More than 100,000 people have signed an online petition demanding the British government prohibit the slaughter of animals without stunning them first. Yet despite the strength of public feeling, the government said it had “no intention” of outlawing the type of religious slaughter that dictates an animal cannot be stunned before death.
Arguing that the coalition cannot simply "ignore public felling", Britain's top vet John Blackwell said he would continue the fight over animal welfare and push for greater public knowledge over how meat is killed. Campaigners will now press for a fresh Commons debate on the issue after quickly exceeding the six-figure threshold required on the parliamentary petition site to trigger a possible time slot.
The controversy surrounds legal exemptions for religious purposes such as Muslim halal and Jewish shechita - which Prime Minister David Cameron vowed to uphold in a speech last year to the Israeli parliament. Opponents say they respect the various faith traditions but insist animal welfare must take priority - with scientific evidence clear that those that are killed without stunning feel pain.
The petition - which backs calls by the RSPCA, the British Veterinary Association (BVA), the Farm Animal Welfare Committee, the Federation of Veterinarians of Europe and the Humane Slaughter Association - points out that more than 80% of halal meat in the UK is pre-stunned.
"We must differentiate between religious and non-stun slaughter. Our concern does not relate to religious belief but to the animal welfare compromise," it states. "Non-stun slaughter affects millions of animals. We support a good life and a humane death for all animals."
There are also concerns about large quantities of meat being sold without any indication of how the animal was slaughtered and the petition says that until a ban is imposed, consumers must be told what they are buying.
BVA president Blackwell said: "This is a truly fantastic result for animal welfare. BVA has long argued that all animals should be stunned before slaughter to render them insensible to pain and we are delighted that the British public has got so firmly behind our campaign. Consumers value the high welfare of British produce and care deeply about the provenance of their food.
"But under the current legislation meat from non-stun slaughter can end up in the food chain unlabelled as such, which is completely unacceptable. Scientific evidence tells us that non-stun slaughter allows the animal to perceive pain and compromises animal welfare.
"This is an issue that affects the welfare of millions of individual animals every year. The Government simply cannot ignore the strength of public feeling and we look forward to petitioning the Backbench Business Committee for a full debate in the new parliament."
The Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) remained unswayed by the petition hitting the 100,000 milestone - achieved by only 35 demands on the e-petition site since 2011, around 0.1% of those accepted.
A spokeswoman said: "There are strict rules that govern the slaughter of animals in England which include additional conditions for religious slaughter and these remain unchanged. The Government has no intention of banning religious slaughter.
"The Government would prefer animals to be stunned before slaughter, but we respect the rights of Jewish and Muslim communities to eat meat in accordance with their beliefs. Existing rules require that where stunning is used it must be sufficient to make the animal unconscious and insensible to pain without causing unnecessary pain, suffering or distress."