Several months ago, a furore broke out over the selling of halal meat in nearly all the major supermarkets, without it being labelled as such for consumers. It led to a number of embarrassing headlines – ‘Halal meat being eaten by millions without them knowing‘, ‘Halal hysteria‘, ‘Kiwi meat in UK halalbaloo‘. The news pieces largely focused on the issue of ritual slaughter and whether or not animals were stunned before killing. While several of the supermarkets argued that they always clearly labelled halal (and kosher) meat, closer investigation revealed that it wasn’t quite that straight forward. Sainsbury’s sells meat that is clearly branded halal, but also acknowledged that it bought pre-stunned lamb from New Zealand, where ‘…it is common for lamb to be blessed’ which certainly implies that much of the lamb, labelled or not, is halal.

Sheep at Willowbrook Farm

While some 88% of halal meat is stunned before slaughter, there remains 12% that is traditionally slaughtered without stunning and identifying whether the halal meat is from pre-stunned animals or live-kill animals is not easy. Tesco and Sainsbury’s both said that only ‘some’ of its halal meat was stunned; Morrisons claimed not to know. A number of religious leaders in Britain called for clear labelling, particularly in relation to the method of slaughter. It was the concern for the animal welfare of that 12% that ostensibly generated the consumer concern, though Saeed Kamali Dehghen, writing in the Guardian, thought the Daily Mail headline ‘Millions are eating halal food without knowing it’, could easily have been ‘Millions are eating Muslim food without knowing it.’

The issue of animal welfare is an important one, but it is equally important that concern for these issues extends beyond just the method of slaughter. One of the things that should come out the ‘Halal hysteria’ is a better understanding of the wider religious context of halal slaughter, which is connected to ‘tayyib’ in the Qu’ran.

The literal definition of halal is ‘lawful’ or ‘permitted’ – meat which, as a practising Muslim, you are allowed to eat. The animal must be alive when killed and it must be blessed at the time of slaughter. Animals are killed by cutting the carotid artery and bleeding the animal out. In both Islamic and Jewish religious practice this method of slaughter was considered swift and humane. One of the reasons that some halal meat is not stunned, is because bolt stunning – where a bolt is run through the animal’s brain – can sometimes kill the animal before its throat is cut. But meat should not only be halal, it should also be tayyib. To be tayyib is to be ‘good,’ it has to do with how the animal is raised, and it also carries the meanings of wholesomeness, healthiness and safety. There is concern from many Muslims that the emphasis on halal overlooks tayyib. Many Muslims feel strongly that meat must be both halal and tayyib.

Willowbrook Farm is an organic, sustainable farm near Oxford that produces halal meat with a commitment to tayyib. They were profiled in the Guardian after the Daily Mail story broke, in a piece on the ethical side of halal food production. Many people assume that halal and kosher meat must have higher animal welfare standards and be better quality meat – but this is far from a given. There are no certification standards defining halal or kosher that have to do with how the animal was raised prior to slaughter, and there has been some evidence in the kosher meat industry that animal welfare standards at slaughter, as well as in the life of the animal, were compromised. So while, in principle, the meat should be better quality and safer to eat, the more the business of halal and kosher production has grown, the less assured of this a consumer can be.

For Ruby and Lufti Radwan of Willowbrook Farm, tayyib is a core part of their religious ethics. Ruby Radwan notes that the Qu’ran expressly states the Muslims must be ‘stewards’ of the earth and Ruby emphasises the tremendous responsibility that Muslims are asked to carry in relation to the care of the earth and all that lives on it. You must ‘live in a natural balance with the earth,’ she says. This is what they try and do at Willowbrook Farm and their desire to live a ‘natural’ life is what led them to it. Looking after the environment and the animals they raise is part of their religious practice. Ruby agrees that many Muslims and much of the wider public don’t really understand this context for halal.

Willowbrook FarmWillowbrook is not Soil Association certified organic because they carry out ‘ritual slaughter’ in the production of halal meat, which is not allowed by organic standards. How they slaughter their meat is meticulously detailed on their website because the Radwans feel it is important for their customers to know exactly how the animal dies. Their slaughter is kept local and small-scale. Chickens are killed on-site, sheep and cows can’t be, so they work closely with a local abbattoir with whom they have an ongoing relationship and know well. Both chickens and sheep are stunned before slaughter, but cattle are not because the bolt stunning used on cattle does not ensure the animal is alive when killed.

While the method of halal and kosher slaughter without stunning continues to raise animal welfare issues, for good reasons, it also invites us to reflect on the problematics of animals that may be halal but not necessarily tayyib (there is a similar context in Judaism). Is it is better to eat an animal that is stunned before killing, whilst it may have had a hideously unpleasant life within the industrial meat industry, or to eat an animal that has been ‘live killed’ through ritual slaughter, but lived a natural life in small-scale meat production where it was able to have space and allowed to pursue its natural predilections? In truth, in the panic over possibly eating a ‘live kill’ animal without knowing it, how many of those ‘millions’ who were upset actually make an effort to eat organic and sustainable meat which guarantees good animal welfare standards for the animals whilst they are living? This is not to excuse the animal welfare issues for those which are not stunned for slaughter, but to question whether it is equally problematic to eat halal, kosher or meat generally that has been industrially raised? This question must extend to non-Muslims, who are bothered by the issues of slaughter without stunning, but continue to purchase meat that is not responsibly sourced. Muslims and non-Muslims alike must take a more holistic approach to our understanding of animal welfare. We must ensure that the animals we eat are treated with respect throughout their lives, from start to finish. The idea we should eat and live in balance with the earth, which in embodied in the principle of tayyib, is one for all of us to live by.

In text images from Willowbrook Farm