Thursday, 8 May 2014

We're all going on a Summer Halal-iday

Well, here we are again!  Just two days after I wrote about the massive overreaction to the news that Subway would be converting many of its UK sandwich shops to an entirely Halal menu, in response from demand from Muslim customers, this so-called 'scandal' keeps on growing and growing.

Yesterday, The Sun newspaper broke the news that common high-street restaurants like Pizza Express have been using exclusively Halal meat for years.  (Pizza Express later pointed out that this information has actually been freely available for some time.)

Naturally, everybody was outraged.  ('Outraged' has become the standard national response to any news story, no matter what it says.)  People were outraged that they were being fed Halal meat without their knowledge; they were outraged that national restaurant chains were kowtowing to a minority religious group; other people were outraged that the first group of people were outraged, claiming that their outrage was the result of anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim racism - and still more outraged that this story had been printed in The Sun.

But if people calm down and think for a moment, instead of either spewing knee-jerk racist prejudice, or knee-jerkily accusing others of racism, we can see this is a story about food, and food labelling, as much as it is about religion or ethnic minorities.

To many people, where their food comes from, and how it's been prepared, matters.  Like, really matters.  People want to know whether their vegetables are organic or not; whether their eggs are free-range, or from a 'battery' farm; whether their meat has been grass-fed or, um, fed with other stuff.  Likewise, they might want to know how their meat has been slaughtered.

Over past decade or so, Britain has seen a huge increase in concern over welfare in farming, and the origins and provenance of food.  Celebrities chefs such as Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall have emphasised the importance of quality produce, and quality of life, alongside initiatives like the RSPCA's Freedom Foods campaign, and the Red Tractor scheme.

And it is not just on the basis of animal welfare that people will want to know how their food has been prepared.  As political writer and journalist Sunny Hundal mentioned on Twitter, Sikhs are traditionally forbidden from eating Halal meat because of the process.  A sikh's right to be able to eat only non-Halal meat on religious grounds is surely no less important than a muslim's right to be able to eat Halal meat for the same reasons.

There is little doubt that at least some of the furore surrounding the latest Halal meat 'scandal' is racially and Islamophobically motivated.  People who dislike Muslims on principle will try to use this story as an excuse to spread fear about immigrants 'coming over here' and turning Britain into 'an Islamic state' - that is the divisive, anti-immigrant rhetoric of racist groups like the English Defence League, and is both hateful and wrong.  But it is not racist to care about food provenance, and many people's objections will be not to Halal meat itself, nor to Islam in general, but simply to the fact that what they were buying was not labelled as such.

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