HFA featured in The Times

Chickens suffer from delay in halal stun reforms

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Millions of chickens may be suffering painful deaths because the government’s concern about “religious freedoms” has prompted it to delay the introduction of a more reliable form of stunning at slaughterhouses, according to vets.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has placed on hold rules that would require abattoirs to administer a more powerful electric shock to stun chickens before slaughter.

Research has suggested that the electric shock used by the halal industry may be too weak to ensure that chickens feel no pain while being killed. Halal producers are concerned that if the electric shock is too strong some chickens could die before their throats were cut, meaning that the meat could not be defined as halal.

Awal Fuseini, certification manger of the Halal Food Authority, said that chickens had to be capable of recovering from the stun in order for stunning to be consistent with halal principles. He said tests had not been carried out to show that a chicken could recover from the minimum level of stun proposed under the new rules.

Robin Hargreaves, president of the British Veterinary Association, called on Defra to explain the reasons for the delay in implementing the rules, including whether objections by halal producers had been a factor. He has written to George Eustice, the farming minister, seeking assurances that the delay in implementing the Welfare of Animals at the Time of Killing rules would not result in unnecessary suffering by chickens.

Mr Hargreaves said that abattoirs relied on visual checks that chickens had been stunned, but research suggested that some of those that appeared to be unconscious still had brain activity.

“If the current is too low the [chickens] may not be as unconscious as they ought to be and there is potential for suffering,” he wrote. Mr Hargreaves said there was a concern that some halal producers might stop stunning altogether if the government imposed a minimum standard for the strength of the electric shock.

However, he said it was important to set standards for stunning based on scientific research rather than failing to address the issue “because we fear upsetting groups and having a backlash”.

A spokesman for Defra said: “We respect the rights of religious communities to eat meat prepared according to their beliefs. After further consideration, we realised that our regulations might have unintended consequences in that they could limit religious freedoms.

“This is a complex area and we need to get it right.”

Defra did not respond when asked if it accepted that the rules it had declined to implement would improve animal welfare.

In a submission to Defra’s consultation on the new rules, the Muslim Council of Britain said: “When performed correctly the religious method of slaughter (without stunning) is at least as humane as the conventional (secular) method of slaughter. There is, however, considerable pressure on religious communities about the religious slaughter methods.

“There is paucity of literature on the relative [animal welfare] benefits of the different methods of stunning.”