Poland among European leaders in kosher and halal meat, despite uncertainty around ritual slaughter

By Anna Rzhevkina

Over the past decade, Poland has become a major producer of kosher and halal meat. Yet with its tiny Jewish and Muslim communities, only a small fraction of this meat serves the domestic market, with the rest sold overseas.

Overall, Poland exported just under €5 billion worth of meat in 2020, the fourth highest of all European Union member states. And nearly a third of those exports were kosher and halal products, making Poland one of Europe’s biggest suppliers of this meat.

Yet in recent years this lucrative trade has come under political threat, with the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party – and in particular its powerful chairman Jarosław Kaczyński – pushing for an animal protection law that would, among other things, ban animal slaughter. ritual.

This legislation was twice dropped following opposition within the PiS itself, marking rare defeats for Kaczyński and underscoring the size, strength and lobbying power of the meat industry. However, the producers fear that they will be threatened again.

A high-margin export

Industry representatives say interest in Poland’s kosher and halal meat is growing thanks to its high quality and Poland’s proximity to countries where there is demand. The president of the Polish Association of Beef Breeders and Producers (PZPBM), Jacek Zarzecki, estimates that around 30% of Polish meat exports are halal and kosher.

“Poland, as one of the largest beef producers in the European Union, caters not only to European consumers who need beef slaughtered in accordance with religious requirements, but also to those who are not European”, he told Notes from Poland. In addition to the main export destinations for ritually slaughtered meat so far, such as Germany, France, Spain, the United Kingdom and Israel, he said the UAE is increasingly interested in addition.

Poland exported 6.7 billion zlotys (about 1.5 billion euros) of beef in 2019, of which 2.2 billion zlotys came from ritual slaughter, says Mateusz Fornowski, an analyst at think tank Polityka Insight , citing data from the main Polish veterinary authority (GIW).

This share is even larger for poultry exports, about half of which are kosher or halal, according to National Poultry Council spokesman Cezary Mleczek-Połoczański.

Halal and kosher are attractive to Polish meat producers due to high margins and profits from international trade. But stringent certification requirements and political uncertainty reserve this segment of the market for large agribusinesses, which can afford to keep up with changing regulations.

To ban or not to ban

The greatest uncertainty in recent years has been the threat of a ban on ritual slaughter under animal rights legislation. This prohibits the stunning of an animal before slaughter, which takes place through a cut in the throat after which it bleeds – a practice critics say is cruel.

Wojciech Pisula, Professor of Psychology at the Polish Academy of Sciences (PAN), states that “slaughter carried out without prior stunning is associated with extreme suffering for the animal. The excruciating pain of bleeding cows (whose physical expression is suppressed by immobilization and cutting of the vocal cords) even lasts up to three minutes”.

The Jewish and Muslim communities, however, argue that stunning does not work without pain either. “People don’t understand what the Jewish religious slaughter process is and they don’t understand how the non-kosher method is sometimes objectively even more painful for the animals,” Poland’s Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich told AFP. Notes from Poland.

A lifelong vegetarian himself, Schudrich says Kaczyński should ban all slaughter if he wants to avoid animal suffering.

When asked if he would accept common ground, whereby religious slaughter would be permitted but only to meet the needs of the local community and not for export, Schudrich rejected the idea. “If only religious slaughter cannot be exported, that is to say that something is wrong, there is something worse than regular slaughter. That is not true,” he argues. .

PZPBM’s Zarzecki says that when their throats are cut, the animals quickly lose consciousness due to the drop in blood pressure. “It’s as if we hurt our finger sometimes with a piece of paper, and we don’t feel that pain,” he explains.

Most EU members generally allow a religious exception to the rule that animals must be stunned before slaughter, but a number of countries, including Denmark, Sweden and Slovenia, do not. In Poland, the slaughter practices of the Jewish shechita and the Muslim dhabiha were banned in 2012 after the Constitutional Court ruled that the animals must first be stunned. However, in 2014, the same court overturned that ban after a case brought by the Union of Jewish Communities argued that it unconstitutionally restricted religious practice.

After a change of government in 2015 brought the PiS to power, Kaczyński began pushing for a new animal protection law, even appearing in a video by animal rights group Viva to promote the idea in 2017. Meat industry lobbying and internal opposition within the PiS forced him backbut the issue came back on the agenda in 2020, when Kaczyński introduced his so-called “Piątka dla zwierząt” (“Five for Animals”).

This package proposed measures to protect animal rights, including a ban on breeding animals for fur (another major Polish export industry), stricter requirements on animal living conditions and restrictions on ritual slaughter.

The legislation has prompted widespread protests from farmers and meat producers. It also once again split the ruling camp, with a rebellion against the bill leading some figures to speak of the end of the ruling coalition (although this never happened).

Poland’s ruling coalition ‘is over’ after rebellion against animal rights law, officials say

President Andrzej Duda, normally a PiS ally, has also spoken out strongly against the proposals, which he says damage the interests of the agricultural industry. Marek Sawicki, an MP, estimated that the law would reduce Polish meat exports by 20 billion zlotys a year. Schudrich, the chief rabbi, also criticized the bill, saying “ritual slaughter is the most humane form of slaughter.”

The bill was meant to be amended but was eventually scrapped, with Agriculture Minister Henryk Kowalczyk confirming in October last year that it would not return. He had said earlier that the only part he found difficult to accept was the limitation of ritual slaughter.

Pandemic resistant

The Halal Verif association, a French NGO that issues halal labels, predicted at the end of 2020 that the European market for halal meat was growing by 20% per year. Given the large shares of halal meat in the total structure of meat exports, it is likely that Poland provided a large part of the growing volume.

With the proposed ban on ritual slaughter now dropped, the Polish meat industry is eager to continue meeting this growing demand. Pandemic disruption and outbreaks of Avian Flu and African Swine Fever have hurt the industry. But, although domestic demand for meat is relatively weak in Poland, export volumes and value are expected to increase in the coming years, says Fornowski of Polityka Insight.

Yet just as Kaczyński’s Animal Welfare Bill suddenly returned to the agenda in 2020 after being scrapped in 2017, there remains the prospect of a new push to ban or restrict light rituals. Such a decision also enjoys strong support within the left (Lewica), Poland’s second largest opposition group, and support in parts of the largest Civic Coalition (KO).

However, the scale of farmer protests and the strength of industry lobbying in 2020 showed that it would take a brave government to push for similar legislation in the future.

Protesting Polish farmers block a road and declare ‘war for the countryside’

Main image credit: Thomas Bjørkan/Wikimedia Commons (under CC BY-SA 3.0)

Anna Rzhevkina a journalist from Russia, now living in Gdańsk. She covers business, corporate news and technology.