Compulsory labelling of halal meat could be supported by the government if it is enforced by the European Union, a minister has said.
MPs have rejected an attempt to force shops, supermarkets and anywhere serving food to clearly label products containing halal or kosher meat. Jenny Willott, a Liberal Democrat minister, said the government will consider introducing a ban if a European study finds that there is “widespread demand” from customers. Her comments came after Philip Davies, a Conservative MP, tabled an amendment in the Commons for compulsory labelling of meat.
Conservative Philip Davies, who proposed the Commons debate, said there was a “huge public demand” to know more about where food came from.
But consumer affairs minister Jenny Willott said the government did not think regulation was the best approach. Mrs Willott said that while the government is not prepared to introduce compulsory labelling “at this stage”, it could do so in future.
Halal and kosher are terms describing foods permissible for Muslims and Jews.Religious leaders recently called for clearer labelling.
Mr Davies’ amendment to the Consumer Rights Bill failed by 264 votes.
‘What customers want’
The prime minister’s spokesman said last week that the government would review the labelling of halal meat if the food industry did not take action.
This followed five leading supermarkets saying that some of the meat they sell could qualify as halal but is not labelled as such.
Marks and Spencer, Tesco, Waitrose, Morrisons and the Co-op said their New Zealand lamb was halal, while Pizza Express had already revealed its chicken is killed according to Islamic tradition.
The supermarkets said the animals were stunned before being killed and the only difference from standard meat was that they were blessed as they are killed.
Speaking in the Commons, Mr Davies, who worked for Asda for 12 years, argued that ministers needed to go further now, saying: “As a strong believer in freedom of choice, I think one of the fundamental rights of the consumer is to know what they’re purchasing.”
He added the supermarkets “should be delivering what their customers want and there’s no doubt this is what customers want to see.”
Mr Davies said compulsory labelling would cover schools and hospitals.
He also quoted recent comments by Dr Taj Harjey, of the Muslim Educational Centre in Oxford, who said halal meat is “covert religious extremism and creeping Islamic fundamentalism making its way into Britain by the back door”.
He said: “As a strong believer in freedom of choice, I think one of the fundamental rights of the consumer is to know what they’re purchasing.
“And when I spent 12 years before I entered this House working for Asda, some of the supermarkets are reluctant to do anything about it.
“And the reason why, quite simply, is because it’s very inconvenient for them to go through the food chain to actually provide the labelling.
“It’s not about what’s most convenient for them. I don’t care about that. They should be delivering what their customers want and there’s no doubt this is what customers want to see.”
“At the heart of this debate is the suggestion that somehow halal and kosher meat is actually more painful for the animal… as opposed to the stunning method, even though we know 90% of the meat in this country is stunned anyway.”
“I am a bit concerned about the way this debate on halal and kosher has been taking place in the country and also some of the things said in the chamber as well”, said Labour MP Yasmin Qureshi.
Halal labelling could inflame prejudice, vets warn
Labelling meat as halal or kosher will do nothing to improve animal welfare but could cause confusion and inflame prejudice, vets have warned as they urge political party leaders not to allow the issue to be “hijacked”.
The British Veterinary Association (BVA) appealed instead for consumers to be informed whether or not animals had been stunned before being killed by whatever method, insisting the controversy had nothing to do with religion.
In an open letter to David Cameron, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg, BVA president and veterinary surgeon Robin Hargreaves called on them to “move the discussion away” from ritual slaughter.
‘Picking on religious’
Conservative Jonathan Djanogly questioned whether Mr Davies felt it was wrong to concentrate on religious slaughter with his proposal.
He asked him: “I support further labelling, but do you not think it’s wrong just to look at religious slaughter in isolation from other forms of slaughter… indeed labelling on how the animals actually lived in terms of housing, food and the drug consumption that they’ve had.
“Why are you just picking on religious communities with your amendment?”
For the government, Ms Willott said: “We want people to have the information they need to make informed choices about the food they buy. Many retailers or restaurants and fast food outlets already voluntarily provide information on whether meat is halal or kosher.
“This is a complex and very sensitive area. There is no single clear definition of halal meat.”
Mr Davies’ amendment was defeated by 281 votes to 17.