The Mail went undercover at an abattoir to find the truth
By DANNY PENMAN 11/10/11
A few hours before dawn, and even through the inky blackness it is clear this is no ordinary warehouse. Outside the building, gusts of wind send hay and straw flying, and the air is thick with the acrid sent of manure.
Despite the darkness, I can see blood trickling down the gutters and a group of men clutching knives. Every so often, the eerie scene is punctured by the sound of lambs bleating.
I am standing outside one of Britain’s abattoirs. To the casual observer, it is no different to any other slaughterhouse, though it’s strange to find one so close to a city centre that it’s within walking distance of Birmingham’s branch of Harvey Nichols.
Slaughter house: Halal methods being used in the Mr Meats abattoir, secretly filmed by Danny Penman
I have visited several abattoirs for research purposes over the years, and by their very nature they’re noisy and messy places, with vats of blood and entrails.
The main difference here, though, is that this abattoir produces halal meat, in accordance with strict Islamic guidelines. Put simply, this means the animals killed here are not stunned with an electrical current — as they are at conventional slaughterhouses — to render them unconscious before they are dispatched.
Instead, they are fully conscious as their throats are slit by a slaughterman as he utters prayers to Allah to ‘bless’ the animal. The creature then bleeds to death in a process that can take more than 30 seconds.
Killing an animal by cutting its throat without stunning is, in fact, illegal in this country. However, there is a legal loophole allowing this if it is being done for religious reasons — in other words, for the production of halal or kosher meat.
But this is an exemption that the British Veterinary Association and the Government’s advisers, the Farm Animal Welfare Council, are objecting to, saying this form of slaughter causes ‘intolerable cruelty’. They have repeatedly demanded that it be banned.
For their part, many Muslims claim it is their religious duty to eat only halal meat from unstunned animals. It is vital, they say, that the animal be slaughtered while fully conscious so it can receive Allah’s blessing.
Yet recent reports have suggested that it is not just devout Muslims who are consuming halal meat. Two months ago, it was revealed that supermarkets such as Waitrose and Tesco, fast food chains including McDonald’s, schools, hospitals, pubs and famous sporting venues such as Ascot and Wembley are serving up halal meat to unwitting customers.
So where does halal meat come from, and what is the truth behind its burgeoning use?
According to the World Halal Forum, which promotes halal and is holding its European conference in London, there are two million consumers in Britain.
Until now, it has been difficult to ascertain facts. Halal meat producers have consistently rejected requests to show journalists around their British abattoirs and factories.
When I applied to be shown around a number of halal slaughterhouses, calls went unreturned and messages unanswered for weeks.
So I decided to go undercover, posing as a potential buyer of halal meat for a fictional chain of high-quality ‘bespoke meats’. After four weeks, I finally managed to find an abattoir willing to show me the entire production process — from ‘squeals to meals’.
Increasing demand: It is estimated that more than 100 million animals are slaughtered each year in the UK – and demand is growing
Once I had outlined my fictional business proposal, a Birmingham-based company called Mr Meats agreed to show me around its abattoir. The owner, Masti Khan, was unfailingly polite and eager to please.
Mr Meats slaughters around 1,000 animals a night, mostly sheep and goats, but occasionally cattle, too.
When I step inside, the first thing that hits me is the overpowering stench — a nasty, fatty smell that sticks in the throat.
And then there’s the noise of machinery, interspersed with bleating animals and the slaughtermen uttering prayers.
Hundreds of sheep and lambs are penned up in tiny stalls. From time to time, one tries — and fails — to escape by leaping over the bars of its pen. But then the same would be true of any abattoir.
It is only when it comes to the actual slaughter that the differences become apparent. I watch — and secretly film — as the animals are herded onto a conveyor belt that leads them to the slaughterman, who is wearing a blue hairnet over his hair and beard in accordance with hygiene requirements.
Grabbing one lamb at a time, he pulls back its head and slits the throat with a swift movement from his razor-sharp knife.
Blood gushes everywhere as he recites the Islamic Bismillah prayer in Arabic: ‘In the name of Allah, the most gracious, the most merciful.’
One of the supervisors, who oversees the firm’s 50 or so largely Muslim employees, explains to me the religious principle behind this process.
‘Animals that are stunned are not halal. An animal that is unconscious is not going to listen to the prayer.
‘In the Holy Book, it says that the animal should listen to the prayers of Allah. If it’s unconscious, then it won’t be able to do that.’
Though the deep incision to the neck cuts through the animal’s windpipe and main arteries, the creatures are still able to cry out.
During my two-hour visit, I watch as lamb after lamb has its throat sliced open while fully conscious. They make pitiful bleating and gurgling sounds as they choke on their own blood. It’s a chilling sound that, once heard, stays with you for days afterwards.
And then there’s the fact that the animals can witness each other being killed as they travel along the conveyor belt. Their hooves twitch wildly as they try to break fee.
One lamb cries out for more than 20 seconds before it flops off the end of the conveyor belt and on to a rotating table. From there, it is shackled by its hind legs and hauled up to the ceiling on a hook, where it is left with a dozen others to ‘bleed out’ — another important part of the halal process.
Of course, no slaughter of an animal is easy to watch. But it is hard to remain dispassionate as I watch dozens of still-conscious animals bleeding to death, the floor covered by an inch of warm, frothy blood.
I find myself siding with the British Veterinary Association in its claim that the process is more inhumane than conventional stunned slaughter. Surely it would cause less suffering for the animals to be stunned first.
That is not to say that conventional abattoirs operate without fault. Earlier this year, I investigated an organic slaughterhouse, certified by the Soil Association, that had been secretly filmed by the welfare group Animal Aid.
Inside, the staff were caught beating animals and failing to stun them before cutting their throats.
Steve McGrath, chief executive of the Meat Hygiene Service, later said: ‘I have watched the film and have seen abject cruelty by the slaughtermen to the animals being killed; ineffective stunning; animals having their necks dislocated and heads decapitated before being fully bled; pigs being kicked; and shackling before stunning.’
Similar problems were found in every one of the seven slaughterhouses that Animal Aid secretly filmed, despite the presence of Government appointed vets. At least in this halal abattoir, I do not witness any deliberate mistreatment.
Cost cutting: The European Parliament has attempted to force the food industry to to label halal meat as coming from ‘unstunned’ animals but the legislation faces an uphill struggle
It is impossible to find out how many animals are killed in halal abattoirs. The last Labour administration ordered the Meat Hygiene Service to stop keeping records.
It was ostensibly a cost-cutting measure, but animal welfare groups fear it was to help disguise the rapid growth of the halal meat industry.
However, the last available figures, from 2004, suggest that 114 million halal animals and 2.1 million kosher ones are killed annually.
However, some halal producers — aware of the controversy that ritual slaughter can provoke — do stun their animals first, causing huge tensions within the Muslim community over the interpretation of what is, and isn’t, halal meat.
Some organisations, such as the Halal Monitoring Committee, post inspectors inside abattoirs, including Mr Meats, to ensure that animals are not stunned before their throats are cut.
Other organisations, however, say that stunning is acceptable. Nizar Boga, an Islamic scholar and former adviser on dietary issues at the London Central Mosque, says: ‘The Prophet told us about the need to care for animals, especially during slaughter. It’s absolutely forbidden in Islam for an animal to be aware of death during slaughter.
‘Organisations like the Halal Monitoring Committee are frightening decent Muslims for their own ends. They are making money from this.
‘Their interpretation of Islam on this issue is simply wrong. All of the top Muslim scholars around the world agree on this. Muslims have to respect animals.’
Either way, keeping track of what meat has or hasn’t come from stunned animals is hard to monitor, causing huge difficulties for British consumers of all faiths who would prefer to buy meat from animals that have been killed using the more humane method of slaughter.
This is increasingly important now that most leading supermarkets, including Tesco and Asda, sell halal meat. Tesco, for example, launched a halal barbecue range this summer and reported strong sales. So which method of slaughter do the supermarket giants use?
A spokesman for Tesco says: ‘Pre-stunned meat produced to halal standards conforms to all our stringent hygiene and animal welfare standards.’
For their part, Morrisons says that ‘all of our fresh meat is 100 per cent British and non-halal. Only our frozen New Zealand lamb is halal.’
As for Asda, the supermarket says its policy is ‘that all animals used for Asda brand products, halal or non-halal, are stunned’.
But it turns out that is not quite the full story. I decided to visit five Asda stores in London that have specialist in store butcher’s shops, run as independent concessions operating under the name Haji Baba.
The stores in Hounslow, Colindale, Walthamstow, Beckton and the Isle of Dogs confirmed to me that the meat they sold was ‘authentically halal’.
‘The animals were not stunned,’ they said.
Though the store workers did not know the precise source of the meat, Masti Khan, the owner of Mr Meats, told me that he has supplied lamb to the five Asda stores I visited.
Confronted with my findings, Asda told me: ‘Haji Baba is an independent company. The method of slaughter is a matter for Haji Baba and their customers.
‘All Asda brand products are stunned. The abattoir that the Daily Mail filmed inside is not used for Asda branded products.’
The key point is that wherever the meat comes from, consumers should have a clearly labelled choice.
Yet given that there is no legal requirement to label whether meat comes from stunned or unstunned animals, the chances are you’ve already eaten halal killed in the way I witnessed — or soon will do.
In Europe, pressure is building to standardise slaughtering practices to ensure that the majority of all animals are killed without stunning.
In France, for example, 80 per cent of all sheep are killed without stunning, and almost all animals in Belgium are bled to death while fully conscious.
And this process is beginning to accelerate in Britain, too. Consumer and animal welfare groups claim this is illegal because the exemption from animal welfare laws granted to Muslims and Jews is being extended across the whole meat industry, purely to cut costs.
‘This is no longer about religion,’ says Peter Stevenson of Compassion In World Farming.
‘The exemption in the law was not granted to the food industry to streamline its production processes and make life easier for itself — but that is what it has become.
‘We are not opposed to halal as long as the animals are stunned before they are killed.’
In June, the European Parliament decided to try to force the food industry to label halal and kosher meat as coming from ‘unstunned animals’.
The legislation faces an uphill struggle, as all EU member states will have to approve the legislation before it can become law.
James Paice, minister of state at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, says that, in principle, the Government supports labelling.
Last week, he told the House of Commons: ‘This is a highly emotive issue, and I understand the demand for labelling.
‘The Government would like all animals to be properly stunned before they are bled to slaughter. There is a discussion at European level about food information regulations, but we do not believe that is the right vehicle.
‘Next year, we will consult on implementation of the European animal welfare regulations, and the labelling issue will certainly be examined as part of that.’
Whatever your beliefs on the rights and wrongs of religious slaughter, surely we should all welcome the choice over whether we buy such meat.
But unless labelling laws are tightened, we may soon lose that choice, just as they have in many European countries.
Support for clear labelling of unstunned halal meat also comes from an unlikely source.
When I confronted Masti Khan, owner of Mr Meats slaughterhouse, after my visit, he said: ‘Consumers should be given the choice. I have nothing to hide.
‘This is a multi-racial country, and people have different religions. It’s wrong for supermarkets not to clearly label meat as coming from animals that have not been pre-stunned.’