As members of the House of Lords enjoy their summer recess, they may pause to reflect on the terms of the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill that continues to wend its way through parliament. The Bill seeks to recognise that animals have feelings, including joy, as well as pain and suffering. It promises to introduce the highest standards of animal welfare. During a committee stage debate in June in the upper House, some peers questioned why sentience had not been clearly defined in the bill, while others insisted that invertebrates, such as lobsters, crabs and squid, should be regarded as sentient beings, with tough new welfare proposals on the way they are stored, transported and killed.

But as always, one of the most contentious aspects of the bill is the question of religious slaughter. The EU exempted religious rites, cultural traditions and regional heritage from legislation covering the slaughter of animals and that now has to be debated within the context of post-Brexit British animal welfare law. As a Member of the European Parliament I was heavily involved in the drafting of EU animal welfare legislation. The question of pre-stunning of animals prior to slaughter ignited fire and fury across the parliamentary chamber in Strasbourg, with the shechita and halal lobbies, representing traditional Jewish and Islamic methods of slaughter, ultimately winning the right to continue the practice on religious grounds.

The shechita method of slaughter involves severing the trachea, the jugular veins, the oesophagus and the carotid arteries in one swift cut with a razor-sharp knife. It is claimed that this method of killing a vertebrate animal is both painless and humane. Under Jewish religious law, the animal must be in good health and uninjured before slaughter, which means that it cannot be pre-stunned. The Jewish community argue that this is far less cruel than pre-stunning, which, they claim, can often involve ‘mis-stunning’ causing terrible animal distress. Halal slaughter follows broadly similar practice as shechita, although some Muslims do accept pre-stunning, or stunning immediately following the throat being cut. The RSPCA say that “A large cut made across the neck of a conscious animal would result in very significant pain and distress before the animal loses consciousness (around 5 to 7 seconds for sheep, 22 to 40 seconds for adult cattle)”. Pre-stunning before slaughter, on the other hand,  renders the animal insensible to pain until death supervenes.

The Food Standards Agency (FSA) say that 58 percent of certified halal meat in England and Wales is from animals stunned before slaughter. EU legislation is interpreted in different ways across the 27 Member States. Last year, the European Court of Justice upheld a total Belgian ban on the Jewish and Muslim practice of slaughter without stunning. Luxembourg claims that it has no religious slaughter as there is no demand for kosher or halal meat. Germany only allows shechita and halal slaughter for meat consumed by local communities. It cannot be exported. Swedish law requires all animals to be stunned prior to slaughter.

As a farmer and politician, I visited abattoirs on many occasions and witnessed pre-stunning conducted hundreds of times. I never once saw an incident involving so-called ‘mis-stunning’. The animals must be properly restrained and stunned by skilled and trained operators in the presence of a qualified vet and mis-stunning is therefore highly unlikely. UK abattoirs are fitted with CCTV surveillance to enable qualified vets to study any questions of poor welfare or misconduct. It is a well-trumpeted myth that 9% of all animals slaughtered by this method have been ‘mis-stunned’.

I have also seen religious slaughter conducted on many occasions and I vigorously disagree with the assertion that this type of slaughter is more humane than all other slaughter methods presently used in Europe. I have witnessed calves remain conscious for minutes following the severing of their main arteries and windpipe, where immediate clotting has taken place in the carotid arteries, maintaining blood pressure in the brain for minutes and thereby causing great visible suffering. I believe that the time has come to take firm action on this issue and the current Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill is the perfect vehicle for doing so. My sole interest is animal welfare, as I cannot tolerate cruelty of any kind and I urge the UK parliament to explore ways of pre-stunning that are acceptable to the religious communities for whom this matter is important. There must surely be ways in which religious sensitivities and stopping unnecessary suffering at slaughter can be combined?

Every year, more than 90 million UK farm animals are slaughtered without pre-stunning. The expert view is that many of them suffer unnecessarily. Many countries around the world have stopped this practice and more are continuing to do so. New Zealand is the world’s largest producer of halal slaughtered sheep meat, but has insisted that all animals are pre-stunned. Norway has followed suit and Switzerland insists on pre-stunning for everything apart from chickens. The UK must follow their example, especially as it is rumoured that 90% of meat in many UK restaurants, hotels and supermarkets is in fact halal. Many major sports stadia and even schools and hospitals, serve only halal meat, to save them the trouble of separating halal from the other meats. Similarly, the Jewish community only eat the front-quarters of any animal slaughtered by the shichita method. The rest of the animal, from the diaphragm back, is sold into the general food chain, but again the public have no way of knowing if they are buying meat from an animal that was slaughtered in this way.

Britain is allegedly a country of animal lovers. We are also a nation that respects religious beliefs and practices. However, all animals must be treated humanely at the time of slaughter and that means pre-stunning is essential. Slaughter without pre-stunning is completely unacceptable and exemptions on religious or any other grounds should be repealed. The peers who are this summer considering the new Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill should surely decide that stunning animals before slaughter and avoiding unnecessary suffering is surely the least we owe these fellow sentient beings.