Towards a ban on ritual slaughter in France?
Interview with Fethallah Otmani, Managing Director of AVS
No current legislation at a European level deals exclusively with ritual slaughter or stunning. Instead these issues are addressed in Council Regulation (EC) 1099/2009 of 24 September 2009 on the protection of animals at the time of killing. Regulation 1099/2009, which came into force in January 2013, reinforces the previous legislation and provides additional information in particular on the issue of stunning. At the French national level, ritual slaughter is also framed by several decrees and a circular.
In this interview, AVS Managing Director Fethallah Otmani gives his impressions on the dynamics at work at the legislative level as well as on the future of “ritual slaughter” in France.
Naima Bouteldja: A few years ago AVS asserted that commercial interests had prevailed in the drafting of Regulation 1099/2009. How did these interests shape the legislation?
Fethallah Otmani: Regardless of the issue of animal slaughter, what currently drives political decisions are essentially financial and commercial interests. Concerns over ethical issues or working conditions are admittedly taken into consideration but as a second thought. Currently the treatment of animals is somewhat of an exception thanks to the work of animal rights groups, but without their efforts this issue would also be relegated like everything else.
So to take a concrete example – which is rather a counter-example – one of the measures that was being debated during the drafting of Regulation 1099/2009 was the issue of labeling. The idea was to label the meat according to the slaughter process. So if this measure had been adopted, on each box or meat package we would have had a code indicating whether the animal had been slaughtered without stunning (ritual slaughter), or by a stunning method that led to its death (we use the expression « stun to kill »), or by a stunning method that didn’t kill the animal (« stun to stun »).
It was one of the proposals on the table but it was not included in the regulation because the economic players were overwhelemingly opposed to it. One should know that when an animal is slaughtered in an abattoir, regardless of the slaughter process, these economic actors are not always sure that its meat can be marketed in the channel for which it was originally intended. According to demand, if they slaughter for the halal market, it is possible that some of the meat will end up in the non-halal meat channel and vice-versa. Most industrialists have always juggled with distribution channels in this way. They obviously try to respect the general rules, but they cannot always sell their meat in the markets for which the meat was originally destined, so they mingle things. This explains their opposition to the practice of labeling, and it is under their concerted pressure that this measure was not written into the European regulation (it will probably happen shortly) even though it could solve many problems.
The same is true of the stunning parameters for electronarcosis. The choice made in Regulation 1099/2009 is to tend towards « stun to kill » instead of « stun to stun » because the slaughter rates are higher with the « stun to kill » method. When you stun an animal without killing it, it might regain consciousness after the sticking and thrash around and thus slow down the process of slaughter. Whereas with the « stun to kill » procedure the animal has obviously no chance of regaining consciousness. The economic actors are not necessarily opposed to ritual slaughter (since halal is the only sector that is rapidly expanding in all markets) but the « stun to kill » procedure is more advantageous to them. Of course it’s not solely about economic interests. Other dynamics come into play, in particular the increasing influence of animal rights groups, who generally campaign against ritual slaughter.
NB: Is it not an issue for the legislator that animals die by stunning?
Fethallah Otmani: No, and it’s even the most widespread method of stunning today in Europe. The parameters for stunning for electronarcosis imposed by the European regulation lead in most cases to the death of the electrocuted animals. The legislators only request that the jugular veins are pierced to ensure the evacuation of the blood after the stunning. The blood is not necessarily well drained as the animal is already dead, but they have no problem turning stunning into a killing process.
NB: How do you see the whole ritual slaughter situation evolving?
Fethallah Otmani: Ritual slaughter is prohibited in several European countries because although under European legislation un-stunned slaughtering is a derogation granted to religious communities, each country can still legislate as it sees fit. France allows ritual slaughter, but animal rights organisations are increasingly lobbying to ban it. The latest national legislation is the result of pressure exerted by these organisations to make increasingly difficult the practice of ritual slaughter.
If one looks at the recent laws adopted in France to legally frame ritual slaughter, some are positive developments. For example, in the context of ritual slaughter, special training is required, which seems aberrant as you would expect all operators to be trained in the first place. But legislation also asserts that the animal must be restrained for a certain duration after the sticking. It seems a positive measure but in reality it is only dealing with human perceptions. It would be better to let the animal struggle and die rather than to coerce it and restrain it because you do not want to see it move. Such a measure in my opinion reveals greater empathy towards human psychology than the well-being of the animal.
The impact of these legal frameworks is that they slow down the functioning of the slaughterhouses and thus incite them to turn away from ritual slaughter because it is becoming increasingly complicated, and also because stunning practices are becoming the norm. That’s also why we no longer develop our activities in France but in Eastern Europe or in countries like Spain where they don’t have an issue with ritual slaughter.
NB: On the issue of ritual slaughter, do animal rights associations have more influence upon legislators than the economic actors?
Fethallah Otmani: It’s two different logics. You need to distinguish the ritual slaughter of poultry from that of cattle and sheep. It’s a paradox, but in the field of poultry, industrialists aren’t particularly inclined to develop ritual slaughter without stunning because it greatly slows down the slaughter rates. By contrast, as far as slaughter is concerned, animal rights groups care little about poultry. The work done in this area is paltry compared to the massive volume of poultry that is slaughtered and consumed in Europe each year. Conversely, in the fields of bovine and ovine, the opposite is true. Although ritual slaughter is declining in France because of the changes in legislation, slaughterhouses are not opposed to it. Industrialists know that there is a demand and they are happy to respond to it. They are, however, unenthusiastic since it still slows the slaughter rates but much less so than for poultry. And with some adjustments, it’s feasible for them to undertake ritual slaughter for sheep and cattle. But animal right groups in France are obsessed with the issue of ritual slaughter in this field because it is much more eye-catching. After the sticking much more blood flows from a non-stunned cow than from one which has been stunned, while with chickens there is barely any blood, whether the chicken is stunned or not.
NB: So the lobbying against ritual slaughter of poultry is strongest among industrialists while for cattle and sheep it’s strongest among animal rights groups?
Fethallah Otmani: We can not really talk about lobbying in reference to the industrialists. It’s just a matter of fact. They are not exercising any pressure to prohibit the ritual slaughter of poultry, they just don’t carry it out. They own the industrial tools and if they decide to not do any ritual slaughter because it does not suit them, they simply don’t do it. And if they see that some abattoirs are practicing the ritual slaughter of poultry, they are not necessarily going to try to close them down… they do not see them as a threat because both economically and financially speaking the poultry which is ritually slaughtered without any stunning will be more expensive and it remains something relatively marginal in their market. Concerning the opposition to ritual slaughter, the lobbying is by animal rights groups mainly regarding sheep and cattle.
NB: Do they lobby European Union legislators or French ones?
Fethallah Otmani: Both.
NB: How do you explain the stance of animal welfare associations when there is no scientific consensus that can categorically establish that un-stunned slaughter generates more suffering than slaughter by stunning?
Fethallah Otmani: Animal welfare associations don’t ignore the fact that it is first and foremost the industrial model, with its mass production, regardless of the slaughter process, which imposes suffering on animals during the rearing period, their transporting to the slaughterhouses and, of course, their killing. They are also aware that the economic stakes, the power and the sheer size of the food-processing industry are such that it is currently impossible to directly challenge the model of meat production. In other words, these associations are facing a brick wall but they also have members to satisfy. They need some victories and the easiest way to get them is to focus on soft targets, i.e. targets which are marginal in terms of volume. The halal market, even though it is expanding, remains marginal in relation to the total volume of meat in the French and European markets. Besides, it’s an even more interesting target as anything related to Islam is likely to receive greater political and media attention.
An anecdote: several years ago AVS was working in partnership with the director of a French animal rights group. We used to ask them to visit some abattoirs and we had a good working relationship. But one day they joined a campaign against ritual slaughter, so I contacted the director to ask for an explanation. I told him: « It is a stab in the back to yield to emotional demands and to pretend that the issue is ritual slaughter, while the problem is much deeper. You know very well that the problem is industrial farming rather than ritual slaughter. » During the discussion he told me: “you see we have members and we are compelled to respond to their demands ». They were seeing their members leaving them to join organisations, which were bashing ritual slaughter and they thought to themselves we must win them back… It’s a strategic move and it explains why the opposition to ritual slaughter has today become for some a priority. Halal is not necessarily a priority by conviction – even though I think they sincerely believe that there is an issue with ritual slaughter – but they know that the problem is at least as serious with stunned meats. They need victories and it is interesting to win them in this field because the victory is likely to be amplified politically.
NB: In the book you co-wrote in 2010, you mentionned the case of Australia, which at some point banned ritual slaughter for halal meat but exempted the production of kosher meat. How did the Australian authorities justify it? Do you think that this situation could one day prevail in European countries?
Fethallah Otmani: I followed this issue from afar, but it was a matter of lobbying and pressure. The Muslim community in Australia was not very vigilant on this issue, unlike the Jewish community. So when Australia banned slaughter without stunning, some Jewish actors fought back and defended their right to slaughter without stunning while the attitude of the Muslims was more passive. Within the Muslim community, however, there is a divide between scholarly positions and the practices of economic actors. A large number of Muslim economic actors fully accept stunning practices and give legitimacy to this practice even though they are not qualified to do so. But you know the problem is not the divergences within the Muslim community, it is the fact that they are used to our detriment by some people who are obsessed with economic and political power. If some Muslims accept stunning practices for financial gains or to be recognised as « moderate » Muslims, the rest of us are put in an akward position.
For this reason I believe that one can indeed fear such a development in Europe, namely a separation in the status of kosher and halal, even though everything cannot be reduced to power relations and lobbying.
NB: Do you think there is any possibility that one day ritual slaughter will be banned in France?
Fethallah Otmani: It’s probable. I don’t know how much we can assess it but we are not shielded from this risk and I actually think that it’s only a matter of time before it’s banned.
NB: What should Muslim actors do to prevent this scenario from occurring?
Fethallah Otmani: There are several levers to operate. First, in the industrial world, we need a more dynamic presence of Muslim economic actors who can apply pressure. We should also establish a true partnership with certain economic players to find solutions for improvement and to show that we can change things positively, that we are not the bad students who always mess up. We are often confronted to horrific images of ritual slaughter, while of course bad practices in slaughterhouses are not only confined to ritual slaughter. But in any case, we should always be exemplary and demonstrate that ritual slaughter is tantamount to a very high level of professionalism. We should also be present in the political and media spheres because a lot of untruths are being spread and we need to provide information and take it to the public in order to defend our rights.
Finally, I consider that the most important thing to do is to abandon the industrial model. The new halal market must operate outside mass production, which affects negatively chain-workers, chain-slaughtered animals and chain-consumers. This is the heart of the problem. Therefore we must encourage alternatives and defend the right for ritual slaughter to operate within these alternative frameworks, on a small scale in environments where animals and workers’ welfare are seriously taken into account. Today the legislator is more hostile to the presence of Muslim actors in small alternative structures than to our presence in the industrial context. I think these are the different levers to work on but the last one is the one that is probably the most neglected while being the most important.
 See http://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/?uri=celex:32009R1099
 By ritual slaughter, we are referring to slaughter carried out without any stunning. Of course, the majority of “halal” meat on the European market derives from animals that have been stunned prior to slaughtering.
 There are three main stunning methods: electronarcosis which consists of administering an electric discharge to the animal; the captive bolt which pierces the animal’s skull; and gas stunning which consists of stunning the animal by making it inhale gas.
 Sticking refers to the cutting of the animal’s throat.
 Le Marché du Halal, entre références religieuses et contraintes industrielles, Mostafa Brahami et Fethallah Otmani, Tawhid, 2010.
 A research carried out by AVS in 2008 shows that the main Muslim councils of scholars – the Standing Committee for Scholarly Research and Issuing Fatwas (Saudi Arabia); the International Islamic Fiqh Academy (OIC); the European Council for Fatwa and Research (Europe); the Assembly of Muslim Jurists of America (US); the Council of Islamic Ideology (Pakistan) and the Union of the Scholars of Islamic research (Egypt) – prohibit the practice of stunning of poultry and adult bovine. However, according to Sabir Adel, an expert in biotechnologies and Director of Silverleaf, many other Muslim scholars also authorise stunning practices including on poultry. They therefore give credence to the practices of those actors who sell stunned “halal” meat.