God's own chosen meat

In failing to ban ritual slaughter, ministers aren't respecting Jewish and Muslim wishes, but comfor

If you work on the assumption that you can judge a society by how it treats its animals, that perennially inquisitive visitor from Mars would quickly realise that Britain is a country obsessed with class hatreds but wary of the power of religion. All he would need to do is compare and contrast the outrage provoked by the hunting of foxes and the ritual slaughter of cattle.

As despairing hunters point out, the proposed ban on fox- hunting makes little sense. Indeed, if the true aim is to promote animal welfare, it makes no sense, as it is only hunting with dogs which would be prohibited. Farmers would remain free to shoot foxes that are threatening their lambs or chickens. No one from the anti-hunting movement has been able to explain why it is better to wing a fox with a bullet and leave it to bleed or starve to death than allow dogs to finish it off. Or as the Burns inquiry into hunting put it, in insurpassable bureaucratese: "We are satisfied that this experience [of being hunted with dogs] seriously compromises the welfare of the fox. We are satisfied that digging out and shooting a fox involves a serious compromise of its welfare."

Just so. But Labour backbenchers have ignored the heavy hints from their leaders that the politically wise course is to forget about hunting, and have pushed for a ban in every parliamentary session. It is their last shot in a class war they have all but lost. They don't believe in nationalisation. They don't believe in restraining the rich. But, damn it, they still believe that the gentry shouldn't dress up in silly costumes and charge across the fields.

None of the ambiguities that surround hunting haunt the production of (Muslim) halal and (Jewish) shechita meat. If the animal isn't stunned before its throat is cut, death is crueller than it need be. Yet at the beginning of June, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs overruled its own advisers and decided that religious slaughter should not stop, and scarcely anyone outside the National Secular Society noticed. Even animal charities I contacted did not know what Whitehall had done. Like the government, they did not want a fight with the religious.

The Farm Animal Welfare Council, which is charged with telling ministers how to promote humane treatment, had said that slaughtering without first stunning an animal was "unacceptable", and that the current legal immunity from prosecution enjoyed by religious slaughtermen should be repealed. The council was merely repeating a scientific consensus that has known for two decades that calves, in particular, take much longer than other species to die after throat-cutting. A 1995 study found that their brains could still be active for 104 seconds. Other experiments raised that figure to 126 seconds.

Possible reasons for the suffering are laid out in various research papers that Compassion in World Farming has collected. After the throat is cut, large clots can form at the severed ends of the carotid arteries, leading to occlusion of the wound (or "ballooning" as it is known in the slaughtering trade). Occlusions slow blood loss from the carotids and delay the decline in blood pressure that prevents the suffering brain from blacking out. In one group of calves, 62.5 per cent suffered from ballooning. Even if the slaughterman is a master of his craft and the cut to the neck is clean, blood is carried to the brain by vertebral arteries and it keeps cattle conscious of their pain.

The language of the studies is suitably dry, but every now and again emotion breaks through. John Webster, professor of animal husbandry at the University of Bristol's school of veterinary science, summed up the case against religious slaughter when he snapped that fear afflicted the animal as much as pain. "What is totally unacceptable is the distressing fact, for the cow, that she is conscious of choking to death in her own blood."

The government accepted that "animals (especially cattle) slaughtered without pre-stunning are likely to experience very significant pain and distress", but refused to end the benefit of the clergy enjoyed by anyone who could claim religious sanction for refusing to stun. The government claimed that a ban on cutting the throats of conscious animals may contravene the Human Rights Act's guarantees of religious freedom - highly unlikely, as Sweden bans religious slaughter and has not been had up before the European Court of Human Rights. It added that if the production of halal and shechita meat stopped in Britain, the devout would import it from abroad - true, but you could say the same about child pornography. The truth was that ministers could not see the political mileage in antagonising religious conservatives.

Outsiders should always be wary of dismissing other people's taboos as primitive. A sophisticated English atheist will condemn religious superstition but turn pale if a plate of horsemeat is put in front of him. None the less, it is hard to find a justification for religious slaughter. The taboo it enforces is against eating meat from an injured animal. Stunning a cow is held to be a way of inflicting injury, so the animal must be slaughtered while conscious.

Historians seeking to rationalise the irrational have speculated that Bronze Age dieticians thought that meat from an injured animal was unhygienic, but, in truth, if the prohibition had a reasonable basis, it has long been forgotten. The Jewish tradition, inherited by Islam, is that God told Moses how to kill animals. The advice was transmitted orally for many generations before being codified in the Talmud. To the faithful, religious slaughter is God's will, and that's the end of the matter.

Or so it seems. In reality, Islam and Judaism are no different from other religions: people can read what they want into them. Thus Orthodox Jews insist on shechita meat, Reform Jews do not, while the Board of Deputies of British Jews said that the overall attitude of Judaism is best summarised in the 12th chapter of the Book of Proverbs: "A righteous man regardeth the life of his beast."

Meanwhile, much of the meat that is sold as halal comes from cattle, sheep or poultry which are stunned before they are killed - and most Muslims don't mind. (New Zealand law requires that sheep be stunned before death, but that country nevertheless exports vast quantities of lamb to the Muslim world.) The late Al-Hafiz Masri, who in the 1960s became the first Sunni imam of Woking mosque, founded British Islam's first animal rights movement and argued that there was no Koranic prohibition on stunning animals. He pointed out that the Prophet had said to a man who was sharpening his knife in the presence of an animal: "Do you intend inflicting death on the animal twice - once by sharpening the knife within its sight, and once by cutting its throat?"

In other words, by refusing to follow the advice of the Farm Animal Welfare Council, the government is not deferring to the wishes of monolithic Jewish and Muslim "communities", but comforting the most reactionary elements within them.

And in that appeasement, it is showing the limits of multiculturalism. As many critics of postmodernism have pointed out, a truly relativist multiculturalist is equally unable to condemn religious slaughter and Holocaust denial, or the burning of heretics, or the oppression of women. They are all valid cultural narratives and it is coercive to challenge them.

But challenged, I think, religious slaughter is going to be. There is obviously a big smash-up looming on the liberal left about Islamic fundamentalism. Concern for poor minorities and respect for "the other" can't coexist with liberal principles indefinitely. I had always assumed that the argument would be about the status of women, but why not about the treatment of animals?

This is Britain, after all, a country where respectable members of the middle class can be turned into street militants by the export of veal calves, where pets are loved and children are resented, where the hunting of foxes matters more to Labour MPs than the redistribution of wealth, and where the public gives more each year to the Donkey Sanctuary for "the provision of care, protection and/or permanent security anywhere in the world for donkeys (and mules)" than it gives to Age Concern or Mencap.

Doubtless the government thinks it has successfully defused an issue that might lose it a few votes in a few Labour seats. But they shouldn't be complacent. It is dangerous to underestimate Britons' attachment to animals.