The debate over halal (حلال) and kosher (כשר) ritual slaughter is a hotbed of religion, politics, corporate greed, systematic abuses, and special interests. Amidst all the controversy, the core question remains: is it possible to end the life of another being in a way that is kind?
Table Of Contents
- Important Notes on the Complexity of This Topic & My Approach
- What Are Halal & Kosher Dietary Laws
- The Role of Governmental Regulation in Ritual Slaughter
- Temple Grandin & the Science of Humane Ritual Slaughter
- Inadequate Enforcement of Halal & Kosher Regulations
- What About the Ideal of True Halal & Kosher Slaughter?
- No Religion Mandates the Consumption of Animals
- In Closing: Assessing Our Own Complicity
Kosher (כשר) and halal (حلال) dietary guidelines—particularly in regards to the treatment and slaughter of animals—have long sparked controversy and debate, even within their respective religious communities.
The most contentious aspect of ritual slaughter—taking the international stage more than once—is whether shechita (שְׁחִיטָה) and zabiha/dhabiha/al-dhabh ( ذَبِيْحَة) (the terms for slaughter performed to kosher and halal standards respectively) are the most humane and merciful, or the most brutal and barbaric. tweet this
I’ll be honest that this has been one of the most daunting and profoundly challenging articles and videos I’ve ever made. As a vegan educator, I know all too well that dietary practice alone is a hot button issue. Add in religion, culture, heritage, politics, and money, and you’ve got a proper powder keg of a topic. So before we get started, there are some very important caveats I need to clarify.
As Jewish and Islamic scholars continue to study, debate, and deepen their own understanding of kashrut (כַּשְׁרוּת) (Jewish dietary laws under which permissible foods are deemed “kosher”) and halal meat and slaughter even after thousands of years, it’s not only unrealistic but also irresponsible to assume that I can adequately comprehend and convey the entirety of their teachings within a single article and video.
Presenting incredibly complex concepts in a simplified format always runs the risk of being overly reductionist. This is why—as with all of my intensively researched content—this article contains citations, a bibliography, and portions of my original draft that were cut from the final video for the sake of time.
I want to be clear that this is not an attack on Judaism, Islam, or even religion as whole. The aim here is to take a hard look at kosher and halal slaughter and evaluate whether they are genuinely humane, merciful practices. Such an assessment is perhaps even more vital for their adherents, as violation of these principles compromises the very foundation of their faith.
In fact, the values espoused by animal advocates opposed to ritual slaughter are, according to Jewish and Islamic leaders, the very basis of halal and kosher practices. But this potential common ground is rarely explored as almost every public debate over ritual slaughter arises from undercover footage exposing the horrifically brutal treatment of animals in halal and kosher slaughterhouses.
As this abuse grossly violates halal and kosher laws, rightly drawing outrage from all sides, the ultimate conclusion is almost always a call for better regulations and stricter enforcement of halal and kosher standards, leaving unanswered the very the question of whether these methods—when carried out as intended—are humane, and failing to address what truly lies at the heart of the humane slaughter debate as a whole: is it even possible to end the life of another being in a way that is kind? [tweet this]
In the effort to actually address this core question through the overwhelmingly complex lens of the ritual slaughter debate, I’m approaching this topic in a deliberately different manner.
Let’s begin with a brief overview of the similarities and differences between kosher and halal dietary laws. Meaning “right/proper” and “lawful/permitted” respectively, both terms encompass far more than their most recognized application to meat and slaughter.
Their origins are rooted in scripture—the Tanakh (תַּנַ”ךְ) and Talmud (תַּלְמוּד) (the Written Torah and Oral Torah respectively) for kashrut, and the Quran (القرآن) and various hadith (حديث) (hadith are reports describing the words, actions, or habits of the Islamic prophet Muhammad; plural: ahadith) for halal.
The exact rationale behind these regulations remains hotly debated, with religious and academic scholars offering a complex multitude of theories—from health and hygiene concerns, to separation from Pagan nations, to ethics and compassion, to an opportunity to demonstrate one’s obedience without explanation (termed “chukkim” within Judaism – the laws for which there is no reason given.)
Both sets of laws dictate which species may or may not be eaten, expressly prohibit the consumption of blood—thus requiring complete exsanguination of the corpse—and specify animals must be alive, healthy, and uninjured at the time of their slaughter, which is to be performed with a swift cut from a sharpened knife (chalaf/chalef for kosher) in order to minimize pain and provide the quickest death.
There are a number of differences and nuances within the specifications for slaughter, including who may perform the act—kosher law requires a Shochet (specially trained Jewish slaughterer), while halal slaughter allows for any adult male Muslim invoking the name of Allah, as well as meat slaughtered by Christians and Jews (People of the Book) when options are limited. Additionally, kosher laws prohibit the consumption of certain parts of an animal, and require an incredibly rigorous inspection (bedika) of the organs post-slaughter, and a full purgation of residual blood (koshering) through salting or broiling. 
Thus, while kosher meat is halal, halal meat is not kosher.
However, the most notable variation in regards to the humane debate is their stance on pre-slaughter stunning. Kosher standards explicitly require animals be fully conscious and aware when killed. Some Jewish individuals, like Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz, advocate the adoption of post-slaughter stunning—meaning immediately after the throat is cut—stating that:
“the drawn out moments between the slaughter and final death are terribly painful and stressful for the dying animal [who is] completely conscious and continues to shake in extreme pain for minutes after the neck is cut.”
However post-slaughter stunning lacks any majority acceptance within the Jewish community.
While halal slaughter is traditionally—and still typically—also carried out on fully conscious animals, some Muslim authorities have approved very particular methods of pre-slaughter stunning, given they meet specific requirements (must be nonlethal such that animal would regain consciousness in less than a minute and be able to eat within five minutes) and almost all halal slaughter plants in Australia and New Zealand perform pre-slaughter stunning.
This brings us to another layer of complexity. Irrevocably intertwined with the question of ritual slaughter’s “humaneness” is the role of governmental bodies in its regulation. Every country with humane slaughter regulations—which in and of themselves are a study in human ingenuity and self-deception—requires stunning animals prior to slaughter. 
However, the vast majority—including the United States—contain exemptions for religious slaughter, with the whole of the European Union specifically mandating member states permit non-stunning kosher slaughter (previously member states had the autonomy to permit or prohibit ritual slaughter methods).
Just as the humane treatment of animals is confoundingly offered as both the main objection to and justification for ritual slaughter, the issue is further muddied when every government’s humane regulations require stunning, yet simultaneously defend ritual slaughter with arguments of its enhanced humaneness.
How can this possibly be? All methods of slaughter cannot simultaneously be the most humane. Who is truly in the right?
Perhaps the most influential and oft-referenced study in regards to the “humaneness” of ritual slaughter is the 1994 paper from Dr. Temple Grandin, widely heralded as the foremost authority on humane livestock handling and slaughterhouse restraint system design.
Grandin emphasizes the “need to critically consider the scientific information available about the effects of different slaughter practices on animals before reaching any judgments about the appropriateness of a particular form of slaughter” and to “understand the importance of these practices to the people who follow these religious codes.”
The study outlines three basic concerns:
- stressfulness of restraint methods,
- pain perception during the incision, and
- latency of onset of complete insensibility, meaning how long it takes for the animal to lose consciousness—and thus stop feeling pain—after their throat is cut.
Because animals are conscious at the time of ritual slaughter, they must be fully bodily restrained. A large contributor to the confusion within the humane debate is the extreme variation of restraint systems and methodologies utilized around the world and even from factory to factory.
For a rather exhaustive 76-slide PowerPoint presentation, from meat industry insiders, detailing these variations—complete with photographic illustrations and their impact on profits, see the linked citation.
One of the most objectionable and decidedly stressful forms of restraint is shackling and hoisting animals while fully conscious, a method banned in Canada and other countries, but still used in North and South America, Israel, and many others.
The primary method of restraint utilized for ritual slaughter without stunning in Europe, as well as Israel, and select US plants, is a full inversion pen, wherein cows are flipped upside down with a head restraint exposing their neck for slaughter.
Largely preferred by Jewish and Muslim communities, because they allow for a more natural and controlled cutting motion, Grandin’s research—along with subsequent studies, including one in 2004 from the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA)—found this method highly stressful for cows, recommending instead upright restraint.
However, facing pushback from religious communities and what it cryptically refers to as “different stakeholders,” the European Commission ordered an extensive investigation and report comparing upright and inverted methods.
The report, issued on February 8, 2016—exactly 3 years and 2 months after its due date, and over 6 years after its commission—concluded that there was no discernible different in animal welfare between the methods.
It’s no wonder there’s such confusion and conflict surrounding ritual slaughter. With such variation in methodology, conflicting scientific studies and governmental back and forth, influenced to varying degrees by religious tensions, political pressure and meat industry interests, how can anyone be sure what kosher and halal even mean anymore?
Just as humane and cage-free labels lack any meaningful improvements for animals, and governmental mandates lack timely—or any—enforcement, halal and kosher certifications have time and again been exposed as inadequately enforced, with rampant violations of both religious and governmental laws being the norm rather than the exception.
A particularly horrific undercover investigation conducted in Postville, Iowa, at AgriProcessors, the largest kosher slaughterhouse in the America, revealed unbelievably barbaric footage, subsequently featured in the documentary Earthlings, and sparked international outrage from all camps. 
While I believe it’s of vital importance to witness the reality of what we do to animals, I did not include the graphic footage in my final video above as it would no doubt result in it being age restricted, thus severely limiting accessibility to the remaining information.
I have provided footage from the investigation, along with a mini-documentary response from the Jewish community and additional videos of halal investigations in this playlist.
The undercover investigator at AgriProcessors described in his notes seeing cow after cow loaded into the full inversion rotating restraint and having their trachea or esophagus ripped out of their open throats as they aspirated on their own blood.
They were then dumped onto the blood-soaked floor and many struggled to stand with their heads nearly severed off. One managed to stand and walked into the corner. Some cried out despite their torn throats. He wrote:
“The first time I saw a cow stagger to his feet and walk around with his trachea dangling outside of his body, I thought to myself, this can’t be happening—but after several days I knew better.
There is no justification for the cruelty I documented in that slaughterhouse. The presence of the USDA didn’t have any effect, nor did the presence of the rabbis.
These animals were failed by both religion and regulations.”
Jewish and Islamic communities were appalled by this footage, and even Temple Grandin said it was “the most disgusting thing I’d ever seen. I couldn’t believe it.”
But the undercover footage taken over seven weeks showed this barbaric treatment was in fact standard operating procedure, leaving Grandin to conclude “the only way to ensure that correct procedures are followed in this plant is to install video cameras that can be audited over the internet.”
This of course begs the question: what is going on inside of every other plant she’s approved—or any slaughterhouse for that matter—when no one is watching?
These atrocities are not anomalies. In an interview with activist Anita Krajnc of Toronto Pig Save, a kill floor worker from Riding Regency Meat Packers, a Halal and Kosher slaughterhouse in Toronto, Canada, observed rabbis reaching into the cows’ neck and grabbing their esophagus.
He described how cows are routinely still conscious when chained and hung upside down, taking four to five minutes to die, such that the first few cows of each day reach the “scalper” and are fully aware when the skin is peeled from their face.
Where is the regulation in all of this? For many in the Jewish community, that was the most astounding aspect of the AgriProcessers scandal. In the face of this blatant brutality decried by every side of the issue, The Orthodox Union—which certified the plant as kosher—stated, “we continue to vouch for the kashrut of all of the meat prepared by AgriProcessors, Inc., which was never compromised.”
In a most poignant summation, religious scholar Dr. Aaron Gross writes:
“Sadly, the abuse at AgriProcessors is a symbol of entrenched, systematic abuse of animals in today’s meat industry, rather than an anomaly…though the Jewish community may be rightfully proud that kosher law dictates a method of slaughter that can reduce animal suffering during slaughter to an absolute minimum, there is presently no guarantee that this is the case…The entire tradition of reverence and compassion that is Judaism’s life blood is drained when kosher slaughter becomes an act of cruelty.
…the fact that the products of factory farming and even abusive facilities like AgriProcessors are given moral legitimacy by being deemed ‘kosher,’ transforms kashrut from an ethical system into one that helps mask organized animal abuse. This awkward situation is so far from the moral vision of kashrut that it is painful to even acknowledge.”—Dr. Aaron Gross, religious scholar
As I said at the start of this, while it’s vital to acknowledge that violations are the norm rather than the exception within kosher and halal factories, in order to truly evaluate the ethics of ritual slaughter, we must strive to assess the principles in their ideal manifestation, even if such a manifestation doesn’t actually exist in any current application.
In the end, after all of this human-created noise and confusion, the best way to answer whether ritual slaughter is humane is by simple observation.
See the video at the top of this post at 12min 50sec to observe the most profoundly idealized example of ritual slaughter, by Sam Kouka of Mercy Halal. I’ve edited out the actual cutting of the throat or any visuals of blood, so you will not see anything graphic.
I do want to note that while the footage depicts halal slaughter (zabiha/dhabiha), the core tenets of human treatment are consistent with kosher slaughter (shechita). I’ve provided an ideal example of kosher slaughter in the additional footage playlist.
In the included footage, after the slaughter, Sam Kouka of Mercy Halal, states:
“I want to assure you: only lucky animals are slaughtered here—they are very proud to fulfill their mission—it’s a necessary act for this meat to reach your table.”
Even in this most idealized and artificially sterilized scenario—which even the slaughterer states is the exception—it’s evident this sheep was not a wiling participant. Ending the life any sentient being prematurely and against their will cannot possibly be a humane or merciful act.
Just like children, these beings cannot give us their consent. His cessation of struggling after much manipulation and assurance is more of a sad statement of his innocent yet misplaced trust in his caretaker turned slaughterer than any form of willful submission through a full comprehension of what’s to come.
The assertion that this act is necessary, thus justifying the lesser of the evils, is one of the main rationalizations offered by meat eaters, secular and religious alike. But no religion—Judaism and Islam included—mandates the consumption of animals.
In fact, as I cover in my video series The History of Veganism, primarily in the Middle Ages episode, the Quran and hadith contain numerous verses in support of compassion and respect for animals, even emphasizing the consumption of fruits and vegetables to sustain humans and animals alike.
And following Genesis 1:29, Rabbinic tradition has taught that human beings were originally vegetarian in the garden of Eden and it was only after the fall and the flood that meat eating was reluctantly permitted. Thus the spiritual ideal is a diet free of animal products.
There are countless Jewish and Muslim vegans, many of whom state their decision to go vegan was a natural extension of their religious practice, and greatly deepened their connection to their faith.
The myth of humane slaughter reaches beyond any religion. Humanity as a whole consistently strives to excuse and justify the enslavement, torture, and murder of sentient beings. There’s a level of absurdity with how much time, energy, detail, government money, and paperwork goes into finding just the right way to kill.
We point fingers at inexcusable abuse in other countries, cultures, religions, and specific companies, erupting in righteous outrage and conveniently avoiding any assessment of our own complicity in the deaths of the animals on our plates.
I’ll conclude with the words of Jewish author, noble laureate and Holocaust survivor Isaac Bashevis Singer,
“People often say that humans have always eaten animals, as if this is a justification for continuing the practice. According to this logic, we should not try to prevent people from murdering other people, since this has also been done since the earliest of times.”— Isaac Bashevis Singer
I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below. If you’d like to help support Bite Size Vegan so I can keep putting in the long hours (approximate production time for this video and article: 108 hours) to bring you this free educational resource, please check see the support page.
Please share this video far and wide to inform and spur focused, constructive debate.
Now go live vegan, no matter your faith or lack thereof, and I’ll see you soon.
— Emily Moran Barwick