A Mail on Sunday investigation – which will alarm anyone concerned about animal cruelty – has revealed that schools, hospitals, pubs and famous sporting venues such as Ascot and Twickenham are controversially serving up meat slaughtered in accordance with strict Islamic law to unwitting members of the public.
All the beef, chicken and lamb sold to fans at Wembley has secretly been prepared in accordance with sharia law, while Cheltenham College, which boasts of its ‘strong Christian ethos’, is one of several top public schools which also serves halal chicken to pupils without informing them.
Even Britain’s biggest hotel and restaurant group Whitbread, which owns the Beefeater and Brewers Fayre chains, among many others, has admitted that more than three-quarters of its poultry is halal.
Animal welfare campaigners have long called for a ban on the traditional Islamic way of preparing meat – which involves killing animals by drawing a knife across their throats, without stunning them first – saying it is cruel and causes unnecessary pain.
Sharia law expressly forbids knocking the animal out with a bolt gun, as is usual in British slaughter houses. Instead, it must be sentient when its throat is cut, and the blood allowed to drip from the carcass while a religious phrase in praise of Allah is recited.
The extent of halal meat consumption, even in areas of Britain with a very small Muslim population, was revealed as the Pope, on his first visit to Britain, expressed fears that the country was not doing enough to preserve traditional Christian values and customs.
In a strongly worded speech to Parliament, he said: ‘There are those who argue that the public celebration of festivals such as Christmas should be discouraged, in the questionable belief that it might somehow offend those of other religions or none.’
But it is animal rights groups which have been most vociferous in their opposition to halal slaughter. Campaign organisation Viva!, whose supporters include Heather Mills and Joanna Lumley, said in a statement: ‘Other practices which may be undertaken for religious reasons, such as polygamy or the stoning of adulterers, are not permitted in the UK.
‘Religious freedom does not override other moral considerations and the suffering caused by this form of slaughter is so severe that it cannot be allowed to prevent action to be taken. Consumers can do their bit by boycotting places that persist in selling meat from unstunned animals.’
An RSPCA spokesman added: ‘The public have a right to know how their meat is produced. Many people are extremely concerned about animal welfare. What The Mail on Sunday has discovered shows that people are not being kept informed. The key to a more humane death for these animals is that they are stunned before slaughter.’
A spokesman for Twickenham, which sells only halal chicken despite not advertising the fact, insisted that the lack of transparency ‘had never been an issue’ and said: ‘Our consideration is more for those who want halal, to ensure they get it.’
Other institutions secretly serving up meat that is halal – or ‘permissible’ – include Mid-Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust and one of London’s biggest NHS Trusts, Guy’s and St Thomas’.
A spokesman for the London hospitals admitted: ‘The only way people using the canteen would know they were eating halal chicken would be if they asked a member of staff directly.'
The spokesman for the London hospitals added: 'The chicken we use is stunned before it is killed.'
Whitbread, which also owns Table Table restaurants, Costa Coffee shops and Premier Inn hotels, admitted last night that 80 per cent of the chicken it served comes from halal poultry suppliers, including some in Muslim-dominated Turkey.
A Whitbread spokesman said: ‘We don’t specify halal as a requirement in our procurement. We base our decision on quality and price.
‘It just turns out that we source that amount of chicken from suppliers that happen to be halal.
‘It is not mentioned on any of our menus because we don’t think there is customer demand for that information. But if people started asking, then we would definitely provide it.’
Rival operator Mitchells & Butlers, which owns the Harvester, Browns and Toby Carvery restaurant chains as well as pub chains All Bar One and O’Neill’s, was even more opaque about the source of its meats.
A spokesman said it had a ‘broad range of suppliers’ but declined to say how many were halal-certified.
Ascot racecourse said it was easier to store and cook only one type of meat. ‘All our chicken is halal. This is not advertised as the menus are kept as simple as possible,’ said a spokesman.
A Football Association spokesman confirmed: ‘All the beef, chicken and lamb sold at Wembley Stadium is halal which means a large proportion of the meat on offer to our customers falls into this category.’ Pork, which is forbidden to Muslims, is also served at the stadium.
Cheltenham College boarding school in Gloucestershire admitted: ‘We have not sent a letter, nor is there any note on menus that informs parents and pupils that the chicken served in the canteen is mostly halal.’
Marlborough College, in Wiltshire, admitted that while halal chicken is usually served only to Muslims, it had ‘occasionally’ served it to all pupils. The school refused to say whether parents and pupils had been informed.
Britain’s Muslim community is exempt from regulations that require animals to be stunned before death, as is kosher meat prepared for the Jewish market.
Conservative MP Andrew Rosindell, secretary of the Associate Parliamentary Group for Animal Welfare, said: ‘I don’t object to people of different religious groups being catered for but it’s not something that should be imposed on everybody else.
'The vast majority of people in this country would not want meat of this origin. The outlets have a duty to let their customers know because some will object very strongly, not least because of the animal welfare implications of halal.’
Keith Porteous Wood, executive director of the National Secular Society, said: ‘We suspected that meat killed by the halal and kosher methods was being used for general consumption but we never imagined it was so widespread. It is disgraceful that people aren’t being told if the food they are being served is from meat that has not been stunned prior to slaughter.’
In 2003, Government advisory body the Farm Animal Welfare Council published a report declaring that the halal method of killing ‘would inevit ably trigger a barrage of sensory information to the brain in a sensible (conscious) animal’.
Experts who contributed to the report concluded that ‘such a massive injury would result in very significant pain and distress in the period before insensibility supervenes’.
Muslim leaders insist that animal welfare measures are observed during slaughter. Guidelines issued by the Islamic Cultural Centre in London state that ‘no stress or discomfort’ should be inflicted on the animal and that the knife must be sharp and clean.
Brutal reality of the ritual that allows animals to be slaughtered without being stunned first
More than 40 million cattle, calves and sheep and more than 850 million poultry are slaughtered every year in Britain.
The vast majority are stunned before slaughter but UK law allows the Jewish and Muslim communities to kill animals by religious methods without any form of stunning.
A number of requirements have been put in place, however, in an attempt to reduce animal suffering.
The rules state that the throat must be cut with one rapid, uninterrupted movement of the knife. Both carotid arteries and both jugular veins must be severed.
In addition, the knife must be inspected before each animal is slaughtered to ensure that it is of sufficient size and sharpness.
But welfare campaigners say the rules are not enough.
The Government’s independent advisory body, the Farm Animal Welfare Council, says sheep may lose consciousness within five to seven seconds of the cut.
But research has shown that some calves remain brain-responsive for up to two minutes. This is because the carotid arteries can contract after the cut has been made, effectively sealing the severed ends and maintaining blood pressure in the brain.
The RSPCA says all meat produced from animals that have not been stunned before slaughter should be clearly labelled so that it can be easily identified by consumers.
Sharia law states that the abattoir involved in the process must be under the ‘close and constant supervision’ of an Islamic religious organisation.
Under these rules, the cut must be made to the right side of the neck by cutting the two carotids, the two jugulars, the windpipe and the gullet, but without breaking the spinal cord.
The carcass must empty of blood and a specific time should be allowed until the animal ceases to move before the next stage of the production process – de-skinning and removing the internal organs – may begin.