February 22, 2010
Having almost as much of an interest in our sibling religion, Islam, as I do in Judaism and also being a supporter of any moves to improve animal welfare, I made a point of listening to Radio 4's excellent Food Programme yesterday as it was devoted to a discussion of the halal meat industry. If you missed it, you can hear it on iPlayer - it comes highly recommended.
I knew something (admittedly a limited amount) of halal and the halal food industry due to my interest in animal welfare, but was unaware of just how similar it is to our own kosher laws and shechita. However, one notable difference is that imams disagree over whether or not it is acceptable for an animal to be stunned prior to slaughter - some argue that stunning renders an animal haraam (the Muslim equivalent of treif), whereas others argue that it is perfectly acceptable. This is not the case in Judaism, of course, since shechita demands that an animal must not be stunned otherwise the meat from it will not be kosher.
Now, shechita and the kosher meat industry has faced charges in recent years that it is not as humane as slaughter using stunning. Some of these accusations have had an all too obvious whiff of antisemitism about them, seemingly designed to create a belief that Jews are willfully cruel, as has been the case with BNP misinformation on the subject (the BNP state that, should they ever form a government, they will ban both kosher slaughter and halal, incidentally). Others, however, have made for very awkward reading; suggesting that while shechita was for centuries probably the most humane method of slaughter, it has been surpassed by modern methods. Whether or not an animal feels pain when the hallaf (sakin) is pressed to its throat and during the very brief time that it takes to bleed to death is debatable - but one thing is certain: an animal stunned by a trained slaughterman feels nothing at all.
I side-stepped the whole delicate issue some years ago when I decided that I would no longer eat anything made from animals and as a result cannot claim to be an expert when it comes to kashrut and shechita (keeping kosher is remarkably easy when one adopts a vegetarian or vegan diet - everything I eat is parve, provided I check for those pesky insects), but my understanding is that the animal's welfare is of paramount importance; hence the requirement that the shochet demonstrates care and compassion toward the animal at all times during the process. But, according to the Farm Animal Welfare Council, a cow can take two minutes to bleed to death. For part of this time, the cow will have slipped into unconsciousness - but nevertheless, if its welfare is of concern to us, this is not ideal and we must ask ourselves if it suffers.
One thing I realised while listening to the programme is that I had never known why an animal cannot be stunned if it is to be kosher. Enter Rabbi Dan Cohn-Sherbok, visiting Professor of Judaism at the University of Wales (Rabbi Cohn-Sherbok joins the programme at 24'00", in case you don't want to hear the rest). He says that, for the Orthodox, stunning using current methods is simply not possible because to do would leave a blemish - making the meat treif - and argues that the question of the animal's welfare remains unanswered. However, he goes on to say that he has been very pleased to hear that new methods, which will not blemish the meat, may very soon be available for commercial use.
Lovingkindness and concern for animal welfare are principles of the Jewish faith, and if we as Jews are to continue eating meat we must be glad of these developments whether we are Orthodox or otherwise for two reasons: a; they prevent charges of animal cruelty being made against us by antisemites (concerns raised by other parties, who do not have an ulterior antisemitic agenda, should be welcomed), b; in allowing us to produce meat using what is the most humane method currently available and thus minimising suffering (which is one of the main points of shechita), this new stunning method will allow us to be better Jews.