LONDON // A trial involving the sale of halal poultry at dozens of outlets of a fast-food chain across Britain has left groups of Christians and Muslims embroiled in two very different controversies.
On one hand, non-Muslim groups are setting up internet petitions against KFC's move to sell halal-only products in the trial at 74 of its outlets across the country. On the other, Muslims themselves are questioning whether, in fact, the poultry being sold is truly halal. Adding to the confusion is a report in this week's Grocer magazine that claims that up to three-quarters of all poultry sold as halal in the UK is falsely labelled.
The controversy follows a row in France, where seven stores in the Quick chain of hamburger restaurants switched to selling only halal turkey burgers, sparking protests from non-Muslim French communities. Halal slaughter methods have long been controversial in the UK. Almost six years ago, the Farm Animal Welfare Council, an independent group of experts appointed to advise the government, called for both halal and kosher slaughtering to be banned immediately because of the suffering it caused to animals. The main reason cited by the council was that in both religious practices, the animals were not pre-stunned before being cut and bled to death. The government, fearing a backlash from Muslim and Jewish communities, ignored the report.
Both halal and kosher slaughterers have an exemption from the pre-stunning that is a legal requirement at UK abattoirs for all other livestock. However, the question of whether pre-stunning is allowed by Islam has become a hot topic of debate within the Muslim community in Britain. KFC admits that its poultry is pre-stunned, but says this is approved by the Halal Food Authority (HFA), which has certified all the stores in the current trial. Many Muslims, however, say the HFA's standards are not strict enough.
"We are pleased to say that there will be no compromise to our welfare standards," KFC says. "We continue to insist that our poultry is stunned before slaughter, using a technique called 'stun-to-stun'." However, according to this week's Asian Image newspaper, the fast-food chain has been summoned to a meeting with the Lancashire Council of Mosques (LCM) after it was "inundated" with calls from Muslims asking how halal KFC's halal really was.
"This issue is of great concern to us because the halal criterion, adopted by LCM after wide consultation, does not allow stunning and this conforms to British law," the council said in a statement. "We are concerned whether there is a thorough certification process in place throughout the supply chain of KFC and whether the independent monitoring mechanism is effective." Until the meeting with the company takes place, the council "recommends the Muslim community to exercise caution and remain vigilant".
Meanwhile, many non-Muslims appear unhappy that their local KFC is no longer producing the finger lickin' stuff they are used to. By yesterday, more than 1,500 people had supported one of the petitions on Facebook opposing the "halal only" trial at the outlet in Colne, Lancashire, which has a large Muslim population. One local told the Burnley Express newspaper: "I think to have halal forced on us and to not have a choice is wrong. They are saying the food is blessed, but that is not my religion. They have also taken out all their pork and bacon products. Surely, this is discriminating against people who do eat pig in this country."
Then, last weekend, the new edition of Grocer magazine added a fresh ingredient to the controversy with the claim that the majority of halal-labelled poultry was not in fact halal because it was slaughtered by machine, rather than an individual. Naved Syed, of the English Beef and Lamb Executive's halal steering group, told the magazine the meat was being passed off as halal because the slaughter method was not usually printed on labels.
"If you told Muslims it was done by a machine, they wouldn't buy it," Mr Syed said. "Practically all imams in this country have said that machine killing is not halal. Otherwise, there's no difference between halal and non-halal." The UK does not have a single standard for halal slaughter. Many Muslim countries have outlawed the practice after the internationally recognised, Malaysian Halal Standard MS 1500 removed machine slaughtering as an acceptable practice last year.
Last week, the Birmingham Council of Mosques said it did not accept machine slaughter. Zahid Hussain, the chairman of the processing company Cappoquin Poultry, said: "Machine slaughter is definitely not a lawful condition of halal. You have to have a manual slaughter and also each bird needs to be blessed." Mr Syed said his organisation was carrying out consumer research into attitudes towards halal production, covering such topics as the growth of the Muslim population in England, the demand for halal products, the supply chain and changing consumption trends.