The news that the Polish Government recently lost in the Sejm while attempting to introduce measures to protect the right of faith communities to carry out religious slaughter of animals for food (Shechita) has thrown up a range of interesting debates. Many have pointed to the weakness of the Prime Minister who could not command enough discipline in his own coalition, to push the measure through the parliament. Others have talked about the political intelligence of Law & Justice Party leader Jarosław Kaczyński, for spotting this opportunity to expose that weakness. Not surprisingly, a minority have already reached for the antisemitism card, cited Holocaust equivalence and made incessant references to the persecution of Jews by Poles over the years. Chabad-Lubavitch, a Jewish fringe group have even reacted to the news by blaming the Chief Rabbi of Poland for the outcome of the vote in a most bizarre and astonishing display of scapegoating.
Amongst all of this reaction and there has been a great deal, one fundamental topic has been conspicuous by its absence – few seem to have noticed that the one topic that should be dominating this debate has been largely overlooked.
Why are we not talking about animal welfare?
Anyone with any experience of Shechita, knows that the Shochet (slaughterman) undergoes years of intensive training. A perfectly clean and swift incision with a surgically sharp instrument (chalaf) severs the structures at the front of the neck – the trachea, oesophagus, carotid arteries and jugular veins. The speed and precision of the incision ensures the lack of stimulation of the severed structures and results in the immediate loss of consciousness; blood flow to the brain is completely halted. In addition, blood empties rapidly from the brain. Irreversible cessation of consciousness and insensibility to pain are achieved, providing the most effective stun in accordance with the EU definition of stunning which is ‘any intentionally induced process which causes loss of consciousness and sensibility without pain including any process resulting in instantaneous death’. There is no delay between the Shechita stun and subsequent death so the animal cannot regain consciousness, as can happen with conventional slaughter methods.
Conventional mechanical stunning by use of a captive bolt, gassing or electrocution (by electrified pincers for larger animals or a water bath with an electric current running through it for poultry) paralyse the animal and it is unable to display outward signs of feeling pain. However, it is quite impossible to know whether the conventionally stunned animal is feeling pain or not. However, the European Food Safety Authority reports that millions of animals each year are mis-stunned through faulty stunning equipment, or its misapplication to the animal which is why they have recently launched a comprehensive study on the efficacy of conventional mechanical stunning methods.
In Poland there is perhaps even more reason to raise the issue of animal welfare. According to AWARE, a European animal welfare research organisation, 94% of cattle and 91% pigs in Poland are kept on small farms where controls and assessment of animal welfare are problematic. Poland is divided into more than 3000 hunting districts which attract many thousands of tourists and Polish nationals alike who come to shoot live animals, killing them for pleasure and thrills. I think the Jewish community could be forgiven for thinking that if Poland wants to address the issue of animal welfare, shechita was not the place to start.
There is ample scientific evidence that the shechita method is at least as humane as conventional mechanical slaughter. Research in Europe and America, including by Dr Temple Grandin – one of the pre-eminent authorities in the field of animal welfare – have supported this view. It’s a debate that the Jewish community in Poland and elsewhere in Europe should win with no problem because the facts speak for themselves.
If only we were able to see past the political platitudes and the posturing, we might change the character of this debate for the better.