Following the recent horsemeat scandal that has swept across Europe, should Muslims be taking a closer look at halal meat and its journey from farm to fork?
Perhaps it’s time to think of alternatives to the meat industry. Two years ago my organisation, the Christian Muslim Forum, issued a halal statement, responding to another popular anxiety over unlabelled meat. The main thrust was that we need to know what we are eating.
One of the apparent reasons why halal (ritually slaughtered for Muslim consumption) meat is not always labelled ‘halal’ is because it is not tracked from pasture to plate. It may have begun as halal-slaughtered, but after that it enters the mainstream food chain and we now know that some mainstream ‘beef’ products have actually been 100 per cent horse! Therefore how could anything be labelled as ‘halal’, or the more pointed ‘slaughtered without stunning’ if we didn’t know what was in it? We are right to be concerned: what else might be in our food if we can’t trace the supply chain, which may even be circumvented by criminals? Once you ask that question, you won’t look at the meat on your plate in the same way ever again.
Sadly, despite these questions, there is a continuing anxiety about halal meat in the UK. As a vegetarian observer myself, there must be a relief in knowing that your halal burger actually came from a real cow. We also know that the halal consumer, whether in the high street or even in prison (a recent scandal revealed pork in halal prison food), is just as much at the mercy of the market as anyone else. Surely the issue of where our meat comes from, what is really on our plate, is a much bigger question than whether it is labelled ‘halal’?
I first became vegetarian because of dodgy meat. About 15 years ago my wife and I decided that improving our diet was really important. We faced the choice of eating organic meat or going vegetarian – there was too much worrying news about BSE, animal cruelty, pumping livestock with hormones and meat portions being injected with water. Vegetarian was the less expensive choice and we have enjoyed some great vegetarian recipes over the years. I still keep an eye out for over-processed food though. The other thing that being vegetarian has shown me is that processed food can have unexpected ingredients in it. As a result, I check desserts to make sure that they don’t have gelatine in them and think of Muslim friends when I see ‘pork gelatine’ on the label. As I work with Muslims I have to make sure that things are halal when ordering event catering or organizing a working lunch. I’ve lost count of the number of times when I have despaired that an apparently vegetarian choice, like carrot and orange soup from the supermarket, has been ‘contaminated’ because some bright spark has included chicken stock in the recipe.
Sadly, being vegetarian is still a minority lifestyle, but I am encouraged by the story of Daniel in the Bible, a religious role model for vegetarians. He was part of a group of Jewish exiles in Babylon and refused to eat the dodgy meat of his day (it had been sacrificed to idols), requesting a healthy diet of pulses. The results of this diet for Daniel and his friends were striking: ‘At the end of the ten days they looked healthier and better nourished than any of the young men who ate the royal food’ (Daniel 1.15).
There are deep questions to be asked of the meat industry and perhaps real halal – full traceability – has some answers. So too, of course, might vegetarianism: the ‘horse’ situation tells us that we are too much in love with cheap meat. Halal meat shares in the same difficulties and abuses as mainstream meat production and preparation. The market and the meat processing industry ‘flavours’ everything that goes through it. Traceability and non-mixing are essential, and if there is no guarantee that the whole process is halal, then halal-labelled meat can suffer the same problem as anything else. In the last few days we have heard of ‘halal’ chicken sausages containing pork DNA. I have joked with Muslim friends recently that the only real halal is veggie! But, once food has been processed who knows?
We all of us bear some responsibility for this situation. We have unrealistic expectations and these drive the market. Jesus said, ‘you can’t serve God and the market’, but we let the market serve us. Sometimes it responds by giving us what we want yet hiding how it has done so. Religion, interestingly, does like to know, because it says that people, and animals, are important. As religious people we should be concerned with how our animals are kept, and how they are they cared for? The Bible does not support mistreatment of animals. For those who continue to eat meat, eating organic or eating less of it can be a religiously-motivated decision.
Complex supply chains should not hide responsibility, or prevent us caring for our neighbours (in this case consumers), nor should it be criminal. As Christians and Muslims we want to be in touch with our neighbours and show love to them, not give them horse burgers disguised as beef. And as St Francis showed us horses, cows and sheep are our neighbours too. A proper halal food supply can offer better concern for the welfare of people and animals, as can vegetarianism, and organic meat production.
Image from: http://steelturman.typepad.com/.a/6a00d83451bab869e20147e14f2a56970b-pi
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