It is a established fact that the majority of conventional meat slaughterhouses in North America use some form of stunning to subdue and immobilize the animal before the slaughter. There are different types of stunning used for different species including turkeys, chickens, lamb, and cattle. Most halal slaughterhouses in North America also use some form of stunning before slaughter. Therefore, the Islamic ruling of stunning is an issue of paramount importance which has tremendous implications for Muslim consumers and businesses alike. This article will attempt to shed light on this important issue.
One preliminary point to consider when discussing the ruling of stunning is differentiating between the act of stunning and the legal status of the animal which has been slaughtered after stunning. These are two different issues which are independent from one another and should not be cropped together under one banner. We will discuss these two rulings separately below.
There are numerous types of stunning including the pneumatic stunner which delivers a blow to the head of the animal, captive bolt pistol which shatters the brain of the animal, electric water trough which delivers a electric shock to poultry, and electric brain stunner for sheep. Some methods are reversible and others are irreversible. When irreversible methods of stunning are applied, the animal will die if it is not slaughtered within a few minutes. Other methods are reversible in theory and the animal can get up and walk around if not slaughtered in a few minutes. The common factor in all these methods of stunning is causing extra pain to the animal above and beyond the pain experienced during the slaughter itself. For this reason, many scholars have declared that the act of stunning is extremely disliked and close to being impermissible. Stunning is a very serious matter and some scholars have used extremely strong language when describing the practice of stunning such as ‘against the spirit of Islam’ and an ‘evil innovation.’ Therefore, a Muslim should avoid using this practice as much as possible when slaughtering an animal.
A second, independent issue is the ruling of consuming an animal which has been stunned prior to a proper halal slaughter. Stunning is a unacceptable action and the person who stuns will sinful for causing extra pain to the animal. However, the impermissibility of the act of stunning does not influence the lawfulness of the animal which was stunned and does NOT necessarily mean that all stunned animals are also unlawful to consume. The legal status of a animal which has been stunned is dependent on whether the animal was alive at the time of slaughter. If the animal was indeed alive at the time of a proper halal slaughter, then the meat of such an animal will be lawful to consume. On the other hand, if it is established that the animal was indeed dead at the time of slaughter, such an animal will be unlawful to consume despite the fact that it was slaughtered in accordance to Islamic law.
Since the legal status of a stunned animal is dependent on it being alive at the time of slaughter, there is a need to discuss how to ascertain that the animal is alive at the time of death. A renowned Islamic scholar, Mufti Taqi Usmani, has shed light on this important issue and he writes:
”The jurists have mentioned many signs that can be taken as proof of an animal being alive at the time of slaughter, for example if the animal bleeds at the time of slaughter like a living animal, or closes its mouth or eyes, or pulls together its legs, or shows any kind of movement, etc. Therefore, if the fact that the animal was alive can be established in any way, it will be permissible to slaughter it, and its meat will be considered Halal. The observation of movement in the animal, or establishing the fact that a pulse exists is sufficient to prove an animal alive.”
After learning of the evil of stunning, a Muslim should do his best to consume meat which was not stunned and support businesses who supply unstunned halal meat. There are numerous advantages to unstunned meat including complete drainage of blood, better consistency of the meat, and no concern of the animal dying due to the stunning. In practical terms, the percentage of unstunned halal meat is extremely low and the majority of halal meat is stunned. Approximately 90% or more of chickens are stunned through the reversible method of the electric water trough. The majority of beef slaughterhouses use a pneumatic stunner or a captive bolt pistol to subdue the animal before slaughter. Likewise, the vast majority of lamb and goat slaughterhouses apply a electric rod to the head of the animal before slaughter.
In the current situation, the supply of unstunned halal meat is insufficient to meet the supply needs of the North America Muslim community. The majority of halal lamb and goat in America and a good percentage of the halal beef is imported from New Zealand and Australia. The Halal Advocates of America sent a delegation to research the halal status of this meat and found that almost all of this meat is stunned due to the governmental regulations in these countries. This presents challenges for the Muslim consumer who makes a conscious decision to consume only unstunned halal meat. This is further complicated by the fact that authentic, hand slaughtered meat itself is not readily available and the majority of the ‘halal’ meat in America is processed using doubtful slaughter methods. A good percentage of Muslims are not consuming authentic halal products, are not concerned about halal, or cannot find authentic halal products in their cities. This point is verified by extensive research at the ground level on the halal supply chain in numerous cities all over America. If the halal authorities were to completely reject stunned halal meat and only accept unstunned meat, then it would be extremely difficult to find authentic halal meat in America.
Based on the halal needs of the Muslim community, many renowned international halal organizations and authorities have accepted animals which are stunned with strict requirements and measures in place to ensure that the animal is alive when slaughtered. The level of voltage and the application of the stunning mechanism is closely monitored by halal inspectors and supervisors. The slaughterers are trained to look for signs of life and to reject animals which do not bleed properly or do not display signs of life. They are authorized to remove such animals from the line and ensure that they are not included in the halal production.
The stance of the Halal Advocates of America is that stunning should be avoided as much as possible and Muslims in the long term should move towards removing stunning completely from halal slaughterhouses. The Jews have historically taken a strong stance against stunning and do not allow it under any circumstance. Likewise, there are many Muslim leaders who are completely opposed to stunning and do not allow it. The Halal Advocates will do their best to educate the Muslim public with regards to the harms of stunning and plan to introduce a system to label products which are stunned and products which are not stunned. The Halal Advocates are also dedicated to working in the long term with Muslim businesses and the meat industry to build the infrastructure needed to eliminate stunning once and for all from the halal slaughter plants.
At the same time, the Halal Advocates acknowledge the scarcity of authentic halal products and understand that stunning is needed in the short term to meet the needs of the Muslim community. Therefore, after careful consideration, the Halal Advocates have decided to approve reversible methods of stunning in the short term for poultry and sheep under strict supervision to ensure that the animal does not die. However, the Halal Advocates will not allow lethal and irreversible stunning methods for cattle which will cause the death of the animal in a few minutes and will initiate cardiac arrest. There is a viable alternative in the form of the ‘kill box’ which restrains the animal for slaughter and eliminates the need to stun. The Halal Advocates have adopted a balanced approach in the short term with regards the issue of stunning and have consciously chosen the ‘lesser of the two evils’ in order to provide more options for Muslims to consume authentic halal products. The long term goal is to move closer to the Sunnah method of slaughter and stop causing extra pain to the animal through stunning.