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Horse Burger or Halal?

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...(or should we just go veggie)?

Perhaps it's time to think of alternatives to the meat industry. Two years ago my organisation, the Christian Muslim Forum, issued a halal statement, responding to another popular anxiety over unlabelled meat. The main thrust was that we need to know what we are eating.

One of the apparent reasons why halal (ritually slaughtered for Muslim consumption) meat is not always labelled 'halal' is because it is not tracked from pasture to plate. It may have begun as halal-slaughtered, but after that it enters the mainstream food chain and we now know that some mainstream 'beef' products have actually been 100% horse! So how could anything be labelled as 'halal', or the more pointed 'slaughtered without stunning', if we didn't know what was in it? We are right to be concerned: what else might be in our food if we can't trace (or criminals are circumventing) the supply chain? Once you ask that question, you won't look at the meat on your plate in the same way ever again.

Sadly, despite these questions, there is a continuing anxiety about halal meat in the UK. As an observer (I am a vegetarian) there must be a relief in knowing that your halal burger actually came from a real cow. We also know that the halal consumer, whether in the high street or even in prison (a recent scandal revealed pork in halal prison food), is just as much at the mercy of the market as anyone else. Surely the issue of where our meat comes from, what is really on our plate, is a much bigger question than whether it is labelled 'halal'?

There are deep questions to be asked of the meat industry and perhaps real halal - full traceability - has some answers. So too, of course, might vegetarianism: the 'horse' situation tells us that we are too much in love with cheap meat.

We all of us bear some responsibility for this situation. We have unrealistic expectations and these drive the market. Sometimes it responds by giving us what we want but hiding how it has done so. Religion, interestingly, does like to know, because it says that people are important.

Complex supply chains should not hide responsibility, or stop us caring for our neighbours (in this case consumers), nor should it be criminal. As Christians and Muslims we want to be in touch with our neighbours and show love to them, not give them horse burgers disguised as beef. A proper halal food supply can offer this, so too can vegetarianism, or organic meat.

Julian Bond is director of the Christian Muslim Forum, the UK's largest Christian-Muslim interfaith network, http://www.christianmuslimforum.org, @ChrisMusForum