Banning the ritual slaughter of livestock for food, a bedrock of the Jewish and Muslim faiths, has split Poland into opposing camps of religious groups, animal rights campaigners and flourishing meat exporters.
Animal rights activists backed by left-wing politicians last month won a key victory when Poland’s Constitutional Court voided regulations that since 2004 have enabled the production of Jewish kosher and Muslim halal meat.
The court upheld complaints that slaughter without prior stunning breached a 1997 law on the humane treatment of animals.
But both Jewish and Muslim clerics see the pending ban as going against the tenets of their faiths. They also argue that their traditional method of butchering an animal with a single, rapid cut to the throat minimises pain and suffering.
And Poland’s agriculture sector, thriving on meat exports, warns it would deal a major blow to the economy.
The impact of the ruling, however, remains moot as it enters into force on January 1, the same day as a European Union directive setting common rules for the production of kosher and halal meat across the 27-nation bloc, which Poland joined in 2004.
But individual EU member states are allowed some level of discretion and, fresh from their landmark courtroom win, animal rights campaigners insist the fight is not over.
“Ritual slaughter is inhumane, as the animals suffer,” said Robert Biedron, a member of parliament from the left-wing opposition Palikot Movement.
“We live in the 21st Century, and we should ban this kind of method, even if it’s authorised by religious tradition,” he told AFP.
Various official and community-group estimates put Poland’s Jewish and Muslim population at between 20,000 and 30,000 each, in an overwhelmingly Roman Catholic nation of 38 million.
For Jewish community leader Piotr Kadlcik, kosher slaughter is essential.
“It’s a serious matter, even if only around a few hundred families actually follow kosher rules,” he told AFP.
“Polish law guarantees us the right to ritual slaughter,” he insisted, before condemning anti-Semitic slurs circulating on the Internet since the issue has been in the spotlight.
The kosher issue exerts a powerful pull here because Poland was Europe’s Jewish heartland for centuries, until Nazi Germany killed the vast majority of the community during World War II.
International Jewish organisations have also taken Polish authorities to task.
“Kosher butchering is essential for sustenance of Jewish life and its ban hurts Jews not only in Poland but in other places across Europe,” Rabbi Menachem Margolin, head of the Brussels-based European Jewish Association, wrote in a letter to Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski.
Margolin also warned that a ban would be “devastating to Jewish welfare and freedom of religion”.
— Farmers back Jewish, Muslim groups —-
The issue lacks the same politically-tinged feel as in Western European countries with large Muslim communities, where some opponents of ritual slaughter are accused of exploiting animal welfare campaigns for racist reasons.
Still, Poland’s Muslims are concerned.
“The ban hasn’t yet come into force, and we hope it won’t come into force. If they do, it will be a serious blow to religious freedom,” said Bronislaw Talkowski, head of the country’s six-century-old Tatar Muslim community.
In Talkowski’s view the animal rights campaigners’ arguments were part of a “game”.
Jewish and Muslim groups have the firm backing of those in the farm sector for whom the production of kosher and halal meat for export is a major source of income.
Poland is home to around two dozen abattoirs specialised in kosher and halal butchery, with the value of last year’s exports estimated at 250-350 million euros ($327-456 million).
According to agriculture ministry estimates, the country exports around 100,000 ritually-slaughtered livestock annually to some 20 nations including Turkey, Israel, Germany and France.
Wieslaw Roznanski, head of the national meat-industry federation UPEMI, called on Poland to continue to allow ritual butchery — and save jobs.
“If not, we’re going to lose the markets that we’ve won. And it’ll be much harder to return to them later,” he told AFP.
“If we lose those markets, a string of abattoirs will go bust and thousands of people will be out of work,” he added.
The agriculture ministry estimates that around 6,000 jobs would be directly affected.
Overall, Poland exports more than two-thirds of its beef, and losing key ritual slaughter markets would be a disaster for the entire sector, producers warn.
Aware of the interlocking faith and economic fears, the country’s centrist government has promised an in-depth review of the issue before the first of the year.
“A legal draft allowing ritual slaughter is already ready to be submitted to parliament,” Agriculture Minister Stanislaw Kalemba said Friday.
“Ritual slaughter is authorised in around 20 European countries, and Poland should allow it too,” he said.
[Image via Agence France-Presse]