Muslims may only represent 4.8 per cent of the UK population, but they consume about 20 per cent of all the lamb sold in England alone and are increasing their consumption of beef.
The current falls in the prime lamb market were offset, to some extent, by the Muslim festival of Ramadan which took place from June 28-July 28, the run up to which generally sees sheep and lambmeat prices remain buoyant.
Kantar Worldpanel data for the year to January 5, 2014, revealed lamb retail sales increased in volume by 11.5 per cent year-on-year, with a lot of this demand coming from the Muslim community.
But it raises a contentious point about the ethics of non-stun halal slaughter – a practice many farmers and consumers are uncomfortable with.
Association of Independent Meat Suppliers (AIMS) policy director Norman Bagley said the trade association had seen a ‘huge increase in demand’ for halal meat, especially beef, in the past five years, adding the halal sheep market was ‘extremely important’.
With most Muslims steadfast in their belief any meat they eat must be halal, it is becoming increasingly important to ensure the legislation around the sector is fit for purpose – something which Defra has been working to address.
One of the key areas of contention relates to animals which have not been stunned prior to slaughter.
European and UK legislation requires all animals to be stunned before slaughter to render them insensible to pain.
However, a derogation in the legislation allows animals to be slaughtered without stunning for Muslim and Jewish communities – Dhabihah slaughter for halal food and shechita slaughter for kosher food.
The issue prompted the British Veterinary Association (BVA) and the RSPCA to launch a petition to end non-stun slaughter in order to improve animal welfare at the time of death.
The petition, which has received more than 70,000 signatures, follows calls from the Humane Slaughter Association, the Farm Animal Welfare Council, and the Federation of Veterinarians of Europe to prohibit the practice.
BVA president and veterinary surgeon Robin Hargreaves said: “These methods were state-of-the-art when they were laid down in the doctrines [thousands of years ago]. It would have been more humane than smashing an animal over the head with a rock.
“But after 3,000 years things have evolved and there are better ways of doing things. We think we can accommodate new and humane practices.”
However, senior director at Shropshire-based abattoir Euro Quality Lambs, and Eblex board member Rizwan Khalid, insisted non-stun slaughter was not ‘cruel’.
“Not all stun methods are compatible with halal,” said Mr Khalid. “For meat to be certified as halal the animal must be stunned using electric head-only stunning and the stunning must not kill the animal. On the non-stunned side the slaughter can be done well if it is done properly.”
However, he admitted the risks were greater in cattle than they were for lamb or poultry.
“With cattle it is more difficult because there blood supply is different, so there is definitely more risk there.”
Mr Khalid said there was a growing UK market for non-stun meat and therefore it was important to ensure the process was carried out humanely and according to Muslim law.
Stunned animals are not always considered halal because the animal is rendered unconscious and the abattoir cannot be certain if the animal has already died before the slaughterman cuts its throat.
If the animal is already dead, it is forbidden for Muslims to eat it.
The animal is also supposed to hear a prayer in the ‘in the name of God’ before it dies, which it cannot do if it is unconscious.
Mr Khalid added: “The meat is blessed in a prayer which references the one creator of the universe. People talk of ritual chanting and the terrified animal at the point of slaughter which is just ridiculous.
“We are not allowed to kill animals for no reason other than for food or pest control. We are asking permission. If we don’t say the prayer the meat becomes non-halal.”
Mr Khalid said it raised the issue of non-halal meat coming onto the market and purporting to be halal.
“Especially in the poultry sector, some people are playing games with the whole criteria and using a cassette to play the prayer because they are going through 10,000 birds an hour,” added Mr Khalid.
“Muslims do not want to eat that.”
Clearer and more responsible labelling is something all parties agree would help to improve confidence in the sector.
National Sheep Association chief executive Phil Stocker said labelling halal meat stun and non-stun would be ‘the most sensible way forward’.
“If you label halal meat just ‘halal’, British consumers may make assumptions all halal meat is non-stun and put people off,” said Mr Stocker.
“Similarly, in the Muslim community it may increase demand for non-stun because they may think all the meat has not been stunned.”
Mr Khalid added: “The purpose of labelling is to give choice to consumers. I realise the issues people have with non-stun and stunned meat and I can understand them. If consumers want pre-stunned meat then they can choose Red Tractor or Freedom Food assured products.”
He said Eblex was in the process of developing a quality standard mark for non-stun and stunned meat so people can have the choice.
“Some Muslim consumers want non-stunned meat but they are getting the stunned products. There is nothing wrong with either method as long as it is done well.”
At the moment, Mr Khalid said some consumers were unwittingly eating non-stun meat, for example some parts of hind quarter beef which are not required by the Jewish market.
“In the halal meat trade, if you keep an animal in the halal supply chain there is no problem. If you slaughter it Kosher only 30 per cent of the animal will remain kosher and the rest will go into the mainstream market,” added Mr Khalid.
He said there was an opportunity here for leftover meat from the kosher market to be diverted into the halal market.
This could be done by saying the Muslim prayer at the same time the animal is slaughtered kosher, he suggested.
But with the halal and kosher trades so important for UK sales and ultimately farmers, there needs to be system developed which suits all parties going forward.
Halal and kosher facts