Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Assurance scheme will deliver clear labelling on Halal sheep meat

Consumers want clarity on the red meat they are buying. Clear labelling can help them make informed choices. For their part, processors and producers know that being associated with an assurance scheme can help promotion and sales while generally raising standards, where necessary. This is true whether your product is destined for the mass market or more targeted ones like, for instance, the Muslim consumer.

So it is heartening, though no great surprise, that the proposals for an assurance scheme for the Halal sector were so widely supported when they were unveiled at EBLEX’s first Halal Forum last week. The Warwickshire event saw more than 60 representatives of Halal businesses and other interested parties come together to have a first discussion around proposals EBLEX has laid on the table about how an assurance scheme might look. They also saw a new religious slaughter education film, as well as received information on promoting healthy eating in the sector and new consumer research.

When the delegates were asked if they would use a Halal assurance scheme, 95 per cent (as measured at the time with an electronic voting system) said they would. However, this is the start of a process, not the end, and there is a lot of detail yet to sort out to ensure it is workable and acceptable to all concerned.

The proposed scheme in its current form actually recommends two separated sides: one for the stunned and one for the non-stunned Halal supply chain. There will be common elements but then will need to be specific standards and specifications for stunned slaughter, covering stun levels, testing of equipment etc. For non-stun, there are fewer variables.

The humane slaughter of cattle and sheep is currently governed by EU law and enforced in every abattoir in England by the Food Standards Agency (FSA) under The Welfare of Animals (Slaughter or Killing) Regulations 1995, also referred to as WASK.

EU legislation permits member states to allow an exemption in the case of slaughter of animals without prior stunning for religious reasons and this includes both Shechita (for Jewish consumers) and non-stun Halal. If an exemption is made for slaughter by religious method, it falls outside the normal guidelines for stunning and bleeding.

Stunned Halal using recoverable head-only stunning is recognised both by the FSA and some, but not all, religious groups as a Halal process/product. And this is where much of the debate within the Muslim community resides and where the detail of any assurance scheme may take some time to pin down. Supporters of non-stun say stunned slaughter is not truly Halal because it cannot be proved that the animal is alive at the point of slaughter as it is unconscious.

One point that was made and it is interesting to note, is that in New Zealand, all Halal sheep meat is stunned pre-slaughter. Every so often, they will remove a stunned lamb from the line and allow it to recover to prove that the stun is recoverable – the animal is alive and so the equipment is calibrated as it should be. In the UK, we are not allowed to do this as it contravenes animal welfare regulations – effectively it is considered animal experimentation.

Ultimately, an assurance scheme for Halal red meat is something that consumers are calling for as it will include clear labelling so they can make informed choices: do they want stunned Halal, non-stunned Halal or not Halal at all. Labelling associated with a scheme will give clarity and transparency on this. It is also supported by the Halal supply chain, which can see the benefits of a scheme that demonstrates that high standards are maintained.

A three-month consultation on the proposals is now underway. After that, the responses will be carefully examined and any changes made before a revised scheme is brought back before a second forum meeting next year. While implementation of a scheme may still be some way off, hopefully we are now on the road to something which will end up being of true value for consumers and the supply chain alike.