Rethinking consumption: slaughter and ethics in the British halal meat industry
In a society where meat is simultaneously the crowning delight of special occasions and a more-than-daily indulgence, there is much scope to reflect upon our relationship with animal consumption and slaughter. The application of halal to this topic opens up a particularly ‘meaty’ (pun intended) set of debates around religious authority, environmental responsibility and ethics. Worth $150 billion a year worldwide and accounting for an increasing proportion of British meat, the halal meat industry demands attention. It certainly receives this attention in the UK, most of it unfavourable, in parliamentary debates, newspaper headlines and boycott campaigns. The British halal meat market is characterised by certain trends, some of which are being offset by emergent themes of demand for traceability and ethical consciousness.
The first point to note about the British halal industry is its sheer scale of consumption. According to a report by a meat industry body, Muslims in the UK consume 20% of the country’s lamb despite being less than 5% of the population. Meat has become a daily fixture, and even multiple daily fixture, for many British Muslims.
Why is this consumption so high? The answer may lie in how the wider meat industry conditions consumers to reflect as little as possible on animal slaughter. We are disconnected from animal death, just as we are disconnected from the production of most of the commodities we consume. This is manifested both in the physical separation of abattoirs from the public eye, hidden away in isolated locations and the figurative separation of the animal death, where the animal becomes almost completely erased from the process of consumption. For example, the words that are employed in everyday language to describe meat distances it from its animal origins, such as the fact that meat from cows is labelled ‘beef’, which upholds a distinction between cows as animals and the aesthetic taste experience of beef. Therefore, the fact that we are encouraged not to think about animal death may contribute to the mass meat consumption we witness. It could be argued that halal slaughter encourages Muslims to reflect more on animal death due to the rulings regarding slaughter, but this is seemingly not reflected in the observed consumption patterns.
If distance from animal slaughter is what drives over-consumption, then surely it is an easy solution of simply educating consumers about the origins of their meat? The well-known saying that heads animal rights’ campaigns of ‘If slaughterhouses had glass walls, everyone would be vegetarians’ comes to mind here. However, the relationship between exposure to animal slaughter and meat consumption is not so simple. Firstly, it is important to acknowledge the fact that disconnection from animal slaughter is very much a feature of highly industrialised societies, and that many societies still operate with very close contact with this practice. One often hears tales of Eid-ul-Adha in lower-income countries, where the goat is brought home to live with the family a few days before Eid, where the children of the household play and become attached to the animal, before it mysteriously disappears on Eid morning and a fragrant curry is served up soon after. In such cases, it is commonplace for the members of the family to perform the slaughter themselves, and therefore access to slaughter does not necessarily moderate consumption. Moreover, in the UK and the US, there is an emerging trend of the romanticisation of slaughter, as a backlash against the disconnection of consumers from the origins of their food. This is observed through instances of celebrity chefs performing live slaughter on their cooking channels. Followers of this movement are drawn to live slaughter because it recalls more traditional and authentic animal husbandry. Exposure to animal death and its impact on meat consumption is therefore a puzzling issue.
Whilst the halal meat industry, and indeed the wider meat industry, is mainly characterised by a disconnection from the origins of its products, there is a growing demand to bridge this distance and witness traceability and transparency in the supply chain. This is partly due to food fraud incidents in recent years such as the horsemeat scandal, which have pressed consumers to demand traceability to assuage their anxiety about the food system. The increased push for traceability is also due increased ethical consciousness, which is a trend in a wider food system but is also gaining traction in the halal meat industry as consumers’, particularly younger consumers’, concerns for religious adherence intersect with their environmental and ethical concerns. Organic halal producers such as Willowbrook Organic Farm and Abraham Organics are part of this ethical movement that seek to re-incorporate the tayyib (or pure/wholesome) aspect into halal meat practices in the UK, yet such farms remain a negligible proportion of the overall market.
Given the level of meat consumption, and the environmentally destructive impact of the meat industry in terms of water usage, land degradation and pesticide use, it is necessary to rethink current practices of consumption. Producers and consumers in the British halal meat industry need to steer the conversation away from meeting demand to reducing demand. Indeed, proprietors of organic halal farms in the ethical movement continue to reiterate that their model of environmentally responsible rearing can never hope to meet the current appetite for halal in the UK, and therefore that we must seriously consider minimising consumption. In the Islamic tradition, the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh)’s practice, which Muslims seek to emulate, was to rarely eat meat and to follow a quasi-vegetarian diet.
Changing attitudes towards meat consumption and achieving dietary behaviour change is a challenging endeavour due to a number of reasons. One must first acknowledge that food choices are often not rational but highly personal and emotional, and thus difficult to change. Moreover, meat enjoys an entrenched centrality in festivities and hosting guests; guests are traditionally honoured with the most special dishes, which often tend to be meat-based. Another factor that will likely hinder dietary change is price, given that the ethical alternatives are much more expensive and that British Muslim communities are amongst the most financially disadvantaged in the UK. Therefore, in order to consume ethical halal meat products whilst maintaining their food spending budget, Muslim households would by default end up eating less meat.
In terms of future trends, we are likely to see more consumers using their voices to demand better quality, as is occurring in the ethical halal movement. This consumer empowerment may be accompanied by a small backlash of consumer passivity, as some may resent the responsibility being placed upon them to make ethical decisions, believing that it is producers’ responsibility to ensure welfare and quality. In addition, one future possible dilemma on the horizon of the industry is that of laboratory-grown meat, which is grown using animal tissue, and its Islamic permissibility. Laboratory-grown meat has a great potential environmental benefit in terms of reducing greenhouse gases, land use and water use. Although it is certainly not commercially viable at the moment (with one lab-grown meat burger being worth $300,000), it may become so in the future. Religious scholars have debated whether such meat would be kosher or halal, and opinion regarding this is still very much divided.
To conclude, the future of the British halal meat industry sets to be one of increasing consumption and there is a need to turn the conversation to reducing consumption, and to consuming less but better-quality meat. The intersection between religious practice and ethical consumption as mutually enforcing motivations, as well as deeper reflection on animal slaughter, will be crucial in order to effect more lasting consumption behaviour change.
 Bergeaud-Blackler, F. (2007) New challenges for Islamic ritual slaughter: a European perspective. Journal or Ethnic and Migration Studies, 33(6): 965–80.
 EBLEX, (2013) The Halal meat market: Specialist supply chain structures and consumption purchase and consumption profiles in England. Eblex, Kenilworth.
 Bhat, Z. F., Kumar, S. and Fayaz, H. (2015) Cultured meat — to what extent is it a viable alternative? Journal of Integrative Agriculture. 14(2): 241–248.