“Islam calls for the gentle treatment of animals”

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Hansuli Huber. (Photo: Schweizer Tierschutz STS)
Hansuli Huber. (Photo: Schweizer Tierschutz STS)

Since 1891, slaughter without prior stunning has been prohibited in Switzerland. Hansuli Huber of the Swiss Animal Welfare Association STS on the obligation to declare halal imported meat, inadequate EU standards and decent prices.

Mr. Huber, halal meat is available with and without anaesthesia. Is slaughtering cruel to animals compared to conventional slaughtering?
While there have been no alternatives to conventional killing for thousands of years, today there are various highly effective types of anaesthesia which save lambs, calves, cattle or poultry a lot of pain, fear and suffering during slaughter. It is incomprehensible from the point of view of animal welfare not to use such modern stunning technologies. As always with animal welfare, the human factor also plays a major role here. Consistent training and inspections in slaughterhouses are therefore very important.

Muslim scholars do not agree on the question of whether the meat is halal or not when it is stunned and slaughtered. How will you convince the opponents of anaesthesia?
It is precisely because Islam demands specific dietary rules and explicitly also a gentle treatment of animals that I believe it is important to use modern stunning technologies in order to minimise the suffering and pain of the slaughtered animals.

You say that the background of the imported kebab meat is largely unknown. And that this meat comes from animal farms that do not even meet the minimum requirements of the Animal Welfare Act in Switzerland. Why?
In contrast to the comprehensive Swiss animal protection legislation, the EU animal protection directives are limited to certain animal species and are even laxer than in Switzerland. For example, there are no detailed and comprehensive regulations on the keeping of sheep, goats, cows or turkeys in the EU. In contrast to Switzerland, the EU regulations for calves permit strapless fattening pens and windowless stables for chickens, for example, into which 50 percent more animals can be hitched per area. Since the meat demand of the eight million inhabitants of Switzerland is such that imports are mandatory, such origins that are contrary to animal welfare come to Switzerland on a large scale without consumers being able to recognise this when they buy.

Also in Germany and Switzerland heated debates are led over the Halal slaughter. Many Muslims hold this as superficially disguised agitation against Islam. How do you distinguish yourself from radicals as an animal protection organisation?
We do our work consistently and independently, which means that we justify all our animal protection demands professionally and scientifically, above all with behavioural biology and veterinary medical studies. Of course, we are always in the wrong place, be it with unintelligent animal owners, transporters or butchers. However, we have never been accused of agitating against Islam, even if we consistently advocate stunning before killing.

The conservative CVP National Councillor Yannick Buttet has submitted the parliamentary initiative “Import of halal meat from animals slaughtered without stunning”. The politician demands a declaration obligation for imported halal meat. However, the regulations will only apply to halal meat, but not to the import of kosher meat. Do you think this is okay?
In Switzerland, there has long been an obligation to declare halal and kosher meat imports from animals slaughtered without prior stunning. This means that equal treatment has always been respected. This declaration, however, only applies to the first point of sale of the meat after import. Now, however, it seems that in French-speaking Switzerland it was repeatedly established that halal meat was bought from this first point of sale and then offered in other butchers’ shops and restaurants, and that what was legal was undeclared. The aforementioned initiative aims to close this gap. This intermediate trade could be quite lucrative, since Halalfleisch comes relatively favorably and in far higher quantities than Kosherfleisch into the country.

Australia, New Zealand and Brazil are important exporters of halal meat to Muslim countries. How good are the animal welfare standards in these countries?
Australia and New Zealand are striving for better standards, including Brazil. It is precisely because they are exporters that they pay attention to the wishes of their customers. Switzerland has recognised this. Various retail chains have taken up the cause of animal welfare-compliant imports in accordance with Swiss animal welfare regulations. This means that they no longer buy in an anonymous mass market but work together with local suppliers in order to obtain and guarantee the desired quality.

In addition to the two largest Swiss retail chains, Migros and Coop, as well as Aldi and Lidl, the numbers three and four in the Swiss grocery store, Aldi and Lidl are converting their imported poultry meat to the Swiss standard.

Apart from Switzerland, the stunning obligation before the slaughter cut only exists in Liechtenstein, Iceland, Norway, Sweden and New Zealand, you write in your Halal meat report from 2012. A surprising result. Have new countries been added since then and why is Germany not listed?
As far as I know, you can be released from the obligation to stun in Germany on request for religious reasons. New Zealand and Australia, which serve Southeast Asia in particular with their lamb but also Europe on a large scale, slaughter cattle and sheep according to my knowledge halal-conform, with priority electro stunning.

Two years ago you carried out a worldwide survey on animal welfare standards for farm animals. What were the main findings of the survey?
Unfortunately, the situation regarding the protection of farm animals, such as husbandry, transport and slaughter, is very poor worldwide. Only Switzerland and Austria have comprehensive animal protection legislation. Even the EU standard has considerable shortcomings and large gaps. In North and South America, Africa, Asia, etc., there are often only rudimentary regulations that are hardly checked. This is an alarming finding, since animal husbandry is being built up on a very large scale worldwide and billions of animals are now affected.

What are the most pressing problems that countries currently have to tackle in order for animals to be better off?
For me as an animal rights activist, the worldwide boom in mass livestock farming and animal factories to boost milk, meat and egg consumption is a shocking development. I can understand that in countries that have been in a bad state for so long and that are now prospering economically, many people are now increasingly demanding such products. We had the same development in Switzerland when, after the Second World War, meat consumption rose to 72 kilograms per capita by the mid-1980s. Since then, however, it has been falling again and is currently around 52 kilograms per capita. But you have to imagine the brutal conditions under which billions of animals are fattened, transported and slaughtered every year without any protection whatsoever. To feed these animals, many fields have to be converted instead of being used to produce plant products for human consumption. The solution must be found on several levels. Firstly, moderate consumption of meat, eggs and dairy products, with vegetable products accounting for the bulk of our diet. Secondly, the creation of consistent animal welfare laws, the rules of which will then be monitored in practice. Thirdly, fair, decent prices for farmers so that they do not have to fatten 100,000 chickens or milk 1,000 cows in order to cover their costs and secure the lives of their families.

Interview: Kemal Çalık