Denmark’s recent ban on ritual slaughter where animals haven’t been stunned beforehand is raising alarm in Muslim and Jewish communities there and across the world.
It might seem a little bit ironic that the same country where schoolchildren can watch a zoo giraffe get shot in the head, butchered and fed to lions is casting stones at religious groups’ particular methods of butchering. But nonetheless, in February Denmark said it would be eliminating the religious exemption to European agricultural regulations that require animals to be stunned before slaughter.
In a less-than-diplomatic statement, Agriculture Minister Dan Jorgenson told a TV station that “animal rights come before religion.”
Though Jews and Muslims in Denmark can still import meat from animals killed without stunning, the ban quickly prompted accusations of Islamophobia and anti-Semitism. But in Denmark, Jews and Muslims say the ban isn’t actually going to affect their lives that much -- Copenhagen imam Khalil Jaffar told Al Jazeera that local clerics had already issued a religious decree (fatwa) allowing for animals to be stunned before slaughter. Finn Schwarz, president of the Jewish Community Center in Copenhagen, told the TV network that the local Jewish community imports all its kosher meat already.
Still, the ban – and the reaction to it – have brought up larger issues of how religious groups navigate their place in secular societies. U.S.-based Islamic legal scholar Imam Abdallah Adhami says he’s less worried about Denmark’s restrictions on slaughter, and more about how Muslims choose to practice halal.
“When Muslims slaughter [animals] in the street, they really – I’m sorry -- they leave themselves open” to criticism, Adhami said in a phone interview. “I think there should be an honest acknowledgement that we need to educate the masses to be more civil -- not necessarily in accordance with Western values, but in accordance with religious values. If you violate a health ordinance… well, there’s a higher calling in shariah which calls on you to not offend your neighbor, regardless of your neighbor’s faith.”
Adhami also points out that the Quran has a great deal of flexibility incorporated into its teachings. It makes the food of other “peoples of the book” – Jews, Christians, and according to some scholars, Hindus – lawful, for instance. And if Muslims aren’t quite sure if the meat they are about to eat had the name of God invoked during slaughter, the prophet Muhammed said it was perfectly fine to invoke the name of God before eating it, Adhami says.
“The Quran provides very universal and very broad guidance,” Adhami says. “It gives you the broad stroke; it does not give you the finite detail. That is what makes its message timeless. Nowhere in the Quran is there a specific meticulous detailed policy.”
But just what is the more humane way of slaughter? What does the science say?
Halal and kosher rules of slaughter are fairly similar. In both cases, an animal is dispatched with a swift, deep cut to the front of the throat. Kosher rules get a little bit more specific – the knife used must be at least twice the width of the animal’s neck, and wielded by a trained and licensed slaughterer (a “shochet”). Both practices typically forbid slaughtering animals after they've been stunned -- sometimes justified by claims that the stunning method causes more pain to the animal.
Temple Grandin, the Colorado State University animal scientist who’s worked to set humane standards of care in slaughterhouses, has identified two major potential issues that can occur during kosher or halal cattle slaughter without stunning: The animal might remain conscious for a prolonged period after its throat is cut, or its own blood may be aspirated into the windpipe.
One way to avoid these two problems, Grandin says, is to make the killing cut closer to the jawbone, near the uppermost (C1) vertebra. Cutting this close will sever the nerve connecting the cow’s respiratory system to the brain, eliminating the unpleasant sensations of blood aspiration. Making the cut close to the jawbone will also help prevent prolonged consciousness in the cow by reducing false aneurysms – buildups of blood that block leaking arteries, delaying exsanguination. Most halal cuts are made close to the jaw, but in kosher slaughter, the knife is not permitted to touch the jawbone.
Grandin also notes that traditional methods of stunning – with bolt guns or electricity – can also be inhumane if improperly performed.
“All stunning methods trigger a massive secretion of epinephrine [aka adrenaline]," Grandin writes. “This outpouring of epinephrine is greater than the secretion which would be triggered by an environmental stressor or a restraint method. Since the animal is expected to be unconscious, it does not feel the stress. One can definitely conclude that improperly applied stunning methods would be much more stressful than kosher slaughter with the long straight razor sharp knife.”
Some Muslim scholars have outlined acceptable methods of animal stunning, according to a 2013 paper written by a group of food scientists from the University of Putra in Malaysia and King Saud University in Saudi Arabia. The most common stunning method in Europe, the penetrating bolt gun, is not halal because the bolt cracks through the skull and destroys part of the brain, sometimes causing cerebral hemorrhage. Non-penetrative captive bolt guns, which deliver a sharp rap to the animal’s forehead but do not enter the brain, can be certified halal by some standards – though there is the risk, especially in younger animals, that the stunning method might break the animal’s skull.
Electric stunning to the head alone has also been certified as halal, according to the paper. Acceptable stunning equipment must be used by a trained Muslim and monitored by a halal certification authority, it should have a temporary, nonlethal effect; and the same equipment used for pigs must not be used for halal animals. In Australia and New Zealand, almost all halal butchering in slaughterhouses incorporates stunning.
“Humane slaughtering [involves] being sympathetic for the animals being killed for meat production through minimizing animal suffering and respect for animals' intrinsic worth,” the authors wrote in the journal Meat Science. “This is probably what Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) preached when he said: ‘Allah calls for mercy in everything, so be merciful when you kill and when you slaughter; sharpen your blade to relieve its pain.’”