In order not to let the issue of animal welfare dry up on these pages too quickly, I’d like to add one more snapshot to the full picture of how the EU declares to care about animals and eventually, does nothing. The case of ritual slaughter, the most cruel practice used in the meat business, is the first and foremost example that the EU (although certainly ambitious in its goals) sometimes not only didn’t improve the lives of animals, but it also failed to prevent matters from getting worse.
Ritual slaughter is a technique of killing that is used to obtain kosher and halal meat. Such meat must be properly drained of blood, which is done by cutting the throat of a fully conscious animal, keeping it alive until it dies of exsanguination. To accelerate the process, cows are often turned upside down in revolving cages, what makes them choke on their own blood and gastric content. Contrary to what Jewish and Muslim leaders claim, during the process animals experience desperate panic accompanied by harrowing pain, all in the name of religious dogmatism.
Ritual slaughter, formally called “particular methods of slaughter prescribed by religious rites”, is permitted by EU law. Yet, the countries are free to adopt stricter rules, such as prohibiting religious slaughter completely. The only countries in Europe to have done so are Sweden, Norway and Switzerland, whereas, elsewhere in Europe it is practiced in a, more or less, regulated way. Several countries had banned ritual slaughter in the past, and few more, such as the Netherlands, recently made attempts to do so, but failed to resist the alliance of Jewish and Muslim minorities.
This proves that the EU is of no help to the cows, goats and sheep, which are unlucky enough to become victims of the barbaric, doctrinally motivated practices. And to make matters worse, the European legislation doesn’t even make sure to keep the situation as it is. I am ashamed to admit that my home country will probably be the first one to use the 1099/2009 Regulation on the protection of animals at the time of killing to put the bar lower and re-legalize ritual slaughter, which has previously been banned.
To put the things into context, the Polish Animal Protection Act has prohibited slaughter without prior ‘stunning’ since 2002. However, an exemption for ritual slaughter was granted by the Minister of agriculture in the way of a ministerial regulation. Based on that decision, slaughter without stunning was again presumed to be legal, despite the fact that a ministerial regulation ranks lower than an Act of Parliament in the Polish legal system. It took 8 years until the Polish constitutional court reviewed the case, as a result of the requests of animal rights’ activists.
In the meantime, Poland had been gradually climbing to become a dominant exporter of halal and kosher meat, mostly to Israel and other countries of the Middle East, but also Western Europe. According to the Polish meat lobby, in 2011, the export reached 200 000 tonnes of meat worth €1 billion. The cruel business grew to become an important source of income for the Polish farmers and a substantial part of the meat sector in Poland, the total of which was worth €10 billion.
Eventually, in November 2012, the Constitutional Tribunal ruled that the Animal Protection Act prevails over the regulation of the minister, and therefore, ritual slaughter is against the Constitution. Consequently, slaughter of animals without prior stunning has been prohibited from January this year.
Mindful about the interest of farmers, the government didn’t wait very long to alter the troublesome law. The Animal Protection Act was re-written to remove the requirement to make animals unconscious before they are killed, and was forwarded to the parliament on 12 May. As Prime Minister Donald Tusk said, “we shall remember, that we are not only dealing with protection of animals against excessive suffering, but also with tens of businesses and tens of employees”.
To do justice to him, he didn’t attempt to conceal his aversion to ritual slaughter, but effectively, he became hostage of his coalition partner, the Peasants’ Party, which advocates the practice that brings prosperity to many of its voters and, perhaps unsurprisingly, a few of its prominent MPs. The 1099/2009 Regulation comes as a handy excuse, letting the Polish government say that “all we’re doing is adopting the European law”.
The issue of the legal status of ritual slaughter is extremely controversial and complex. It stands at the intersection of EU law and national regulations; respect for religious freedom and animal protection; welfare of animals and economic interest of humans. The events in Poland show how powerless the EU is when confronted with the clamour raised by religious fundamentalists in defence of their atypical practices. But perhaps even more so, this example shows how simple, humane morality will surrender to business.