GM Poultry

Retailers and their meat suppliers face fresh controversy and uncertainty around halal poultry, as contentious new EU animal welfare regulations are set to be reappraised by Defra.

The Welfare of Animals at the Time of Killing (Watok) regulations, which cover improvements to training, certification and welfare requirements in slaughterhouses, have already been implemented in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

They were due to be introduced in England last May but were shelved by Defra following fierce opposition - including an 11th hour judicial review - to a requirement to increase poultry stunning voltages to potentially lethal doses, which processors and religious groups claimed would violate halal guidelines.

But now Watok could be back on the table for England, after farming minister George Eustice said Defra would take another look at the regulations. He told the British Meat Processors Association conference last week that Defra had “not forgotten about Watok”.

But with opposition from the halal sector still strong, what are the chances of Watok coming to England? And what would be the implications for retailers and their suppliers?

Eustice did not indicate a timeframe, stating only that Defra would be considering the regulation over “the next few weeks”. An FSA spokesman said the agency was “working closely with Defra on requirements for implementing legislation in England”.

However, the government is under increasing pressure to introduce Watok, with the British Veterinary Association warning last week a failure to do so could result in England “falling behind in its long history of promoting and upholding high standards of animal welfare at the time of slaughter”. Indeed, industry insiders suggest the amended regulations could be presented to parliament as early as this autumn.

Stunning voltages

The key reason Watok has proved controversial with the halal sector is a proposal to formalise a minimum current for water bath stunning of 200 milliamps. But this would mean animals could no longer recover from stunning, making the carcase non-halal, says the Halal Authority Board (HAB).

However, Richard Griffiths, director of food policy at the British Poultry Council, insists voltages are “no longer an issue” because all of the major processors have now moved from electric to gas stunning.

Some industry experts have also argued the new regulations will add unreasonable costs to the sector, but Griffiths says the cost implications are not actually as bad as feared, with Watok unlikely to bring much, if any, additional cost. “Our members are already working to the new regulations,” he says. “It focuses efforts on animal welfare and has formalised our existing standards.”

Voltages and new costs could, however, still be a sticking point for smaller abattoirs involved in religious slaughter. Association of Independent Meat Suppliers director Norman Bagley says the group (led by AIMS and the HAB) that so vehemently opposed the legislation last year would need to look closely at any new proposals put forward by Defra. He adds the group could consider relaunching a judicial review. “What we are interested in is the continued viability of the businesses of our members. Defra has been playing politics with the stunning question for too long.”

The good news is the industry has been preparing for Watok - Morrisons announced last August its staff were the first of any supermarket to gain qualifications under Watok standards.

Having said this, BMPA’s deputy director, Fiona Steiger, warns that until the proposals become law, uncertainty will continue to plague the meat processing sector. “Until Watok is actioned, no certificate of competence for staff can be issued.”

The industry will be hoping a fresh round of debate around Watok, stunning and halal meat will not end up extending such uncertainty for longer than is absolutely necessary.