does halal meat come from, and what is the truth behind its burgeoning use? According to the World Halal Forum, which promotes halal and is holding its European conference in London, there are two million consumers in Britain.
Until now, it has been difficult to ascertain facts. Halal meat producers have consistently rejected requests to show journalists around their British slaughterhouses and factories. When I applied to be shown around a number of halal slaughterhouses, calls went unreturned and messages unanswered for weeks.
So I decided to go undercover, posing as a potential buyer of halal meat for a fictional chain of high-quality ‘bespoke meats’. After four weeks, I finally managed to find a slaughterhouse willing to show me the entire production process — from ‘squeals to meals’.
Once I had outlined my fictional business proposal, a Birmingham-based company called Mr Meats agreed to show me around. The owner, Masti Khan, was unfailingly polite and eager to please. Mr Meats slaughters around 1,000 animals a night, mostly sheep and goats, but occasionally cattle, too.
When I step inside, the first thing that hits me is the overpowering stench — a nasty, fatty smell that sticks in the throat. And then there’s the noise of machinery, interspersed with bleating animals and the slaughtermen uttering prayers.
Hundreds of sheep and lambs are penned up in tiny stalls. From time to time, one tries — and fails — to escape by leaping over the bars of its pen.
It is only when it comes to the actual slaughter that the differences become apparent. I watch — and secretly film — as the animals are herded onto a conveyor belt that leads them to the slaughterman, who is wearing a blue hairnet over his hair and beard in accordance with hygiene requirements.
Grabbing one lamb at a time, he pulls back its head and slits the throat with a swift movement from his razor-sharp knife. Blood gushes everywhere as he recites the Islamic Bismillah prayer in Arabic: ‘In the name of Allah, the most gracious, the most merciful.’
One of the supervisors, who oversees the firm’s 50 or so largely Muslim employees, explains to me the religious principle behind this process. ‘Animals that are stunned are not halal. An animal that is unconscious is not going to listen to the prayer.
Lamb after lamb has its throat sliced open while fully conscious. They make pitiful bleating and gurgling sounds as they choke on their own blood. It’s a chilling sound that, once heard, stays with you for days.
Though the deep incision to the neck cuts through the animal’s windpipe and main arteries, the creatures are still able to cry out.
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During my two-hour visit, I watch as lamb after lamb has its throat sliced open while fully conscious. They make pitiful bleating and gurgling sounds as they choke on their own blood. It’s a chilling sound that, once heard, stays with you for days afterwards.
And then there’s the fact that the animals can witness each other being killed as they travel along the conveyor belt. Their hooves twitch wildly as they try to break fee.
One lamb cries out for more than 20 seconds before it flops off the end of the conveyor belt and on to a rotating table. From there, it is shackled by its hind legs and hauled up to the ceiling on a hook, where it is left with a dozen others to ‘bleed out’ — another important part of the halal process.
Of course, no slaughter of an animal is easy to watch. But it is hard to remain dispassionate as I watch dozens of still-conscious animals bleeding to death, the floor covered by an inch of warm, frothy blood.
I find myself siding with the British Veterinary Association in its claim that the process is more inhumane than conventional stunned slaughter. Surely it would cause less suffering for the animals to be stunned first.
The last available figures, from 2004, suggest that 114 million halal animals are killed annually.
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