Religious freedom versus animal welfare? Belgium bans halal and kosher slaughter practices

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09 Jan 2019 --- A ban of halal and kosher slaughter methods, which see animals killed without being stunned first, has come into effect in the Flanders regions of Belgium. Animals must now be stunned before their throats are cut in religious rituals but Jewish and Muslim groups say the new rules violate EU freedom of religion laws.

Spearheaded by animal rights groups seeking a more humane way to slaughter animals for meat, the ban comes at a time of growing tensions across Europe over the balance between animal welfare and religious freedom. 

Halal and Jewish kosher rituals require that butchers slaughter the animal by slitting its throat and draining the blood. However, the new rules dictate that animals will have to be stunned electrically before being killed. 

However, the debate is unlikely to be just an issue of animal welfare either, with right-wing nationalists also having called for a ban on ritual slaughter. This has led to concerns that Jewish and Muslim communities in Belgium are being targeted under the guise of animal protection and ethics amid concerns of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia.

Opponents to the ban, which was imposed on January 1, have filed lawsuits. 

The World Jewish Congress (WJC) says it has been working with the Belgian Jewish community on this issue for several years and a legal challenge to the ban has been filed by the community. 

“The ban marks the latest in a series of measures which restrict Jewish religious practices in some European countries and this is a very worrying trend,” says a WJC statement. “The bans on shechita (slaughtering of certain mammals and birds for food according to kashrut, Jewish religious dietary laws) relate to the pre-stunning of animals during the slaughter process. These prohibitions effectively outlaw kosher slaughter, since kashrut demands that animals are not stunned prior to being slaughtered.”

“In some European countries today, most notably France, the debate surrounding this issue is also linked to anti-immigrant and particularly Islamophobic sentiment, targeting halal slaughter, with shechita becoming collateral damage,” the statement continues.

European Union (EU) laws governing animal slaughter require animals be rendered insensible to pain before being killed. A captive bolt pistol or gun is a device which fires a metal rod into the brain is used for stunning larger animals prior to slaughter. An electric shock method is usually used for poultry and animals can also be knocked out with gas.

The freedom of movement of goods within the EU ensures that kosher products can move easily from one member state to another. This therefore means that kosher products continue to be available, even in the countries or areas where kosher slaughter itself is not permitted. 

“The principle of religious freedom and the viability of Jewish communities in Europe are threatened by such moves. The World Jewish Congress is addressing each and every challenge in support of, and close collaboration with, our affiliated communities,” notes the WJC.

The Belgian regulatory change dates backs to 2017 when the parliaments of the Flanders and Wallonia regions in Belgium adopted legislation that as of 2019 would outlaw any slaughter that was not preceded by stunning. They cite animal rights as the justification for the new laws respectively.

There was political consensus in both Flanders and Wallonia for banning such methods of slaughter, according to the WJC. In Wallonia, the measure passed with 69 votes in favor, none against, and only three abstentions, while in Flanders, the vote passed unanimously.

The ban in Wallonia came into effect on 1 June 2018, however, an exemption for slaughter for religious purposes will continue until 1 September 2019, notes WJC. 

The remaining region of Belgium, the Brussels-Capital Region, does not have a ban and has seen some debate regarding introducing similar measures.

Sweden, Denmark and Switzerland already prohibit non-stunned slaughter. Denmark introduced a ban on slaughter without pre-stunning on in February 2014, citing animal rights concerns. The importation of kosher meat continues. 

The Finnish government is proposing new legislation regarding animal well-being that would replace the current law on animal protection. The proposed legislation is currently subject to public consultation with stakeholders. The deadline for consultation responses ends next month.

The Central Council of Jewish Communities in Finland has responded to the consultation, highlighting “the modest needs of the Jewish community in the country,” stating the community has no alternative form of slaughter at its disposal. It cites that statistics in relation to hunting wild animals for meat far outweighs the “meager needs of the Finnish Jews.” The community believes there is a significant chance the ban will pass unamended and the WJC is engaging in international advocacy to this end.

In Sweden, domestic animals must be slaughtered after the animal has been sedated, making Jewish ritual slaughter illegal. This requirement came into force in 1938. Importation of kosher meat continues, however.

In non-EU states, a law prohibiting slaughter without pre-stunning on a national level was adopted by the Norwegian parliament on in 1929 at a time of highly-charged, anti-semitic atmosphere with a significant campaign against the Jewish community’s right to slaughter animals without pre-stunning. There has been little debate on the matter since, says the WJC. Kosher meat can be and is legally imported from other European countries.

There is a partial ban on slaughter without pre-stunning in Switzerland with the exception being the slaughter of poultry, which is allowed.

By Gaynor Selby

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