Polish exports of kosher, halal meat in limbo

warsaw    |   For some, it was a barbaric way to treat animals. For others, it was great business.

Until January, slaughterhouses across Poland — a deeply Catholic nation — were the unlikely venues for Jewish and Muslim slaughter of animals, which in both religions involves a swift cut to the throat of a conscious animal and death by bleeding.

Millions of dollars were made exporting kosher and halal meat to countries such as Israel, Egypt and Iran, as well as to Jewish and Muslim markets within Europe, until animal rights activists succeeded in enacting a ban on ritual slaughter.

Rabbi Menachem Margolin (far left), director of the Rabbinical Centre of Europe, and French Jewish leader Richard Prasquier (far right) join others in a 2012 European Parliament discussion on ritual slaughter in Poland. photo/jta-cnaan liphshiz

But with economic decline deepening and exports seen as a possible salvation, the government faces pressure to get the practice reinstated legally — and is scrambling to do so.

Though Polish cuisine is heavy in pork, Poland has created this niche business in an example of the economic savvy Poland has shown since joining the European Union in 2004. Kosher and halal meat exports have grown 20 to 30 percent annually in recent years as the largely agricultural country has capitalized on its low labor costs and reputation for healthy farm animals.

“God gave us good food, good soil and good farm animals, and he gave the Muslim countries what they have under the surface — black gold,” said Mufti Tomasz Miskiewicz, the top Muslim leader in Poland. “There are nations with big populations — like Egypt, the Arab countries, Indonesia — that need this food and don’t have enough cattle to produce enough meat themselves.”

The business has been overseen and encouraged by Poland’s Jewish and Muslim communities, minorities that are very small but with a presence going back many centuries. The Polish Jewish population, once the world’s largest, was nearly wiped out in the Holocaust, but is now growing. Tatars, a Muslim people, also settled here centuries ago, and have been joined recently by Arab diplomats, businessmen and students.

Rabbi Michael Schudrich photo/creative commons

The kosher and halal business had boomed until January, when the ban took effect after a ruling by the Constitutional Tribunal. Animal rights activists argue that killing animals without stunning them first causes unnecessary suffering. Jewish and Muslim leaders strongly disagree, and insist that the ritual method is actually more humane, in part because the animals lose consciousness quickly. They argue that standard industrial slaughter involves pre-stunning, which is sometimes not effective, leading to even greater suffering.

Poland’s chief rabbi, Michael Schudrich, says Jewish tradition has always been concerned with the welfare of animals, noting, for instance, that it bans hunting and all senseless suffering. “For close to 3,000 years, Jewish slaughter practices have been followed that minimize pain to the animal,” Schudrich said.

Polish meat industry officials are hesitant to take sides on which slaughter method causes more suffering, with their focus firmly on economics. Though the ritual slaughter was carried out by specially trained Muslim and Jewish officials, the industry created thousands of support jobs for others.

The government of Prime Minister Donald Tusk is eager to get the business going again and has recently drafted a law that would reinstate religious slaughter while adding some new protections for animals.

The law’s fate now rests with Parliament, which is due to debate and vote on it in the coming weeks. In the meantime, industry leaders warn that millions of dollars and

thousands of jobs could be lost if Poland doesn’t reinstitute ritual slaughter soon.

“Banning ritual slaughter was a cardinal mistake with huge consequences,” said Witold Choinski, the head of Polskie Mieso, or Polish Meat, an organization that represents the interests of meat producers.

Choinski said there are no official figures on the financial losses so far, but the number is high. The industry is worth about $650 million a year to the Polish economy and it has been largely frozen for almost half a year. About 100,000 tons of kosher or halal beef and 100,000 tons of poultry were exported annually before the ban — making up between 20 and 30 percent of Poland’s beef exports and about 10 percent of poultry exports, Choinski said.

Poland had been close to sealing major long-term contracts with Saudi Arabia, but these were abandoned because of the unclear legal situation. Meanwhile, many Polish companies that produce halal and kosher meat are on the verge of bankruptcy, and up to 6,000 workers could lose their jobs, Choinski said.

For now, business is being picked up by producers in nearby countries, including Latvia, Hungary and the Czech Republic, Miskiewicz said.