ROTTERDAM // The Brigitte Bardot Foundation along with six other French animal rights groups last week launched a campaign against ritual slaughter practices that do not first stun the animal in France, the country with the largest Muslim and Jewish populations in Europe.
The new campaign immediately was assailed as being more about targeting minorities than about animal welfare. That's not a very surprising charge since Ms Bardot has been convicted five times before for controversial remarks about Muslims and animal rights.
But the spokesman for her foundation, Christophe Marie, denied that the campaign had any objective other than improving animal welfare. "It is ridiculous to say that we're targeting Muslims or Jews. We conduct this campaign like any other. It is like saying that we target the Spanish when we oppose bullfighting or the Inuit when we oppose seal hunting."
Mr Marie said it was "regrettable" that some anti-Muslim activists could latch on to the campaign. The campaign had been postponed several times, he said, because the foundation had not wanted to overlap with sensitive debates about Muslims in France, such as the introduction of a ban on the burqa.
The new campaign is mainly aimed at the animal being slaughtered without being stunned, either by a blow to the forehead or with electricity or gas. Stunning is required in Europe but an exception is made for ritual slaughter on grounds of respecting the freedom of religion. Both mainstream Jewish and Islamic religious authorities in France oppose stunning.
Mohammed Moussaoui, the head of the French Council of the Muslim Faith, last year clearly stated his opposition to the practice. Nonetheless, some halal-certifying bodies in France take a different position and stunning does sometimes take place. In Jewish circles there is even more opposition to the stunning of animals. "We maintain that stunning often goes wrong while our religious way causes minimal suffering to the animal," said Rabbi Bruno Fiszon, speaking on behalf of the chief rabbinate of France.
He said the new campaign targeted Jews and Muslims. "It shows them as cruel people who have no respect for animals." He felt that it particularly exacerbated anti-Muslim feelings in Europe.
Animal rights groups throughout Europe are opposed to the practice of slaughtering without stunning first. Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland and New Zealand ban the practice. But not all those concerned about animal welfare applaud the new campaign.
"A ban antagonises people and is not the best way to go about it," said Mara Miele, the co-ordinator of DialRel, an EU-funded academic project that examined the issue. "If we ban it in Europe, it still continues elsewhere. We'd rather develop methods and procedures to improve animal welfare that can then be exported."
She did confirm that very recent scientific studies show that animals suffer more during religious slaughter, something that had long been disputed. But she said: "We have to balance the rights of people to practise their religion with the rights of animals." Inevitably, DialRel's work itself has been criticised by religious and animal-welfare groups.
Other than an outright ban on ritual slaughter or at least mandating stunning before the procedure, animal rights groups insist as a bare minimum on the clear labelling of meat and meat products that come from ritually slaughtered animals. They say that a significant proportion of kosher and halal meat ends up with general consumers.
"Consumers have a right to know what they are buying and not to buy meat from an animal that was slaughtered halal or kosher if they do not want to," said Mr Marie, the spokesman for the Brigitte Bardot Foundation.
A law to introduce such labelling was approved by the European parliament last year but was subsequently vetoed in the EU's ruling council of ministers. It was opposed vigorously by both Jews and Muslims.
Rabbi Fiszon said that labelling kosher and halal products would once again single out Muslims and Jews. Instead he suggested a labelling system not mentioning any method used to slaughter the animal, "because none of them entirely guarantee that the animal does not suffer". It is a position that has also been embraced by Muslim consumer organisations in France.