It’s been a busy few months for Shimon Cohen, who heads the lobbying organization Shechita UK. It is his task to advocate for consumers of kosher meat in Great Britain and battle against what he calls “an assault” on kosher slaughter by animal welfare organizations and their allies in the British media.
It all began with McDonald’s. The fast food chain became the target of a campaign by British groups who object to the methods of slaughter that result in kosher meat for Jews and halal meat for Muslims, claiming that the techniques are crueler than conventional methods of slaughter, in which animals are rendered unconscious before they are killed.
In October, the British newspaper The Daily Mail reported that halal meat was ‘surreptitiously’ being used in McDonald’s Chicken McNuggets, without informing customers. In the face of the controversy, Slaney Foods, the company that supplies McDonald’s – and also served as a major provider of kosher meat, made a sudden corporate decision to stop supplying meat that had been prepared by “religious slaughter,” – both Jewish and Muslim.
The news sent religious authorities scrambling, and kosher butchers worrying, resulting in rumors of a shortage of kosher meat, reported in the Israeli press, notably a much-circulated report in Ynet that claimed there was a ‘serious shortage’ of kosher meat in the UK – a report which Cohen says was false.
“It’s a completely silly story. When this one particular plant stopped producing kosher meat, the rabbis found alternative supplies. There were no problems in the supply chain, and it did not affect price,” he said.
The dust had barely settled on the Slaney episode, when the European Council moved to consider new food information regulation. In a proposed amendment to the rules, there was a clause that would have required that all relevant meat be explicitly labeled as “meat from slaughter without stunning.”
After much lobbying by European Jews and Muslims, the amendment was withdrawn last week – a triumph Cohen cautiously celebrated. Now, the regulation goes to second reading at the European Parliament where, he warns, the attempt “to label all meat products derived from the shechita method as effectively second class meat, could be reintroduced.”
As Cohen sees it, singling meat that has been slaughtered according to Jewish and Muslim laws implies that kosher and halal meat is substandard, and supports the charges that their slaughter methods are crueler, which he vehemently rejects. “It is very clear that all of the methods, when carried out properly, are equally as humane. There is no kind way of killing an animal, one can only try to see that they suffer the least amount of pain possible. Shechita does that.”
If meat is going to be labeled according to slaughter method, he argues, then all slaughter details should be shared – no specific aspects – like “non-stunning” – should be singled out, which will actively discourage mainstream customers from purchasing meat that has been slaughtered in accordance with kosher or halal standards.
Both communities have separate active ongoing lobbying efforts underway in the UK and in the EC when it comes to labeling, and the communities join together when necessary.
“Essentially, we are linked together by an accident of fate,” Cohen says. “The production of kosher and halal meat is different, but the way it works is that in Europe, animals have to be pre-stunned before they are slaughtered. Shechita and the Muslim methods for halal meat are given an exemption. At the moment, the current wave of attack is against the Muslim community – we are collateral damage…. But yes, we work very closely together with leaders of the Muslim communities.”