Brexit means Brexit, except I think we all now know that it doesn’t, apart from when it does. One area where Brexit actually does mean Brexit is in the laws that govern food production and that includes Shechita.
In the lead-up to the Brexit vote, I wrote in this newspaper and others that there seemed to be only one area of legislation that would directly affect our community when we finally exited the European Union. That was Shechita. Whilst we were still part of the EU, all our agriculture legislation was decided at an EU level. Any UK regulation was introduced via a Statutory Instrument, as for example, the Welfare of Animals at Time of Kill (2015) regulation, which ‘gold plated’ the European legislation for the UK and was introduced by the then Minister with little significant input from the Westminster Parliament or the Devolved Assemblies.
Therefore, as long as we had the support of the Government of the day, the derogation that allows religious communities to slaughter meat in their traditional way for their own food use, which was established in the 1930s, was safe. Brexit, however, has created a free for all and we are really going to have to fight to maintain our right to practice Shechita.
A huge amount of animal welfare legislation is making its way through Parliament for the first time in decades. Each Bill gives an opportunity for amendment after amendment on Shechita. Since Shechita UK was founded more than 20 years ago, we have mapped every MP and Peer who has expressed an interest in Shechita, whether they are a supporter or not. This has made it possible to accurately predict where opposition comes from and enables us to act to mitigate it. In 2020 it was the Agriculture Bill, where we worked incredibly hard to fend off amendments on exports and pejorative labelling. Lord Palmer was hugely supportive as amendments were seen off in the House of Lords.
Another area that is now open for the Westminster Government to look at is food labelling. This covers all aspects of the label including any information regarding how an animal has been killed. We are clear, whilst interested consumers are already able to access the information they require – either through hechsherim or other ‘farm assured’ schemes – we do not oppose labelling as long as it is fully completed, fair and not pejorative. The Government has launched a consultation on this subject and Shechita UK will be replying on behalf of the community.
This year, we have also worked with Baroness Deech and Lord Etherton to try and ensure that the Animal Sentience Bill passes without impacting us. Up until 31 January 2020 at 11:00 pm, Article 13 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union recognised animals as sentient beings. This Bill more or less mirrors that Treaty but has led to a huge amount of scrutiny on Shechita. We are grateful that we have so many supporters in both Houses, but we also have opposition who would like to see more regulation on the non-mechanically stunned sector of the animal slaughter industry.
The main difference between Shechita and industrial methods of slaughter is how the animal is stunned. Mechanical methods, which may include asphyxiation by gas, electrocution by tongs or water or shooting by free projectile or with a captive bolt gun, all cause pain on application. Many people are unaware that these methods were not introduced for animal welfare reasons but were, however, originally conceived by large scale factory abattoirs in order to speed up the process and to stop the animal thrashing around at the point of slaughter so that the production line could be moved on more quickly. By contrast, the Shechita process has to be accurate and methodical. Any animal or bird which is even slightly harmed prior to slaughter is not considered suitable for kosher consumption. Therefore, special care is taken to ensure that the animals are extremely well treated and calm ahead of slaughter, not only because it is mandated by Jewish law, but also because any other approach would make kosher meat production near to impossible. Our claims are all backed by leading scientists – both Jewish and non-Jewish – from universities including Cornell and Colorado State.
However, the law in this country is that non-mechanically stunned slaughter must be for the food use of religious communities and FSA data, however flawed it may be, suggests that 25% of the total lamb in this country is slaughtered using non-mechanical stunning methods, of this only 0.5% is slaughtered by the Shechita method. This has led to many Parliamentarians looking for ways to limit the quantity of non-mechanically stunned slaughter taking place each year. The suggestion, as trailed at Party Conference and then reported in last week’s Guardian, is a ‘Slaughter to Order’ system. This takes place in many European countries, including France, and means that there must be an order from a butcher or Shechita Board before a Shechita takes place. Due to the extra labour required to produce kosher meat, our community has always operated this type of system.
However, we are extremely aware that this is likely to lead to a lot of scrutiny on Shechita and many will see it as the start of a slippery slope of further regulation. We are now expecting further Government moves on this subject in the coming weeks and will liaise with the Shechita boards and butchers to ensure that any new legislation works for our community.
The Government has been at pains to explain that it wants to protect the community and continue to allow Shechita. We have good solid friends in Parliament, but even so we will not let up our efforts and will continue to work night and day and hold them to this promise. There is a battle ahead, we will need to work hard to protect Shechita.