A new EU rule on organic meat will have an outsized impact on European Muslims and Jews

The rules around meat.
The rules around meat.
Image: Reuters/Sergei Karpukhin
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Thanks to a group of animal-welfare activists, it just got a lot harder for Islamic and Jewish people living in Europe to buy certified-organic meat.

The Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) ruled this week (Feb. 26) that unless a food animal has been stunned before undergoing a religious slaughtering, it cannot bear the EU’s “organic” label. By expanding the definition of organic in such a way, the court essentially excludes Muslims and Jews from parts of the organic-meat market. Under their respective religious laws, in order for meat to be considered halal or kosher, animals must be slaughtered according to religious rules. While some Muslim authorities allow for stunning, more Orthodox Jewish communities abide by traditional methods of slaughter which do not include stunning the animal.

The case was brought to the court by a French animal-rights activist group called Oeuvre d’Assistance aux Bêtes d’Abattoirs (OABA, which, translated into English means, roughly, “Assistance work for slaughterhouse animals”). The group had originally asked French courts to mandate animals be stunned before slaughtering, a method believed to give the animal a more painless death. Those courts declined to decide the case, though, passing the issue up to the CJEU.

There is no one global and uniform definition for the term “organic.” As it appears on EU meat labels, the word implies a lot more than animal welfare. It also means the animals have eaten feed that hasn’t been exposed to herbicides and that the animals aren’t given growth-promoting antibiotics or other growth substances, to name a couple. Current EU rules but don’t address slaughtering methods specifically, but they do specify that animals be treated well. Those are important values for many EU consumers, including Muslims and Jews.  However, the new rule is likely to effectively exclude Jewish and Islamic people from enjoying some meat products that, in the past, would have been considered kosher or halal.

Just how much the ruling impacts the continent’s Jews and Muslims isn’t totally clear. According to a 2014 article in The Guardian, about 88% of animals in the UK were stunned and killed in a method that’s religiously acceptable, which includes cutting its throat in a single swipe and draining the carcass of its blood. Both kosher and halal rules require as much. A 2018 report (pdf) published by the UK Department for Environment Food & Rural Affairs showed that 25% of all lamb, 9% of all chicken, and and less than 1% of all beef produced in the country was non-stun halal. Among kosher meats, non-stun kosher accounted for less than 1% in every category of meat.

That’s still much better than in the US. According to Halal Advocates of America, the supply of non-stunned halal meat in the US isn’t big enough to meet demand. Much of what is sold in the country is imported from New Zealand and Australia.

The EU court ruling raises an important question for food regulators with oversight over the labels companies slap onto their products. The quality of animal meat is most often associated with how an animal was treated during the course of its overall life. That includes ascertaining whether it spent most of its life free to roam, as opposed to be confined in a cage. It also means taking into consideration the kinds of grasses and grains the animal ate. So then how important are the final seconds of an animal’s life when thinking about its meat as organic? Perhaps more importantly, what the hell is “organic,” anyway? And is it fair that the definition is so malleable that a single court ruling can slice millions of people from enjoying the many other benefits of meat products labeled organic?

If any of this sounds familiar, it’s because this isn’t the first time this issue has come up in France. Back in 2012, far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen seized on the issue to try and wrest votes from the center-right. She failed to win that race.

The current case is expected to gain more attention and scrutiny as it goes to the EU Court of Appeals in Versailles, France, where it will get a definitive ruling.