The furore over halal meat could provoke a backlash when the UK has to decide whether to enshrine the slaughter method in law. Alex Beckett reports

As stories go, the timing was heaven sent. During the weekend when the Pope implored Britons to reclaim their Christian values, a Sunday newspaper revealed that halal-slaughtered meat had been running through the food chain.

'Britain goes halal' and 'What the halal?' shrieked two of the headlines as their papers revealed that meat slaughtered in accordance with sharia law had been dished up to everyone from football fans at Wembley to the boarders at Cheltenham College all of them oblivious to its Muslim origins.

Responses from halal spokespeople were underplayed, although readers commenting online included Muslims outraged at the tone and inaccuracy of the articles. As one said, all meat imported from Australia and New Zealand is halal and even KFC introduced ­halal-only menus in a significant number of stores in April 2009 ­before scrapping the trial this year.

It's out there and we don't know it. So should we be outraged?

The bloody nature of the topic touches nerves. For meat to be halal it must come from a healthy animal that has its jugular vein, carotid artery and windpipe cut by a sharp knife in one clean motion as a prayer is offered to Allah. The blood must be drained before the meat can be classed as halal.

Slaughter without prior stunning is currently allowed in deference to the religious beliefs of Muslims and Jews although some halal slaughterhouses, to the ire of strict Muslims, do permit ­pre-stunning. But upcoming EU Regulation 1099/2009, due to be introduced on 1 January 2013, is likely to blow open the debate on whether Britain should maintain that line.

The regulations will enshrine individual member states' right to permit slaughter without prior stunning. In theory, at that point Britain could choose not to, and until then at least, the "scaremongering" must stop, says Mohammad Nazir, chairman of the European Halal Development Authority.

Moreover, he suggests the way in which animals are led to pre-stunned slaughter under sharia is more humane than Western slaughter practices. "The animal will not be dirty, poked or hit and must not be able to see the knife or any other animals. It is caring compared with the Western method."

The coverage has been "unfortunate", agrees Peter Hardwick, head of trade development at Eblex, the organisation for the English beef and sheep industry. Up to 90% of all domestically sourced halal meat comes from animals pre-stunned before slaughter, it says. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals isn't convinced, however.

"While some halal slaughterhouses do use pre-stunning, many do not, which means potentially millions of animals killed under ­religious slaughter conditions are fully conscious," says spokeswoman Alice Barnett.

Animal slaughter of any kind is against the charity's principles, of course, but could there be some truth in her suggestion that it's cost, not principle, driving the production of halal meat? She claims the reason businesses and schools have opted to make halal their default option is the cost of sourcing and reliably separating halal and non-halal.

By coincidence, the World Halal Forum is gathering in London in November to debate halal slaughter and the perception problems. It is the first time the forum has come to the UK. The issue of labelling halal is top of mind among European Parliament policymakers.

"The EU has its eye on this and legislation coming through next year may well differentiate animals that have been stunned from those that haven't," says Hardwick. "At a political and legislative level, there is significant pressure for meat to be labelled in that manner."

The Pope praised the multicultural nature of UK society last weekend. But non-Muslims may have a way to go before they ­knowingly buy halal.