Wednesday

1st Feb 2023

Opinion

All eyes on EU court for decision on religious slaughter

  • Stunning animals before slaughter and avoiding unnecessary suffering is surely the least we owe these fellow sentient beings (Photo: Pixabay)

The popular image of a ritual killing is that of a butcher restraining an animal to expose its throat, covering its eyes with its ears while muttering prayers to calm it.

Sadly, this is far from the experience of animals being killed without pre-stunning for halal or kosher meat, where they are strung up and knifed in a relentless industrial process.

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  • By now technological development makes it possible for animals to be butchered humanely, while still preserving religious freedom (Photo: Lukas Budimaier)

Even when their throat is cleanly cut, the massive injury triggers a barrage of sensory information to the brain, meaning their last, long minutes of consciousness as they bleed out are filled with pain and terror.

Stunning animals before slaughter and avoiding unnecessary suffering is surely the least we owe these fellow sentient beings.

That's why the practice of pre-stunning is mandatory throughout the EU.

Although the EU Animal Slaughter Regulation allows for a 'religious exception', it also expressly enables member states to adopt "national rules aimed at ensuring more extensive protection of animals at the time of killing".

That's how Denmark, Sweden and Slovenia were able to ban slaughter without stunning.

However, today a compromise between a religious exception, allowing slaughter without stunning, and an outright ban of the practice is close to reach.

This is the method known as reversible stunning, which renders the animal unconscious for the time it takes to cut its throat while respecting the religious requirement of it remaining alive so the blood is pumped out by its still-beating heart.

According to well-established scientific evidence, this method is not only less traumatising for the animal and makes its handling easier for the butcher, but it is also accepted by a growing number of representatives of these religious communities.

However, reversible stunning now faces a major legal challenge across Europe.

After the Flemish region introduced reversible stunning in 2017, various Jewish and Muslim associations contested this decree before national courts and sought its total or partial annulment.

The case reached the Belgian Constitutional Court, which referred the matter to the European Court of Justice for a final decision.

What's at stake in the present case is not a ban on religious slaughter, but whether a member state may adopt measures to improve the welfare of animals being slaughtered in the context of a religious rite – the aim of the Flemish legislation in requiring the animal to be reversibly stunned.

Not only does this method meet religious community requirements to have animals alive at the time of the throat cut, but it is also proportionate to its declared goal to protect animal welfare while guaranteeing the religious liberty and freedom contained in the EU's Charter of Fundamental Rights.

Reversal on reverse stunning?

However, in a recent opinion, though seemingly favourable to the adoption of other technical conditions to minimise the suffering of animals at the time of the killing, a member of the Court of Justice of the EU - Advocate General (AG) Hogan - proposed that the court should find that member states were not permitted to implement reversible stunning.

The opinion argues that the 'religious exception' was intended to "grant more specific protection to the freedom of religion" in this context and that when establishing stricter national rules, member states must "operate within [its] confines".

Yet this appears to overlook the fact that the EU legislation submits the adoption of stricter national rules to only one condition, that the importing country – in this case, Belgium – does not prevent the circulation of animal products from another member state with a laxer regime, i.e. meat from animals that were not stunned before slaughter.

There would be no need for this provision to exist if countries were entirely bound by the 'religious exception'.

We disagree with the contention that the "preservation of the religious rites of animal slaughter often sits uneasily with modern conceptions of animal welfare" and that as a result, the court should not allow member states to "hollow out" the 'religious exception'. Technology and best practices are there to guarantee that both interests can be reconciled and respected.

Far from being motivated by Islamophobia and anti-Semitism, the Flemish decree prescribing reversible stunning is the outcome of long-standing consultations with the relevant religious communities in an effort to strike a new balance between the exercise of religious freedom and animal welfare.

The acceptance of reversible stunning appears all the more important when analysing the broader context: in Europe, there are many more animals slaughtered without stunning than those needed, but no labelling is required for such meat.

This situation severely affects EU consumers' right to know if they're buying and consuming meat that might be derived from animals that have not been stunned before killing.

When these religious traditions were established, there were well-founded sanitary reasons for encouraging people to shun the flesh of animals they could not identify as being recently alive. But advances in food safety have long made such practices redundant.

By now technological development makes it possible for animals to be butchered humanely, while still preserving religious freedom. It is time for European law to recognise it is no longer acceptable to deny them a kinder end to their lives.

Author bio

Albert Alemanno is Jean Monnet Professor in EU Law at HEC Paris and founder of The Good Lobby, a nonprofit civic startup committed to equalising access to power by enhancing the advocacy capacity of civil society.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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