Blinkered views of slaughter
It's the archetypal tabloid scoop: chicken used by Pizza Express had its throat cut "while still alive" - so ranted both the Sun and the Daily Mail last week, without a hint of irony. Is it possible that they simply don't know that all chickens slaughtered for food in the UK have to have their throats slit "while still alive" - it is of course more difficult to kill a bird that is already dead!
So what is so terrible about the method of slaughter used for halal chickens? Well, some halal meat (and of course all kosher meat) does not allow for conventional mechanical, industrialised methods of stunning such as gassing, electrocution and shooting as well as a number of other unpleasant processes.
But that was not the objection here, since Pizza Express has made it very clear that all their chicken is mechanically stunned before slaughter. So what is it that sets this chicken apart from any other good, old-fashioned, Anglo-Saxon chicken? I'm afraid the only remaining difference is the religion of the slaughterman. If two chickens are reared in exactly the same way, in exactly the same conditions; if both are electrocuted until they are unconscious; and then one goes into an enormous machine which scalds, feathers and decapitates it, while the other one goes to a Muslim who happens to be saying a prayer which he considers important and profound - I think we could be forgiven for thinking that the motivations here are questionable.
This is not to say, of course, that everyone who has a concern about unwittingly eating chicken killed by a Muslim is a racist: there are some of the Sikh faith, for example, who observe a religious prohibition against eating meat that has had a blessing recited over it. While it is probably reasonable to assume that the Sun and the Daily Mail are not entirely motivated by the spiritual wellbeing of the Sikh community, there is no question that, as Shechita UK has successfully argued, consumers have a right to know what they are eating.
We should have clear, comprehensive and even-handed labelling. Sadly, the British Veterinary Association and their fellow travellers are obsessed with religious slaughter and continue to advocate for a limited system of labelling which would only offer two categories: religious slaughter without mechanical stunning and everything else.
This bitter, patronising attitude to faith communities has become prevalent across Europe and is beginning to manifest as tangible political attacks on religious practice. In many ways, the UK has been fortunate that the main vehicles for the politically active far-right movement, the BNP and the EDL, have all but imploded.
But other countries are suffering. France, Greece, Ukraine, Hungary, and much of Scandinavia are plagued by an alarming rise in the politics of hatred. In Norway, the law will soon require strict regulation of brit milah – the state does not trust mohelim with years of experience, so they will be accompanied by a medical practitioner.
In Denmark, the minister with responsibility for animal welfare has unilaterally banned shechita without a thought for Jewish and Muslim religious freedom. These are the effects of a Europe-wide atmosphere of intolerance in which sincerely held religious belief is viewed as a naïve obsession with the world of make-believe, which has no place in a modern, enlightened society.
So let us not be complacent. We have a responsibility to ensure that we know the views of all the MEPs campaigning for our votes, on religious practice. If you haven't already done so – now is the time.
Rabbi Goldschmidt is Chief Rabbi of Moscow