Inside Britain’s big, dumb halal pizza scandal


An employee removes a pizza from an oven in the kitchen of a PizzaExpress restaurant in London on April 16, 2014. (Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg)

With so much going on in the world right now, it might be easy for readers to miss one prominent international story: the use of Halal meat at a popular British pizza restaurant chain.

The Sun, the world's best-selling English-language newspaper, broke the story Wednesday:

According to the Sun, Pizza Express, a ubiquitous sight on the British high street, had secretly been using chickens that had been slaughtered in line with Islamic practices. Halal chicken is used in "every meal that contains the meat — but customers only find out if they ask," the newspaper reported.

Britain is no stranger to food scandals: Last year, the discovery of horse meat in frozen lasagnas dominated the headlines for weeks. But in many ways, that was a different problem: revealing the murky world of meat supply chains in Europe that led to the British eating an animal they usually never eat. Halal chicken is still chicken, right?

Apparently not. For many in Britain, this was just another example of religion effecting their food. (Just a week earlier, the Daily Mail had revealed that a number of Subway restaurants in the U.K. had stopped selling bacon and ham and began offering only halal meat.)

After The Sun's article was published, an online Twitter campaign began to mount under the hashtag #boycottpizzaexpress. It was soon revealed that it wasn't just Pizza Express and Subway, either. Fast food chains such as KFC and Nandos also admitted that many of their restaurants sold Halal chicken.

On Thursday, as the epicenter of the British outrage picked up on the story, it was clear: This is a big deal.

For its part, Pizza Express was forced to point out that in its Web site's FAQ section, it does make a mention of its use of halal meat: “All our chicken is halal approved but it is important to note that all birds are stunned before being slaughtered." The question has now been updated to say [emphasis ours] "It is no secret that all the chicken used in our dishes is halal slaughtered." The Media Blog also noted that The Sun's "exclusive" story had already appeared in at least two other newspaper as a minor detail.

But the scandal has reached the height of power in the country. On Thursday, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg waded in, telling a caller on LBC radio that he does "not have a problem eating a pizza with halal meat on it at all," but that it should be properly labelled.

So what's going on here? Well, there's a few things.

First, animal cruelty. Halal meat has to be prepared in standards that make it acceptable (i.e., حلال‎ halal) for Muslims. To do this, the animal must have its blood drained from it, as Muslims are prohibited from consuming animal blood. This is done by slitting the animal's jugular while it is still alive as a Muslim recites Islamic verse.

Killing an animal by bleeding it to death can seem cruel, and it is a controversial matter for animal rights groups. “We recognize religious practices should be respected," a representative of Britain's Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals told The Sun, "but we also believe animals should be slaughtered in the most humane way possible." Because of this, most animals killed by halal methods in the United Kingdom are stunned unconscious before they are bled: In 2011, the United Kingdom's Food Standard's Authority said that 88 percent of chickens killed by halal methods were stunned before they died, and on Pizza Express' Web site, it states that the chickens used in its food are stunned. It's still controversial – some Islamic groups say stunning is not halal – but the method does appear to be widespread.

Also, people want to know what's going into their food. That is clearly reasonable: The horse meat scandal revealed that people don't always know what they're eating, and sometimes that's scary. And it's true that some people have concerns about animal cruelty and would like to know if their meat is halal.

But here's where it gets more complicated. While many people may be worried about animal cruelty, others just seem annoyed that they are eating something "Islamic." It doesn't take long to find these people while browsing  #boycottpizzaexpress, with the arguments ranging from the plainly Islamophobic to the frustratingly disingenuous.

Many lines of reasoning argue that Pizza Express shouldn't forsake the U.K.'s Christian majority by pandering to a Muslim minority. That argument misses the point. Muslims make up about 5 percent of Britain's population, but are estimated to eat more than 20 percent of red meat consumed in the country. According to the BBC, the UK's halal meat industry itself is worth more that $5 billion, and it's an industry that is only going to grow: Pew has predicted that the British Muslim population will reach over 8 percent  by 2030. It's a no-brainer for British restaurant chains to try to accommodate Islamic eating practices, just like they would try to accommodate vegetarians (3 percent of the U.K.), and having multiple suppliers for the same type of meat would make no economic sense.

The sheer abundance of popular halal fast food in London and many other cities would seem to suggest the large majority of non-Muslim British consumers don't really care if their meat is halal. So why the concern? It might be worth considering here that 2013 saw a significant rise in reported numbers of anti-Muslim hate crime. As Britain's Muslim population gets bigger, so does the backlash to it.

That's why the British scandal about pizza is so depressing. Thankfully, Twitter provided some levity:

Adam Taylor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. Originally from London, he studied at the University of Manchester and Columbia University.
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