A few hours before dawn, and even through the inky blackness it is
clear this is no ordinary warehouse. Outside the building, gusts of
wind send hay and straw flying, and the air is thick with the acrid sent
Despite the darkness, I can see blood trickling down the gutters and
a group of men clutching knives. Every so often, the eerie scene is
punctured by the sound of lambs bleating.
I am standing outside one of Britain’s abattoirs. To the casual
observer, it is no different to any other slaughterhouse, though it’s
strange to find one so close to a city centre that it’s within walking
distance of Birmingham’s branch of Harvey Nichols.
Slaughter house: Halal methods being used
in the Mr Meats abattoir, secretly filmed by Danny Penman
I have visited several abattoirs for research purposes over the
years, and by their very nature they’re noisy and messy places, with
vats of blood and entrails.
The main difference here, though, is that this abattoir produces
halal meat, in accordance with strict Islamic guidelines. Put simply,
this means the animals killed here are not stunned with an electrical
current — as they are at conventional slaughterhouses — to render them
unconscious before they are dispatched.
Instead, they are fully conscious as their throats are slit by a
slaughterman as he utters prayers to Allah to ‘bless’ the animal. The
creature then bleeds to death in a process that can take more than 30
Killing an animal by cutting its throat without stunning is, in fact,
illegal in this country. However, there is a legal loophole allowing
this if it is being done for religious reasons — in other words, for the
production of halal or kosher meat.
But this is an exemption that the British Veterinary Association and
the Government’s advisers, the Farm Animal Welfare Council, are
objecting to, saying this form of slaughter causes ‘intolerable
cruelty’. They have repeatedly demanded that it be banned.
‘In the Holy Book, it says that the animal
should listen to the prayers of Allah. If it’s unconscious, then it
won’t be able to do that.’
For their part, many Muslims claim it is their religious duty to eat
only halal meat from unstunned animals. It is vital, they say, that the
animal be slaughtered while fully conscious so it can receive Allah’s
Yet recent reports have suggested that it is not just devout Muslims
who are consuming halal meat. Two months ago, it was revealed that
supermarkets such as Waitrose and Tesco, fast food chains including
McDonald’s, schools, hospitals, pubs and famous sporting venues such as
Ascot and Wembley are serving up halal meat to unwitting customers.
So where does halal meat come from, and what is the truth behind its
According to the World Halal Forum, which promotes halal and is
holding its European conference in London, there are two million
consumers in Britain.
Until now, it has been difficult to ascertain facts. Halal meat
producers have consistently rejected requests to show journalists
around their British abattoirs and factories.
When I applied to be shown around a number of halal slaughterhouses,
calls went unreturned and messages unanswered for weeks.
So I decided to go undercover, posing as a potential buyer of halal
meat for a fictional chain of high-quality ‘bespoke meats’. After four
weeks, I finally managed to find an abattoir willing to show me the
entire production process — from ‘squeals to meals’.
Increasing demand: It is estimated that
more than 100 million animals are slaughtered each year in the UK -
and demand is growing
Once I had outlined my fictional business proposal, a
Birmingham-based company called Mr Meats agreed to show me around its
abattoir. The owner, Masti Khan, was unfailingly polite and eager to
Mr Meats slaughters around 1,000 animals a night, mostly sheep and
goats, but occasionally cattle, too.
When I step inside, the first thing that hits me is the overpowering
stench — a nasty, fatty smell that sticks in the throat.
And then there’s the noise of machinery, interspersed with bleating
animals and the slaughtermen uttering prayers.
Hundreds of sheep and lambs are penned up in tiny stalls. From time
to time, one tries — and fails — to escape by leaping over the bars of
its pen. But then the same would be true of any abattoir.
It is only when it comes to the actual slaughter that the differences
become apparent. I watch — and secretly film — as the animals are herded
onto a conveyor belt that leads them to the slaughterman, who is
wearing a blue hairnet over his hair and beard in accordance with
Grabbing one lamb at a time, he pulls back its head and slits the
throat with a swift movement from his razor-sharp knife.
Blood gushes everywhere as he recites the Islamic Bismillah prayer in
Arabic: ‘In the name of Allah, the most gracious, the most merciful.’
One of the supervisors, who oversees the firm’s 50 or so largely
Muslim employees, explains to me the religious principle behind this
‘Animals that are stunned are not halal. An animal that is
unconscious is not going to listen to the prayer.
‘In the Holy Book, it says that the animal should listen to the
prayers of Allah. If it’s unconscious, then it won’t be able to do
Lamb after lamb has its throat sliced open while
fully conscious. They make pitiful bleating and gurgling sounds as
they choke on their own blood. It’s a chilling sound that, once
heard, stays with you for days
Though the deep incision to the neck cuts through the animal’s
windpipe and main arteries, the creatures are still able to cry out.
During my two-hour visit, I watch as lamb after lamb has its throat
sliced open while fully conscious. They make pitiful bleating and
gurgling sounds as they choke on their own blood. It’s a chilling sound
that, once heard, stays with you for days afterwards.
And then there’s the fact that the animals can witness each other
being killed as they travel along the conveyor belt. Their hooves
twitch wildly as they try to break fee.
One lamb cries out for more than 20 seconds before it flops off the
end of the conveyor belt and on to a rotating table. From there, it is
shackled by its hind legs and hauled up to the ceiling on a hook, where
it is left with a dozen others to ‘bleed out’ — another important part
of the halal process.
Of course, no slaughter of an animal is easy to watch. But it is hard
to remain dispassionate as I watch dozens of still-conscious animals
bleeding to death, the floor covered by an inch of warm, frothy blood.
I find myself siding with the British Veterinary Association in its
claim that the process is more inhumane than conventional stunned
slaughter. Surely it would cause less suffering for the animals to be
That is not to say that conventional abattoirs operate without fault.
Earlier this year, I investigated an organic slaughterhouse, certified
by the Soil Association, that had been secretly filmed by the welfare
group Animal Aid.
Inside, the staff were caught beating animals and failing to stun
them before cutting their throats.
Steve McGrath, chief executive of the Meat Hygiene Service, later
said: ‘I have watched the film and have seen abject cruelty by the
slaughtermen to the animals being killed; ineffective stunning; animals
having their necks dislocated and heads decapitated before being fully
bled; pigs being kicked; and shackling before stunning.’
Similar problems were found in every one of the seven slaughterhouses
that Animal Aid secretly filmed, despite the presence of Government
appointed vets. At least in this halal abattoir, I do not witness any
Cost cutting: The European Parliament has
attempted to force the food industry to to label halal meat as
coming from 'unstunned' animals but the legislation faces an uphill
It is impossible to find out how many animals are killed in halal
abattoirs. The last Labour administration ordered the Meat Hygiene
Service to stop keeping records.
It was ostensibly a cost-cutting measure, but animal welfare groups
fear it was to help disguise the rapid growth of the halal meat
However, the last available figures, from 2004, suggest that 114
million halal animals and 2.1 million kosher ones are killed annually.
However, some halal producers — aware of the controversy that ritual
slaughter can provoke — do stun their animals first, causing huge
tensions within the Muslim community over the interpretation of what is,
and isn’t, halal meat.
Some organisations, such as the Halal Monitoring Committee, post
inspectors inside abattoirs, including Mr Meats, to ensure that animals
are not stunned before their throats are cut.
Other organisations, however, say that stunning is acceptable. Nizar
Boga, an Islamic scholar and former adviser on dietary issues at the
London Central Mosque, says: ‘The Prophet told us about the need to
care for animals, especially during slaughter. It’s absolutely forbidden
in Islam for an animal to be aware of death during slaughter.
‘Organisations like the Halal Monitoring Committee are frightening
decent Muslims for their own ends. They are making money from this.
‘Their interpretation of Islam on this issue is simply wrong. All of
the top Muslim scholars around the world agree on this. Muslims have to
Either way, keeping track of what meat has or hasn’t come from
stunned animals is hard to monitor, causing huge difficulties for
British consumers of all faiths who would prefer to buy meat from
animals that have been killed using the more humane method of slaughter.
This is increasingly important now that most leading supermarkets,
including Tesco and Asda, sell halal meat. Tesco, for example, launched
a halal barbecue range this summer and reported strong sales. So which
method of slaughter do the supermarket giants use?
A spokesman for Tesco says: ‘Pre-stunned meat produced to halal
standards conforms to all our stringent hygiene and animal welfare
For their part, Morrisons says that ‘all of our fresh meat is 100 per
cent British and non-halal. Only our frozen New Zealand lamb is halal.’
As for Asda, the supermarket says its policy is ‘that all animals
used for Asda brand products, halal or non-halal, are stunned’.
But it turns out that is not quite the full story. I decided to visit
five Asda stores in London that have specialist in store butcher’s
shops, run as independent concessions operating under the name Haji
The stores in Hounslow, Colindale, Walthamstow, Beckton and the Isle
of Dogs confirmed to me that the meat they sold was ‘authentically
‘The animals were not stunned,’ they said.
Though the store workers did not know the precise source of the meat,
Masti Khan, the owner of Mr Meats, told me that he has supplied lamb to
the five Asda stores I visited.
Confronted with my findings, Asda told me: ‘Haji Baba is an
independent company. The method of slaughter is a matter for Haji Baba
and their customers.
‘All Asda brand products are stunned. The abattoir that the Daily
Mail filmed inside is not used for Asda branded products.’
The key point is that wherever the meat comes from, consumers should
have a clearly labelled choice.
Yet given that there is no legal requirement to label whether meat
comes from stunned or unstunned animals, the chances are you’ve already
eaten halal killed in the way I witnessed — or soon will do.
In Europe, pressure is building to standardise slaughtering practices
to ensure that the majority of all animals are killed without stunning.
In France, for example, 80 per cent of all sheep are killed without
stunning, and almost all animals in Belgium are bled to death while
And this process is beginning to accelerate in Britain, too. Consumer
and animal welfare groups claim this is illegal because the exemption
from animal welfare laws granted to Muslims and Jews is being extended
across the whole meat industry, purely to cut costs.
‘This is no longer about religion,’ says Peter Stevenson of
Compassion In World Farming.
‘The exemption in the law was not granted to the food industry to
streamline its production processes and make life easier for itself —
but that is what it has become.
‘We are not opposed to halal as long as the animals are stunned
before they are killed.’
In June, the European Parliament decided to try to force the food
industry to label halal and kosher meat as coming from ‘unstunned
The legislation faces an uphill struggle, as all EU member states
will have to approve the legislation before it can become law.
James Paice, minister of state at the Department for Environment,
Food and Rural Affairs, says that, in principle, the Government
Last week, he told the House of Commons: ‘This is a highly emotive
issue, and I understand the demand for labelling.
‘The Government would like all animals to be properly stunned before
they are bled to slaughter. There is a discussion at European level
about food information regulations, but we do not believe that is the
‘Next year, we will consult on implementation of the European animal
welfare regulations, and the labelling issue will certainly be examined
as part of that.’
Whatever your beliefs on the rights and wrongs of religious
slaughter, surely we should all welcome the choice over whether we buy
But unless labelling laws are tightened, we may soon lose that
choice, just as they have in many European countries.
Support for clear labelling of unstunned halal meat also comes from
an unlikely source.
When I confronted Masti Khan, owner of Mr Meats slaughterhouse, after
my visit, he said: ‘Consumers should be given the choice. I have nothing
‘This is a multi-racial country, and people have different religions.
It’s wrong for supermarkets not to clearly label meat as coming from
animals that have not been pre-stunned.’