:: Commentary :: Organic Labeling: Reconciling Religious Freedom and Animal Welfare in the European Union

By Zahra Takhshid

Introduction

On February 2019, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) issued an opinion mandating the stunning of an animal before slaughter to satisfy the EU organic labeling.[1] The decision came after several European countries including Denmark, Belgium, Sweden, Norway, Iceland, and Slovenia, removed any religious exemption for animal slaughter without stunning.[2]

While this ECJ ruling does not place an absolute ban on the ritual slaughter in the EU, it will have significant impact on the Muslim and Jewish communities’ consumption of organic meat.[3] Both religions require the animal to be healthy at the time of slaughter.[4] However, what constitutes a healthy animal—and whether stunning the animal violates that mandate— differs between the two religions, and also within the various traditions of Islam.

It is crucial to understand the background of the ECJ’s decision. In 2012 a French animal welfare advocacy group (OABA) sent an application to the French Ministry of Agriculture calling, inter alia, for a ban on organic labeling titled “organic farming” issued for animal meat products slaughtered under religious rituals.[5] In France, “organic farming” indication can be used for products satisfying the requirements under EU law for organic production and the labeling of organic products.[6] Under the EU law, “[a]nimals shall only be killed after stunning,”[7] however “[i]n the case of animals subject to particular methods of slaughter prescribed by religious rites, the requirements of paragraph 1 [stunning the animal] shall not apply provided that the slaughter takes place in a slaughterhouse.”[8] There was no explicit indication of a mandatory method of slaughter in the EU regulation on organic production.[9]

When the French Minister of Agriculture and INAO (Institut national de l’origine et de la qualité) refused to prohibit the use of the “organic farming” logo for such products, the French association Œvre d’Assistance aux Bêtes d’Abattoir (OABA) launched a lawsuit against the French Minister and Bionoor–a halal beef producer who had received the organic label for their products– before the Conseil d’Etat (Council of State).[10] After a plea to  the administrative court of Montreuil of France,[11] and a dismissal from that court, OABA appealed the case to the Administrative Court of Appeal of Versailles. The court of appeal consequently asked the ECJ for an interpretation of the EU law on the organic framing label.[12]

The French Minister of Agriculture and Bionoor argued that OABA’s suit should be dismissed. They claimed, in part, that the current EU regulations do not explicitly preclude a religious exemption from the stunning mandate. Bionoor further argued that “there is no incompatibility, either at an EU law or national law level, between the certification ‘halal’ and the ‘organic farming’ indication, since a requirement that animals be slaughtered after first being stunned is tantamount to an additional condition which is not expressly provided for under positive law.”[13]

Rejecting these arguments, the Court held that the EU does not allow for organic labeling of animal meat slaughtered without stunning. According to the Court, although there is no explicit requirement for the method of stunning in the EU organic regulations,[14] the regulations cannot be read without reference to other EU regulations that prescribe the stunning as the chosen initial method of slaughter for promoting animal welfare.[15] It therefore held that the regulations “ [m]ust be interpreted as not authorizing the placing of the Organic logo of the EU on products derived from animals which have been slaughtered in accordance with religious rites without first being stunned, where such slaughter is conducted in accordance with the requirements laid down”[16] by the EU regulation that permit ritual slaughter as an exception.[17]

This essay relies on an Islamic perspective and proceeds as follows: The initial question is whether Islam can accommodate the new technologies as required by the EU ruling on organic labeling. Next, it will point to the effects of this decision on the everyday life of observant Muslims and Jews in the EU and argues that it leads to unfair market competition. It offers an alternative option to remedy the devastation of the religious minority meat produce buyers in the market. It concludes by a note on Islamophobia and anti-Semitism in the EU that provides a clearer picture of how the EU got here and the direction it is headed.

Section I

In Islam, the act of ritual slaughter is called zibh and the meat that is produced in accordance with the Islamic law is called “halal.” The Islamic food laws are derived from the holy book of Qur’ān[18] and Sunnah. Islamic scholars note that in addition to the requirement of saying the name of God and facing the animal toward the direction of the canonical prayer (qiblah) for slaughter, the animal should be killed quickly with the least amount of suffering. Scholars add that in the Islamic dietary laws:

The animal should be treated with kindness: the killing should not be proceeded by a violent struggle, the animal should be well rested, and it should be killed with a sharp knife, so that it causes the least pain. One should also turn one’s face away from the animal when slaughtered and remain aware that it is only by God’s permission that one may kill and eat the animal. All of those practices have the effect of removing the slaughter’s sense of absolute power over the animal and of maintaining the comfort and dignity of the animal to the extent possible.[19]

With the new technologies that aim at reducing the pain of the animal at the time of slaughter, religious scholars are faced with the question of whether such technology is permissible. The worry among Muslim scholars stems from the Islamic proscription that the animal must be healthy at the time of slaughter. What is the effect of becoming unconscious? One can draw the comparison to the use of anesthesia for surgery and its effects on mental capacity and health. Initially, there was uncertainty among scholars as to the anesthesia’s effects on a person’s legal capacity.[20] Although the question is now for the most part settled, a comparison can shed light to the question of the permissibility of stunning.

For example, many twelver Shīʿite Muslims choose a religious clerk as their reference point to turn to for answers to their questions about their religious obligations. This person, who must satisfy many qualifications, is called a marjaʿ taqlid. [21] In its literal sense, marjaʿ taqlid means the source to follow. Once a Shia chooses a marjaʿ, a relationship between them is established. When the medical advancements reached a point by which anesthesia became a customary procedure before surgeries, some people worried if the anesthesia rendered marjaʿ taqlidincapable of being a marjaʿ taqlid. The marjaʿ at times gives permission or invokes an agency between themselves and the follower. Did anesthesia that caused the marjaʿ to be unconscious break the relationships amongst the marjaʿ and their followers in such way that a follower had to renew their relationship with the marjaʿ after they regained consciousness?[22] Did the marjaʿ [plural of marjaʿ] lose their status as the result of the use of anesthesia?

Although there are narrations that suggest there were marajiʿ who preferred not to ever be under anesthesia,[23]the prevailed view is that it does not affect the competency of a person to continue to be a marjaʿ taqlid.[24] Because scientifically, the loss of consciousness from anesthesia used in  medical procedures is temporary and it does not significantly interfere with the persons wellbeing. Therefore, by itself, the use of anesthesia does not have an effect on a person’s legal capacity and will not break the previously established legal agencies.[25]

A similar uncertainty seems to be true among religious communities in evaluating the new technology that permits a procedure of stunning and making the animal unconscious. Is a stunned and unconscious animal nevertheless considering a healthy and alive animal? The answer to this question, too, is not one of personal opinion in Islam; rather it is to be answered by what science indicates. If the animal is medically alive and otherwise healthy despite the stunning, the procedure is permissible, and the animal can be then slaughtered. Therefore, the procedure is just a way of reducing the pain of the animal and it does not affect the animal’s healthy status as proscribed in Islam. That seems to be how the current Shīʿite marjaʿ taqlid and many Sunnīs have ruled.

Many of prominent Shīʿite marjaʿ taqlid, such as Ayatollah Sistani[26] and Ayatollah Makarem Shirazi,[27] have declared that as long as the stunned animal is alive at the time of slaughter, stunning poses no religious problem to the Islamic halal ritual. Ayatollah Makrim has gone one step further and noted that if the technology is proven to minimize the animal’s pain, stunning the animal before the slaughter shall be the preferred method of slaughtering for Muslims and is the preferred method of slaughter (it is mostahab).[28]

To view the contemporary Sunnī scholarship on this issue, one can point to the declaration of the Halal Food Standards Alliance of America. The HFSAA is “a non-profit organization working to establish a higher standard of Halal throughout the USA”[29] and uses Sunnī resources to determine the details of what is and what is not considered halal in Islam.[30] In responding to the practice of stunning, the organization issued a post on their website. HFSAA makes a distinction between the act of stunning and the permissibility of the slaughtering of a stunned animal based on Sunnī Islam teachings. In this regard, by highlighting the various procedures used in stunning the animal, the organization argues that contrary to common belief, the way the animals are stunned causes extra pain to the animal. Based on this argument, HFSAA states “[s]tunning is an unacceptable action and the person who stuns will be sinful for causing extra pain to the animal.”[31]

However, they too acknowledged that as long as the animal is alive after being stunned, the stunning will not make the animal’s meat inconsumable according to Sunnī teachings of Islam.[32] HFSAA’s announcement acknowledges that some Islamic scholars nevertheless oppose stunning.[33] Yet, in order to be able to satisfy the meat consumption needs of the Muslim community, they have determined that as long as the animal is alive, the act of stunning does not make the animal a haram (impermissible) meat for consumption. The Halal Advocates adds that they “will not allow lethal and irreversible stunning methods for cattle which will cause the death of the animal in a few minutes and will initiate cardiac arrest.”[34]

That is why today most halal meats are produced from animals who have been stunned before use. According the British Food Standard Agency, about 88%  of halal meats by 2014 in the UK are produced from stunned animals.[35]It therefore seems an irony that the lawsuit was brought against a halal meat producer and opens the question of whether the motives of the plaintiffs stemmed from intentions other than animal welfare.

Section II

For religious citizens who object to stunning, the EU regulations impose hardships. For instance, while there are similar discussions within the Jewish community, [36] the majority of Jewish observants reject the stunning. The consumers who buy kosher products will continue to buy such products but without being able to ascertain whether the farmers and butchers have indeed followed all other animal welfare regulations. For example EU organic principles on livestock include: providing 100% organic feed to the animals, the prohibition of cloning animals, restrictions on the number of livestock allowed in a space to minimize overgrazing, or pollution caused by animals or by the spreading of their manure, etc.[37] With the ban on organic labeling for animals who have not been stunned, a Kosher supplier who complies with all the other requirements to ensure an organic product and certification can no longer be distinguished from another Kosher supplier who, although complying with the minimum religious requirements, has not taken the steps to fulfill all other requirements the organic labeling warrants.

This is in contrast to one of the objectives of EU organic labeling which, as stated by the Council of the European Union, is “ensuring fair competition and a proper functioning of the internal market in organic products, and of maintaining and justifying consumer confidence in products labelled as organic.”[38] Therefore, the EU religious minority consumers are put at an informational disadvantage, an unfair halal and kosher market, creating a second-tier citizen who is prohibited from enjoying an organic certified meat in the market.

Furthermore, the impermissibility of applying for the EU organic labeling for the religious community may also backfire and have a negative effect on the welfare of the animals. While religious communities thrive to do the best for the animal welfare based on their religious teachings and regardless of a legal constraint, one cannot deny the economic incentive of being in a competitive meat market. Selling organic meant satisfying all the various EU animal welfare requirements–from a clean farm to a superb food for the animals– all of which can no longer make significant difference in the monetary outcome of the business. Whereas if the EU allowed for such organic competitive market amongst the religious community, by only providing a different label that noted on the exemption of stunning, it would have in effect made the life of many animals more prosperous.

Section III

There are other regulatory options that EU regulators may consider to ensure animal welfare and a fair organic meat market. In the United States, the Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Marketing Service amended the organic livestock and poultry production requirements and recognized organic labeling for “ritual slaughter.”[39] The new rule ensures that Muslim and Jewish slaughtering practices can also benefit from organic certification.[40]

With the U.S. model in mind, one option for the EU regulators can be to create a distinct logo that specifically addresses the method the animal was slaughtered. For example, the U.S. Department of Agriculture uses four categories for labeling organic products, each indicating a different standard: “100 percent Organic, Organic, Made with Organic —–, Specific Ingredients Listings.”[41] Similar ways of labeling that can highlight the way the animal was slaughter in addition to otherwise being a product of an organic farm, can provide an implicit religious accommodation in the EU which do not necessarily run afoul of the strict EU secular principles. By keeping the economic incentives to apply for the organic labeling alive, the EU will ensure a larger scale of animal welfare, in comparison to a complete ban for religious comminutes.

Conclusion

 The European Court of Justice ruled that the EU organic labeling cannot be issued for products produced by religious communities who were exempt from the requirement of stunning the animal before slaughter. This essay noted that the new technology which renders the animal unconscious before slaughter is in line with the Shī‘ah and most of Sunnī Islamic teachings. Despite this study, there are still Muslims, in addition to the majority of observant Jews, who object to stunning. For these communities, this essay proposed an alternative organic labeling that can give the incentive to religious minorities to keep up with the highest animal welfare standards and participate in a competitive organic meat market. This approach ultimately promotes the welfare of many animals who, absent such labeling, may no longer be living in an all organic farm.

It is important to note that the EU ruling was issued in a political climate where some of its proponents disparaged the Muslim and Jewish communities as trying to keep “living in the Middle Ages.”[42] The two religious communities have traditionally been advocates of animal welfare for centuries. In Islam, the act of killing the animal itself (not the sale of meat) is even discouraged.[43] According to one report, Prophet Mohammad stated: “the butcher slaughters until kindness leaves his heart.”[44]

Such emphasis on animal’s welfare in the religious teachings, compared to today’s corporate greed for profiting from meat products,[45] is far from being stuck in the “Middle Ages.” In today’s European political climate, Islamophobia and anti-Semitism is at its peak.[46] It is thus no surprise that even broader bans on religious practices[47] are advocated.[48] For now going forward in the EU, “you can’t be Jewish or Muslim and eat organic.”[49]

 

Notes:

[1] Case C‑497/17, Œuvre d’assistance aux bêtes d’abattoirs (OABA) v. Ministre de l’Agriculture et de l’Alimentation, Bionoor, Ecocert France, Institut national de l’origine et de la qualité (INAO), 2019 E.C.R. 137.

[2] Milan Schreuer, Belgium Bans Religious Slaughtering Practices, Drawing Praise and Protest, N.Y. Times (Jan. 5, 2019), https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/05/world/europe/belgium-ban-jewish-muslim-animal-slaughter.html.

[3] Halal meat cannot be labeled ‘organic,’ ECJ rules, Deutsche Welle, Feb. 26, 2019, https://www.dw.com/en/halal-meat-cannot-be-labeled-organic-ecj-rules/a-47700312.

[4] See, e.g., J.M. Regenstein, M.M. Chaudry & C.E. Regenstein, The Kosher and Halal Food Laws, 2 Comprehensive Reviews in Food Science and Food Safety, 111 (2003). See also, Karen Zraick, Is Stunning an Animal Before Slaughter More Humane? Some Religious Leaders Say No, N.Y. Times (Jan. 9, 2019), https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/09/world/europe/halal-kosher-humane-slaughter.html.

[5] Case C‑497/17, supra note 1, at 17.

[6] Art. L. 641-13, 2015, Code Rural et de la Pêche Maritime [Rural and Maritime Fishing Code] Journal Officiel de la République Française [J.O.] [Official Gazette of France].

[7] Council Regulation 1099/2009, art. 4(1), 2009, J.O. (L 303) 1, 9.

[8] Id. at art. 4(4).

[9] Council Regulation 834/2007 of June 28, 2007, On organic production and labelling of organic products and repealing Regulation (EEC) No 2092/91, 2007 O.J. (L 189) 1; Commission Regulation 889/2008 of Sept. 5, 2008, Laying down detailed rules for the implementation of Council Regulation (EC) No 834/2007 on organic production and labelling of organic products with regard to organic production, labelling and control, 2008 O.J. (L 250) 1; Council Regulation 1099/2009, supra note 7.

[10] Case C‑497/17, supra note 1, p19.

[11] Tribunal Administratif de Montreuil.

[12] Court of Justice of the European Union Press Release No. 15/19, The European Court of Justice, The Organic production logo of the European Union cannot be placed on meat derived from animals that have been slaughtered in accordance with religious rites without first being stunned (Feb. 26, 2019), https://curia.europa.eu/jcms/upload/docs/application/pdf/2019-02/cp190015en.pdf.

[13] Case C‑497/17, supra note 1, at 26-30.

[14] Council Regulation 834/2007, supra note 9.

[15] Council Regulation 1099/2009, supra note 7.

[16] Case C‑497/17, supra note 1, at 52.

[17] Namely, Regulation 1099/2009, art. 4, supra note 7, at 4.

[18] See, e.g., Qur’ān 5:3 and 6:145. “Forbidden unto you are carrion and blood, the flesh of swine and that which has been offered to other than God, that which has been strangled or beaten to death, that which has been killed by falling or has been gored to death, that which has been mangled by breast of prey –save that which you may purify– and that which is sacrificed on stone altars, and that which you allot with diving arrows; that is inequity….”  Qur’ān 5:3 (Sūrah al Mā’idah). It is noteworthy that exemptions to these rules exist such as when in fear of starvation.

[19] The Study Quran: A New Translation and Commentary 274 (Seyyed Hossein Nasr et al. eds., 2015).

[20] See, e.g., Islam Quest (Feb.17, 2014),  https://www.islamquest.net/fa/archive/question/fa27249.

[21] Not all religious clerks can be a marjaʿ taqlid; there are many requirements outside the scope of this article.

[22] Dose the imitation authority lose consciousness?, Erfan (The official website of Ayatollah Hossein Ansarian), http://www.erfan.ir/farsi/82108.html (noting that anesthesia does not affect the competency of the marjaʿ, and that the debate is whether it dissolves any agency or attorney client relationship.)

[23] Jam News, The Story of the Surgery of the Master of Ethics Without Anesthesia, http://www.jamnews.com/detail/News/630560 (citing a story of one marjaʿ –Grand Ayatollah Ahmad Khonsari born in 1891–who famously underwent a surgery without using anesthesia and by only reciting Qur’ān to distract him from the pain).

[24] Citing three fatwas of the most prominent marājiʿ. 

[25] Cf. Porseman, Anesthesiology views, (Date), https://www.porseman.com/article/تقليد-از-مرجع-بيهوش/32141 (noting that although the competency of the marjaʿ is not affected by anesthesia, any attorney client relationship is dissolved and has to be renewed after the marjaʿ gains consciousness. Although as this source suggests there are still disagreements as to whether a person has to renew the agency that the marjaʿ had given them, this is separate from the question of mental capacity and competency.)

[26] Official Website of Ayatollah Sistani, https://www.sistani.org/persian/qa/search/14015/ (last visited Oct. 10, 2019).

[27] Official Website of Ayatollah Makarem Shirazi, (last visited Oct. 10, 2019) https://makarem.ir/main.aspx?reader=1&pid=61769&lid=0&mid=1002.

[28] Id.

[29] Halal Advocates of America, https://www.halaladvocates.org (last visited Oct. 22, 2019).

[30] Rules & Conditions Pertaining to A Valid Halal Slaughter, Halaladvocates.org, https://www.halaladvocates.org/rules-conditions-pertaining-to-a-valid-halal-slaughter/ (last visited Oct. 11, 2019).

[31] Stunning Animals Prior To Slaughter, Halaladvocates.org, https://www.halaladvocates.org/stunning-animals/ (last visited August 22, 2010).

[32] Id.

[33] Id. (noting that stunning is a very serious matter and some scholars have used extremely strong language when describing the practice of stunning such as “against the spirit of Islam” and an “evil innovation,” and concluding “[t]herefore, a Muslim should avoid using this practice as much as possible when slaughtering an animal”)

[34] Id.

[35] James Meikle, What exactly does the halal method of animal slaughter involve?, The Guardian (May  8, 2014), https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2014/may/08/what-does-halal-method-animal-slaughter-involve.

[36] See, e.g., Chabad.org, What’s Wrong with Stunning, https://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/222246/jewish/Whats-Wrong-with-Stunning.htm (last visited Oct 10, 2019).

[37] Organic production and products, EC.Europa.eu, https://ec.europa.eu/info/food-farming-fisheries/farming/organic-farming/organic-production-and-products_en (last visited Oct. 10, 2019).

[38] Council Regulation 834/2007, supra note 9.

[39] The term “ritual slaughter” is defined in the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act (7 U.S.C. Section 1902 states:

No method of slaughtering or handling in connection with slaughtering shall be deemed to comply with the public policy of the United States unless it is humane. Either of the following two methods of slaughtering and handling are hereby found to be humane:

(a) in the case of cattle, calves, horses, mules, sheep, swine, and other livestock, all animals are rendered insensible to pain by a single blow or gunshot or an electrical, chemical or other means that is rapid and effective, before being shackled, hoisted, thrown, cast, or cut; or

(b) by slaughtering in accordance with the ritual requirements of the Jewish faith or any other religious faith that prescribes a method of slaughter whereby the animal suffers loss of consciousness by anemia of the brain caused by the simultaneous and instantaneous severance of the carotid arteries with a sharp instrument and handling in connection with such slaughtering.

Human Methods of Slaughter Act, 7 U.S.C. § 1902 (2015).

[40] 7 C.F.R. § 205.2 (2019) (stating that “[o]rganic livestock and handling operations may use ritual slaughter to convert their livestock to meat or poultry without loss of organic status”).

[41] Organic Labeling Standards, AMS.USDA.gov, https://www.ams.usda.gov/grades-standards/organic-labeling-standards (last visited Mar. 18, 2018).

[42] Milan Schreuer, Belgium Bans Religious Slaughtering Practices, Drawing Praise and Protest, N.Y. Times (Jan. 5, 2019), https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/05/world/europe/belgium-ban-jewish-muslim-animal-slaughter.html.

[43] Although if there are not enough people who slaughter an animal, it becomes a responsibility for a Muslim to take on the job.

[44]IslamQuest, Question and Answer (last visited Oct 31, 2019) https://www.islamquest.net/fa/archive/question/fa79078  (citing the hadith from Prophet Mohammad peace be upon him «…وَ أَمَّا الْقَصَّابُ‏ فَإِنَّهُ یَذْبَحُ حَتَّى تَذْهَبَ الرَّحْمَةُ مِنْ قَلْبِه‏»).

[45] See e.g., Stephanie Strom, Animal Welfare Groups Have a New Tool: Virtual Reality, N.Y. Times (July 6, 2017), https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/06/dining/animal-welfare-virtual-reality-video-meat-industry.html?rref=collection%2Ftimestopic%2FFactory%20Farming&action=click&contentCollection=timestopics&region=stream&module=inline&version=latest&contentPlacement=10&pgtype=collection; Danny Hakim, At Hamburger Central, Antibiotics for Cattle That Aren’t Sick, N.Y. Times (Mar. 23, 2018), https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/23/business/cattle-antiobiotics.html?rref=collection%2Ftimestopic%2FFactory%20Farming&action=click&contentCollection=timestopics&region=stream&module=inline&version=latest&contentPlacement=9&pgtype=collection.

[46] See, e.g., Yasmin Qureshi, The EU’s Islamophobia is getting worse Britain must fight this from within, The Guardian (June 17, 2019), https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/jun/17/eu-islamophobia-britain-orban-china-muslims

[47] Milan Schreuer, supra note 44.

[48] See, e.g., The Editorial Board, When Animal Welfare and Religious Practice Collide, N.Y. Times (Jan. 8, 2019), https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/08/opinion/editorials/belgium-ban-animal-slaughter.html (“Right-wing politicians in several countries have used controls on such religious practices to press bigoted agendas under the cloak of battling for civil or animal rights.”).

[49] Valentina Pop, EU Rules Halal, Kosher Meats Are Not Organic, Wall St. J. (Feb. 26, 2019), https://www.wsj.com/articles/halal-and-organic-dont-mix-in-eu-ruling-11551201434 (interview by Hadj Khelil, found of Bionoor, a halal beef producer whose organic label was contested).

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