Explainer: the ethics of ritual slaughter

Netherlands has moved to ban ritual slaughter without stunning but is killing an animal for food ever ethical? Flickr/Nick Saltmarsh

Ritual slaughter is an important part of Islamic and Jewish belief systems but, as recent TV footage showing cattle being butchered in Indonesian abattoirs demonstrated, there is great variation across the globe in how the rules are interpreted and how strictly they are followed.

The Netherlands has moved to ban ritual slaughter of animals without stunning. Indonesia’s top authority on Islam, the Majelis Ulama Indonesia, allows stunning but it’s not clear how many Indonesian abattoirs practise it.

We asked four academics who are experts in the fields of Jewish studies, animal pain, Islamic studies and ethics to tackle the tricky question of ritual slaughter.

Professor Suzanne Rutland, OAM, Department of Hebrew, Biblical and Jewish Studies at the University of Sydney

In regards to the method of kosher slaughtering, it is called shechitah in Hebrew and only a person fully trained (called a shochet), is permitted to carry it out. The shochet has to ensure that his knife is fully sharp, has no notches in it, and that he kills the animal with one single cut to the jugular vein (the quickest and most painless way of killing an animal). If the animal has any blemishes, it cannot be eaten. Judaism does not allow stunning.

I would argue that for thousands of years the kosher way of slaughtering animals was the least painful of all methods. Over the last century, there have been ongoing efforts by animal welfare groups to prevent this method of killing animals. In Melbourne in the 1940s and 1950s a group of activists campaigned against kosher slaughtering, claiming it to be cruel. Jewish authorities will do everything within their power within the constraints of Jewish law to ensure that the animal is not treated cruelly. At the time in Melbourne, a new restraining pen was designed to meet these objections and kosher slaughtering was permitted to continue.

Judaism is concerned with animal welfare. Indeed, hunting is not permitted in Jewish law, the Bible rules that animals have to rest on the seventh day as well as humans, and the Talmud states that one should feed one’s animals before one feeds oneself. Thus, caring for animals is strongly within the Jewish tradition, but orthodox Jews believe that basic Jewish law cannot be altered and this applies to kosher slaughtering.

To ban kosher or halal slaughtering would be to severely disadvantage two minority groups in Australia, which would go against the multicultural principles of equal rights and respect for difference. This would, in my mind, be highly problematic for both the Jewish and Muslim communities.

Professor Bernard E. Rollin, University Distinguished Professor and University Bioethicist, Colorado State University

During the early years of my career in animal ethics, spanning the mid-1970s through the mid-1980s, I was concerned with an entrenched ideology, accepted virtually universally in the scientific community, and derived from a simplistic form of positivism, that affirmed that science was “value-free” in general, and “ethics-free” in particular, and that one could not meaningfully speak in science of consciousness, mentation, or even pain in animals, since claims about ethics or consciousness could not be empirically verified.

In practical terms, this meant that scientists were absolved of moral concern arising from inflicting pain, distress, and other noxious states on animals. A literature search on “analgesia for laboratory animals,” conducted in 1982, turned up not a single reference in the scientific literature, nor was this augmented when the search was broadened to “analgesia for animals.”

A law my colleagues and I proposed at the time, and which was passed by the U.S. Congress in 1985, required the use of analgesia under any research circumstances involving the infliction of pain on animals. U.S. Federal law was strong enough to dethrone ideology, and thus one doing a similar literature search today would find more than 11,000 papers and a correlative increase in the use of analgesics.

The above-mentioned law, while applying across-the-board to biomedical science, does not regulate either agricultural practice or agricultural science. As a result, pain and its control in animal agriculture have not been the subject of a great deal of investigation in the U.S.

It is unquestionable, however, that there are more and less painful methods of killing animals. In antiquity, there were few options for slaughter, and kosher slaughter, involving cutting a blood vessel with a sharp knife and allowing for death via exsanguination, was clearly a more humane method than bludgeoning an animal to death.

On the other hand, kosher slaughter and the time and care required to do it properly are clearly incompatible with today’s high-speed, high-throughput processing plants. That is why secular slaughter begins with stunning of the animal, in order to immediately eliminate consciousness, and thereby eliminate pain and distress.

As concern with animal ethics continues to grow across the Western world, the public will demand ever-increasing certainty that animals killed for food do not suffer. This will in turn drive research into more sophisticated, more certain methods of assuring immediate loss of consciousness during the process of slaughter.

Professor Howard Brasted, Professor of history in the School of Humanities, specialising in Islamic History, University of New England

The starting point in the Koran [Quran] is that animals should be killed without pain and undue stress. But we could see in the ABC’s Four Corners footage that these animals were utterly terrified. That doesn’t mean to say that those scenes are characteristic of halal or kosher ritual slaughter practices around the world.

The framework in which one should analyse these things is the framework of Islamic or Jewish belief. In the case of Muslims, they can only eat meat that has been killed in accordance with Sharia law – the set of divinely inspired principles underpinning the way Muslims are commanded to conduct their lives. There are strict rules, for example, to ensure that animals are ritually killed for human consumption as humanely as possible.

Presumably, these rules are followed in the dozen or so accredited Australian abattoirs where animals are currently killed for the halal and kosher markets without stunning them beforehand. From the graphic evidence provided in the Four Corners expose, the Indonesian abattoirs that were focused on clearly honoured these rules in the breach.

For many Muslims, killing animals with a very sharp knife cut across the throat in one swift blow was ordained by God and is a practice that has been followed unchallenged for 1200 years or so. There were no stun guns, of course, in 7th century Arabia. But in the 21st century, unchanging religious traditions are beginning to be seriously questioned in the light of non-religiously based ethical beliefs and standards. In a multicultural country like Australia, it will be interesting to see which set of values ultimately prevails.

If one were to see the issue essentially and entirely in terms of animal welfare, then the world would sooner or later be placed under pressure to become strictly vegetarian. For the question must be asked just how ‘humane’ is the killing of animals via the process of stunning them or otherwise anyway.

Australia, unlike New Zealand, adopts the regulatory view that the ritual slaughter of animals is OK where proper procedures are followed. Presumably, if these procedures were also to be acceptably followed in Indonesia, the Australian federal government would logically have to remove its temporary ban on the export of live cattle to that country.

Of course, the issue might be defused (or would it?) if the ritual killing of animals by Muslims and Jews was preceded by the practice of stunning them first as well. Up to now, Muslim law would not countenance pre-stunning. But there are a few signs that the hardline opposition to pre-stunning may be changing – provided that the key religious rites are observed - if the recent statements of Masood Khawaja, President of the Halal Food Authority of the UK, are any indication.

Professor Peter Singer, Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University and Laureate Professor, Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics, The University of Melbourne

The first point to make is that, for the overwhelming majority of human beings, eating meat is not necessary. We have other ways of nourishing ourselves. This is especially true in developed countries, where we can walk into a supermarket and find a wide range of healthy alternatives to meat. In these circumstances, meat is a luxury, not a necessity.

Given this fact, if we are going to eat meat at all, we should at least eat meat from animals who have led decent lives and been killed in the most humane manner possible.

To cut the throat of a fully conscious animal is not the most humane way of killing an animal.

I therefore do not consider ritual slaughter without stunning acceptable, and since meat is not a necessity, I do not consider that a ban on ritual slaughter violates anyone’s right to practise his or her religion.

If someone objects to eating meat that has not been ritually slaughtered, he or she has the option of not eating meat (an option, I might mention, that I have myself followed for the past 40 years).

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