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L’abattage rituel en droit européen

In the context of the common agricultural policy, the European Union aims to ensure food safety and protection of the animal welfare. In harmonizing national health and veterinary legislations, the EU adopted several provisions on slaughter as early as 1974, while affirming its role in the protection of animals. The particularities of the slaughter carried out in accordance with religious practices are taken into account : derogation allows animals to be slaughtered by bleeding without prior stunning. The EU aims to reconcile the requirements of animal welfare with respect for the right to manifest one’s religion.

The Regulation No 1099/2009 of 24 September 2009 entered into force on 1st January 2013 and is directly applicable in all member States. It introduces welfare rules for the killing or slaughter of animals kept for the production of food and products such as fur and leather. The Regulation provides that “animals shall be spared any avoidable pain, distress or suffering during their killing and related operations” (Art. 3) and sets out detailed rules about restraining and stunning animals, the training of operators and the proper maintenance of installations and equipment.

Provisions for slaughter prescribed by religious rites

Animals “shall only be killed after stunning” and must remain unconscious and insensitive until death, unless they are subject to “particular methods of slaughter prescribed by religious rites (...) provided that the slaughter takes place in a slaughterhouse” (Art. 4§1 and 4§4). In the latter case [animals killed without prior stunning], “persons responsible for slaughtering shall carry out systematic checks to ensure that the animals do not present any signs of consciousness or sensibility before being released from restraint and do not present any sign of life before undergoing dressing or scalding” (Art. 5).

“Killing and related operations shall only be carried out by persons with the appropriate level of competence to do so without causing the animals any avoidable pain, distress or suffering”. Slaughtering in accordance with religious practices constitutes one of the operations for which an individual certificate of competence is required, delivered by an authority designated by each Member State and responsible for approving training programmes and authorizing operators (Art. 7 and 21).

The Regulation also provides provisions for the layout, construction and equipment of slaughterhouses and for the monitoring procedures to be carried out by the business operators (Art. 14 and art. 16). In particular, they must designate an "animal welfare officer" to ensure compliance of all procedures (Art. 17).

Ensuring the protection and welfare of animals

By laying down very precise rules on immobilisation, stunning and bleeding operations, the Regulation No 1099/2009 aims at minimising the pain, distress or suffering of animals, including during ritual slaughter (see recital 43, Art. 9§3 and Art. 15§2). Recital 15 refers to the Protocol No 33 on the protection and welfare of animals annexed to the Treaty of Amsterdam, whose provisions are now incorporated in Article 13 TFEU : in their areas of intervention, ”the Union and the Member States shall, since animals are sentient beings, pay full regard to the welfare requirements of animals, while respecting the legislative or administrative provisions and customs of the Member States relating, in particular, to religious rites, cultural traditions and regional heritage".

Different national contexts

The reference to laws and practices of the Member States takes account of their considerable room for manoeuvre in the management of worship services, and therefore in the supervision of ritual slaughter. Recital 18 of the Regulation states that “it is important that derogation from stunning animals prior to slaughter should be maintained, leaving, however, a certain level of subsidiarity to each Member State”, since “Community provisions applicable to religious slaughter have been transposed differently depending on national contexts and considering that national rules take into account dimensions that go beyond the purpose of this Regulation”. The derogation from the requirement of stunning animals is intended to respect “the freedom of religion and the right to manifest religion or belief in worship, teaching, practice and observance, as enshrined in Article 10 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union” (rec. 18).

Member States may thus maintain or adopt national rules aimed at ensuring “more extensive protection of animals at the time of killing than those contained in this Regulation”, in particular with regard to methods of slaughter prescribed by religious rites (Art. 26§2 c). The European Union therefore defines minimum rules without seeking to unify the laws of the Member States which have been able to impose stricter constraints or even prohibit slaughter without prior stunning (see Denmark, Finland, Greece, Luxembourg, Sweden, some Austrian Länder, etc.)

Informing consumers ?

As part of the preparatory work for Regulation No 1099/2009, the Commission conducted an impact assessment taking into account the concerns of NGOs denouncing that the derogation is abused by some slaughterhouse operators who slaughter without stunning in excess to the religious market needs. Part of the carcass from animals slaughtered without stunning would then supply the non-religious meat market. NGOs consider that consumers need to be properly informed in order to be able to choose meat obtained from animals that have been stunned (p. 16).

Food labelling is covered by European legislation and in particular by Regulation No 1169/2011 of 25 October 2011 on the provision of food information to consumers. If the latter makes it compulsory to indicate the country of origin and the place of provenance of the meat, it does not require information on how animals have been slaughtered. However, this question is raised in the recital No. 50, which advises considering “a study on the opportunity to provide consumers with the relevant information on the stunning of animals”.

In a resolution of 4 July 2012, the European Parliament emphasises that it “is particularly concerned that the current derogation for un-stunned slaughter is abused to a large extent in some Member States, to the detriment of animal welfare, of farmers and of consumers”. The EP therefore “urges the Commission to accelerate its evaluation on the labelling of meat from animals slaughtered without stunning“ (§ 49).

The requested study was carried out under the aegis of the European Commission as part of the EU Strategy for the Protection and Welfare of Animals (2012-2015). The final report (Study on information to consumers on the stunning of animals, 20 Feb. 2015) concludes that for most consumers information on pre-slaughter stunning is not an important issue unless brought to their attention (p. 64). The working group also considers that labelling meat from unstunned animals would carry a high risk of stigmatising religious communities “especially in the present political context “(p. 66).

Finally, in reply to a parliamentary question (E-007576/2016), the Commission stated on 21 November 2016 that it was up to the “national rules” to make sure that the derogation is “only granted in order to serve a genuine need of religious communities”. Since no explicit labelling and traceability requirements are laid down in Regulation 1099/2009, it is primarily the Member States that are responsible for its enforcement to ensure that the requirements of Article 4(1) and 4(4) of Regulation 1099/2009 [derogation for ritual slaughter] are met. The Commission, therefore, considers that product traceability is not necessary when slaughter without stunning is carried out solely for religious needs and controlled by the national authorities. France, for example, issued an order on 28 December 2011 providing for a registration system to check that this type of slaughter is only used for commercial orders that require it.

Foreign sourcing opportunities

A request for a preliminary ruling from a Belgian court on the derogation for ritual slaughter provided in Regulation No 1099/2009 is pending before the Court of Justice of the European Union (aff. C-426/16) which has so far not adjudicate cases related to this issue. The European Court of Human Rights issued a Grand Chamber judgment (27 June 2000, Cha’are Shalom ve Tsedek v. France, no. 27417/95) concerning the refusal of official approval opposed to a Jewish religious association requesting to access to slaughterhouses. The Court considered that “by establishing an exception to the principle that animals must be stunned before slaughter, French law gave practical effect to a positive undertaking on the State’s part intended to ensure effective respect for freedom of religion” (§ 76). According to the Court, however, the refusal to grant approval does not constitute an interference with the applicant association’s right to freedom to manifest its religion, since its members can easily obtain supplies of meat from an approved association or even in Belgium (§ 81).

About meat supply, it should finally be noted that meat imported from third countries (outside the EU) must be accompanied by an attestation certifying compliance with the requirements applicable to killing and slaughterhouses at least equivalent to those laid down in Regulation N° 1099/2009 (Art. 12).

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D 24 juillet 2017    AFrançoise Curtit

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