SWEDISH JEWS ARE WORRIED ABOUT NEW LEGISLATION ON THE RITUAL SLAUGHTER OF POULTRY. RELIGIOUS RITES AND ‘ANIMAL RIGHTS’.
STOCKHOLM – The observant Jews of Sweden may soon have to stop eating chicken, or start importing it, if the government refuses to change its new animal welfare regulations which ban shehita (ritual slaughter).
Following the passage of legislation this summer to protect the rights of farm animals, Sweden became the only country in the world to require that chickens and turkeys be stunned before slaughter. The new regulations, designed to minimize animal suffering, preclude kosher slaughtering, since Jewish law does not allow any damage to the bird before shehita.
The country’s Jewish community, which numbers about 20,000, of whom an estimated 500 families keep kosher, has applied to the government to allow an exception for kosher slaughtering. Permission has been granted until the end of February, pending a final decision.
The government is now examining whether the kosher method of slaughtering chickens is humane, according to Madelaine Emmervald, head of the Agriculture Ministry’s animal welfare and veterinary affairs section. She concedes that the method was banned before any study had been carried out.
Representatives of the Jewish community met on January 25 with Agriculture Minister Mats Hellstrum to present their arguments.
“It’s a matter of religious freedom,” says Rabbi Aaron Katz, head of Stockholm’s Orthodox community. “The new regulations prevent the Jews from practising their religion.”
SWEDISH LAW has banned the slaughter of farm animals without prior stunning since 1937. But until the recent animal rights act, an exception was made for poultry, provided that the birds were killed by “rapid decapitation.”
The kosher method of slaughtering chickens, in which the bird is killed by the slitting of the throat and only subsequently decapitated, was endorsed by the Supreme Court in 1940. The court found that the requirement of slaughter by rapid decapitation was fulfilled if the chicken’s head was severed “immediately” after its throat was slit.
Under the regulations that took effect last October, the exception permitting slaughter without prior stunning was narrowed: now only “a few” birds may be dispatched this way.
The exception was changed after the ministry accepted the view of the National Association of Veterinarians that when a lot of chickens are slaughtered without stunning, errors can easily occur, causing the animals needless suffering, says the Agriculture Ministry’s Emmervald.
Minister Hellstrum told parliament, in introducing the animal rights act, that for “practical reasons” it should remain legally permissible to kill “a few” birds without prior stunning. The idea is to enable a farmer to kill a chicken or two for dinner by chopping off their heads – as with an axe, which is the normal way to kill a broiler – says Eric Skolund, director of the general veterinary division of the National Board of Agriculture, the independent state agency that issued and enforces the regulations. “But it rules out killing chickens without prior stunning in large numbers, as in a slaughterhouse,” he says.
Noting that Hellstrum also told parliament that ritual slaughter of farm animals should be banned without exception because it is inhumane, Skoglund adds that the new regulations, which must be read in accordance with the minister’s remarks, rule out killing even”a few” chickens by the kosher method.
Jewish community leaders told Hellstrum that the kosher method is just as humane – and perhaps even more so – than the legally sanctioned methods.
“The pain felt by a chicken whose throat is slit by a shohet (slaughterer) is no greater than that a person feels when he cuts his finger on a piece of paper,” notes Stockholm Chief Rabbi Morton Narrowe, referring to studies by I. M. Levinger, a rabbi and veterinarian.
“The loss of consciousness, and death, come just as quickly as when you kill a chicken by decapitation.”
THE NATIONAL Board of Agriculture opposes the kosher method of killing chickens because the head is not cut off right away, but only after the bird has been bled. Why is it so important that the chicken be killed by rapid decapitation? “Regulations require it,” says Emmervald.
Before the Swedish government can permit the kosher slaughtering of chickens it must not only find that the method is humane. It must also find that when carried out on more than “a few” birds, errors do not creep in.
Jewish community leaders told Hellstrum that under kosher slaughtering, mistakes are virtually impossible.
The argument that the Jewish method of slaughtering chickens is virtually mistake-proof is being examined now for the first time, says the ministry’s Emmervald.
Narrowe notes that in any case the Jewish community does not slaughter chickens on a large scale. “Once a week, a shohet comes from Denmark to a farm in the south of Sweden and kills 500 chickens.” He sums up: “There’s a terrible ignorance about the kosher method of slaughtering chickens. The government banned it without even knowing what it was.”
According to Willy Solomon, the president of the Board of Jewish Communities in Sweden, the animal rights act was “very hastily made” to appease animal protection groups. “We have a good case when it comes to facts,” says Solomon. “But the issue of animal rights is emotionally charged, and I don’t know if the minister will dare to go against the animal protection groups.” If the government refuses to permit the kosher slaughter of chickens, the Orthodox community will take legal action, says Rabbi Katz. If need be, it will take the case as far as the European Court in Strasbourg, attacking the law as a violation of the religious freedom guaranteed by the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. “But if legal measure fail,” says Katz, who serves as the Jewish community’s mashgiah and back-up shohet, “I’ll slaughter the chickens myself – law or no law.”
Short of openly breaking the law, the observant Jews of Sweden would have to choose between not eating chicken and importing it if the government retains the ban.
Because of the law forbidding the slaughter of farm animals without stunning, the Jewish community already imports beef and mutton.
The community has been trying for years to have the kosher slaughtering of sheep and cattle legalized, he says. He acknowledges that there are studies showing that it is more humane to kill these animals after stunning, “But there are veterinarians who dispute this and say that the kosher method of slaughter is no less humane.
“We haven’t given up the fight over cattle and sheep. But we can’t fight on two fronts. Now the fight is for poultry.”