His comments came as the European Parliament prepared to debate the highly controversial issue, with a late amendment to a food labelling bill being described by a leading Jewish organisation as “the 21st century equivalent of the yellow star, but on our food”.
Jim Paice, the food and farming minister, has told The Daily Telegraph that he would like to introduce a labelling system that allows consumers to see whether meat has been stunned or not before it has been slaughtered.
Failure to stun is legal under religious freedom laws. A relatively small, but increasing, proportion of Halal slaughterings and all Shechita – the Jewish method – slit the animals’ throats while they are still conscious.
Vets and animal welfare campaigners say that refusal to stun an animal before it its throat is cut leads to “unacceptable levels of suffering and pain”. Mr Paice said: “We think this is a welfare issue not a religious one.”
A recent study by the European Union has indicated that at least a quarter of million animals are slaughtered without being stunned in Britain each year. Meat industry insiders believe the figure is at least half a million.
This week Struan Stevenson, a Conservative MEP, has tabled an amendment to a European Parliament food labelling bill which proposes that meat should carry the following label “This product comes from an animal slaughtered by the Halal method” or “This product comes from an animal slaughtered by the Shechita method”.
This puts him at loggerheads with Mr Paice and The Depart of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), which believes that the labelling issue should avoid religious references and only make clear whether it has not been stunned.
Mr Paice said: “We are not going ban slaughter without stunning. I believe in an ideal world it shouldn’t happen, we don’t particularly like it, but we are prepared to tolerate it on religious grounds. But consumers have a right to be informed.
“Once you start using religious terms, you invite all sorts of challenge and of course the term Halal doesn’t make clear whether it has been stunned or not.”
Last year it emerged that a number of outlets, from Waitrose to Domino’s Pizza, were selling Halal meat. All New Zealand lamb, for instance, is automatically Halal. All the supermarkets declared that the meat, though not labelled, had come from abattoirs that had stunned the animals before slaughter.
However, the issue is complicated by the fact that under Shechita, the back legs of animals are not kosher, meaning these cuts of meat – slaughtered without stunning – are then sold off to the general market, ending up in butchers’ shops and catering outlets.
Shimon Cohen of Shechita UK, which represents the Jewish community, said the European proposal was “the 21st century equivalent of the yellow star, but on our food”.
In a letter to Mr Stevenson, he said: “If you were labelling every other form of slaughter, religious and secular, including stunning methods and incidences of mis-stunning then we would accept that this was a fairer form of labelling. But as your amendment stands, it is discrimination of the most direct kind.”
Mr Stevenson said: “I am deeply offended when anyone who says I am being anti-Jewish. My concerns are entirely from an animal welfare perspective because the vast majority of kosher meat is sold on to the non kosher market and just as you label the meat (as kosher) so the main market deserves to know what it is buying.”
By Harry Wallop, Consumer Affairs Editor, The Daily Telegraph