Think this is all a fuss over nothing? Just look at Belgium

Cow sits in a field (Jewish News)
Cow sits in a field (Jewish News)

Over the last few months, the news agenda has been dominated by COVID-19. Nevertheless, behind the scenes, many of the issues posed by Brexit continue to cause challenges to our community, not least the future of Shechita.

These last weeks have seen increased scrutiny for Shechita as the Agriculture Bill works its way through Parliament. Shechita UK is working hard to guarantee our ability to continue to shecht in the UK.

This is vital to ensure the unbroken supply of Kosher meat to our community.

Those who believe this is all a fuss over nothing need only look at Belgium. Two regions instituted a ban on Shechita, forcing the Belgian community to rely solely on imports. During the pandemic, with travel restricted and quarantine measures enforced, shortages of supply from neighbouring countries left parts of the Belgian community without Kosher meat.

Here in the UK, there are three main challenges to domestic Shechita at this point in time; legislative changes, the Government’s commitment to a full review of all types of food labelling later this year – both due to Brexit – and the statutory review of the Secondary Legislation that governs all aspects of the Shechita process.

Brexit has meant that all primary legislation has had to move on to the UK’s statute books. Until now, agriculture legislation had been devolved to the European Union; meaning that Shechita was effectively governed from Europe. Since the Brexit vote in 2016, Shechita UK has been working tirelessly with the Government, politicians and officials, to ensure that any new legislation will not affect our meat supply.

Those who follow proceedings in Westminster closely would have noticed a series of amendments to the Agriculture Bill 2019-21 that, if passed, could have impacted Shechita. The Ag Bill, as it is commonly known, is a Government Bill that is updating and moving a large amount of EU law on to the UK statute book.

The Government has given us assurances that there is no intention to impact Shechita. Nonetheless, as this type of law passes through Parliament, it has drawn the attention of anti-Shechita campaigners who have tried through amendments to effect a series of changes to restrict Shechita.

These have included attempts to introduce stigmatisation through a one-dimensional and pejorative method of slaughter labelling, changes to tariffs and licensing and export bans.

By working hard to brief a number of Members of the House of Commons, we have been successful in ensuring no such amendments were included when the Bill passed through the Commons. The Bill is now working through the House of Lords.  In the last week, the Bill has been at its Committee Stage.

Two amendments were discussed that sought to introduce slaughter labelling.

We are grateful to a number of Peers, most notably Lords Leigh and Palmer, Baronesses Ludford, Deech and Altmann, who have all supported our position. Together with them, we are working to ensure that these amendments that would negatively affect Shechita will not be passed.

Our position on labelling is clear.  As it should be considering we have the oldest system of food security through labelling in the world. We have always fully supported the idea that consumers have every right to know what they are eating.

However, it is also important to make a distinction between even-handed, non-discriminatory labelling and proposals that may mislead consumers by giving the false impression that animals killed in one way or another will somehow not experience discomfort or that there is a readily agreed hierarchy for assessing the feelings of animals about to be killed.

Therefore, any new mandated label must cover all types of animal slaughter so as not to discriminate against any one particular method. It is important to note that consumers can already access information, should they really want it, via existing labelling, with kosher or halal meat marked as such, while meat from mechanically stunned animals is covered by labelling schemes such as Red Tractor.

During the Final Stages of the Ag Bill’s consideration in the House of Commons earlier this year, the Government expressed its commitment to a thorough consultation on food labelling at the end of the transition period. Brexit meant that, for the first time in a generation, the UK Government is starting with a clean slate when it comes to all types of food labelling.

We do not expect that the consultation will target Shechita per se, as it is likely to look at aspects including nutritional values as well as farming methods and slaughter processes. However, now that the review has been confirmed, we must prepare to fight our corner in our response to the consultation that will be launched later this year.

The third area of our focus here in the UK will be the Welfare of Animals at the Time of Killing (WATOK) regulation that is due for its statutory review this year. WATOK is a UK Statutory Instrument that governs all aspects of the Shechita process.

For the sake of brevity, I will hold back on the complexities of how the WATOK regulations interact with EU Directive 1099 that acts as the primary legislation and will be coming down on to the UK statue book by means of the so-called ‘Grand Repeal Bill’.

However, we have already been through a pre-consultation and are in regular contact with policy makers about next steps. It is highly likely that a formal consultation will be around the corner in the autumn.

Whilst we have regular constructive conversations with the Government as well as ministers and officials at DEFRA we recognise that, George Eustice, the Secretary of State for DEFRA, has openly criticised the Shechita process and remarked that “major improvements” could be implemented. We will have to be alert and will certainly have our work cut out in the coming months.

It would be remiss of any article looking at the current state of affairs and not discuss the ban on Shechita in the Flanders and Wallonia regions of Belgium, that I referred to earlier.

The European Court of Justice has heard the Belgian Jewish community’s appeal against those bans and we anxiously await the Court’s decision, which is expected later in the year.

Even post-Brexit, this decision will be extremely relevant as it sets the only precedent from a Tier 1 democracy as to whether a ban on Shechita impacts on our community’s human rights. The Belgian community is broadly pleased with how their arguments were presented and we hope and pray the decision will go our way.

The coming months are key to the future of Shechita, in the UK and across Europe. An outright ban here remains extremely unlikely, but we will need to work hard to make sure that we continue to operate in an open and free regulatory environment.


About the Author
Shimon Cohen is the founder and chairman of The PR Office a Public Relations Consultancy that specialises in the Jewish community and non-profit sector. He is the Campaign Director of Shechita UK
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