The British press has been a-buzz this past week as it was ‘revealed’ that several big supermarkets as well as restaurant chains including Pizza Express serve meat that could fit halal standards, the later without noting this on menus.
The supermarkets have since responded to the stories saying they sell meats to cater to all customer demands, but that certified halal was always clearly marked. Sainsburys told press that in the case of New Zealand lamb it was common practice for the animals to be blessed as they were killed, but they were always stunned before slaughter therefore could not be labelled as out-and-out halal.
Not necessarily illegal if the correct stunning procedure is used, this equates to a kind of ‘we didn’t lie, we just didn’t tell you’ argument, particularly in the case of Pizza Express.
Lie or omission, the media response has been amazing -a circus where all kinds of fears and misgivings have been played out.
On your left you have worries about the right to know what’s on your plate and how it came to be there, as well as, I think quite genuine, concerns around animal welfare. Look to your right and you’ll see something far trashier splashing the headlines.
‘Stealth’, ‘secret’, ‘hidden’ halal, the papers described it like some foodie Trojan horse sneaking onto the Great British Pizza Express menu by nightfall, hidden between our traditional Neapolitan and Carbonara. It doesn’t take much of a jump to make a point of xeno- or Islamophobia. And who needs to make the jump when it’s spelt out on the page?
“This is covert religious extremism and creeping Islamic fundamentalism making its way into Britain by the back door. It is completely wrong that the food sensitivities of Britain’s Muslims – who amount to just 4.8% of the population – should take precedence over the other 95%,” so said an article written by a Muslim Mail journalist. (I think they think its author makes this less offensive.)
I agree that we should know what we’re eating and meat labelling showing slaughter method, rearing conditions like free range or caged and origin information should be readily available to all consumers. We have the right to know and in the end this would encourage a more informed food culture amongst shoppers and a more accountable one amongst manufacturers and retailers.
But I think there’s another question here. How have Sun and Mail headlines (“Now halal sneaks into our schools: Parents angered by move by councils to ban pork sausages and bacon and replace them with ritually-slaughtered meat…”) like this cropped up? Xenophobia, Islamophobia, a media culture that scrambles for cheap clicks, yes, yes and yes. But in my view it is also a product of the dire need for standardised halal certification.
At best the coverage has been driven by a misunderstanding of what halal and kosher means, and what laws we have in place to govern them. Anyone curious enough to ask would be greeted by a myriad of different certification boards and member state interpretations.
A question of interpretation
Currently animals slaughtered in the EU must be stunned before they are killed, but member states reserve the right to grant exemptions to this on religious grounds. Denmark however revoked its own right to do this earlier this year, effectively making the slaughter practice illegal on its soil.
This opens the way for deviation perhaps, but the real confusion begins with certification. Food firms seeking halal certification can choose from a plethora of certification boards – some national, government bodies, while others are private boards and charities. All to my knowledge have Islamic scholars advising them, but interpretation can still vary I've been told.
If there was a tight, uniformed system in place there would be far less room for this public criticism. A report like this might crop up and it would go something like... Question: What do you have to do to be certified halal? Answer: X, Y and Z. Question: Is this food halal or not? Answer: Yes or No.
Instead, there is no single place to go to, and there is no conclusive response to be had.
As the story tends to go, when we don’t have clear answers the gaps are filled in with speculation and prejudice. Ignorance is the root and stem of all evil after all.
Unified food regulation, I’m afraid, probably can’t do much about Islamophobia or a culture of scandalising tabloids, but it could help create an arena for discussion whereby tantalising and ultimately unhelpful headlines are less likely.
That makes my job as a journalist harder, probably, but that’s okay by me.