This week I led a debate in parliament about reforming the law around the non-stun slaughter of farm animals. The way we treat animals raised in captivity for food is a hallmark of a civilised society. We have a special responsibility to spare farm animals any unnecessary stress or suffering. Since 1875, we have used technology to ensure that animals are stunned prior to slaughter. Using either a captive bolt in cattle or electric stunning, it is possible to render the animal immediately unconscious and insensible to pain prior to slaughter. However, there has also always been what supposed to be a very narrow exemption for Muslims or Jews with an orthodox view who feel they need meat from animals that were not stunned.
Our laws have evolved over the years but have not changed substantively since 1995. We have always allowed a conditional derogation for Jewish and Muslim communities. The key feature is a so called stand still time of 20 seconds on sheep and 30 seconds on cattle during which the animal should not be moved to reduce stress. Non-stun slaughter is only supposed to be allowed on the basis of religious need but this requirement is not enforceable in practice. The FSA have published alarming statistics showing that 25% of all sheep are now slaughtered without prior stunning representing a drift back towards more conservative cultural interpretations of religious faith. We are being left behind by other developed nations on this matter. In Australia and New Zealand, non-stun slaughter is not permitted. In many European countries there is either a requirement that there should be an immediate post cut stun where a derogation is used or in some cases a prohibition on non-stun slaughter.
Free votes in parliament are a wonderful thing. When political parties step back from taking a position and allow their own members to form their own opinion on an issue of conscience, it can be liberating for both the party and their representatives. In my view it is time for every political party to agree that the issue of religious slaughter should also become a free vote issue so that progress can be made.
When considering reform, we should first ask whether the derogations we currently allow are strictly religious or whether they actually represent an accommodation of a cultural interpretation of religious need? Both the Muslim and Jewish faiths have a clear religious conviction against the consumption of pork, which should obviously be respected. However, when it comes to the issue of stunning, the religious need is less clear.
In the case of Halal production, the important feature is that there is a Muslim blessing at the point of slaughter. Many communities in the UK are content with the use of stunning and until a few years ago, we had got to a position where around 75% of Halal meat was stunned. Most Muslim countries like Kuwait and Saudi Arabia are more concerned about the contamination of porcine DNA through shared use of machinery than they are about whether an animal was stunned.
If we want modernise the regulations, we could consider an immediate post cut stun on cattle to recognise their unique physiology. Secondly, we could increase the minimum stand still time on sheep to, say, 45 seconds to remove the incentive to mainstream the non-stun slaughter of sheep. We could also strengthen the requirements on chickens to purposefully check birds for signs of consciousness before the next stage of production. Finally, we could introduce strict quotas setting out the number of animals permitted to be slaughtered without stunning thereby giving effect to this longstanding requirement in UK law.
Not everyone will agree with the ideas that I have set out, but I would love to have the debate in Parliament under refreshing, free vote conditions where government would be liberated of the task and Parliament could chart a course forward.