The Sun's Halal Meat 'Scandal' Is Worse Than a Non-Story, It Risks Validating Fears of Muslim Influence

09/05/2014 12:17 BST | Updated 09/07/2014 10:59 BST

There is an apparent 'scandal' unfolding centred upon the sale of halal meat in British restaurants, fast-food eateries and supermarkets. The story made front-page news in Wednesday's Sun paper, under the unequivocally provocative headline 'Halal Secret of Pizza Express'. In it, The Sun accused the chain of serving Halal chicken on its pizzas without making it clear to customers. Diners, it squealed in red-faced disbelief, 'are not warned in advance the chicken they will be eating is halal.'

The halal meat market is a significant one in the UK, with estimated sales totalling £2.6billion in 2011. The debate surrounding both regulations upon halal slaughter and the sale of halal meat in commercial outlets is, therefore, an important one. There are the legitimate concerns of various groups in the debate surrounding Halal meat in the UK, but these concerns were likely not at the root of The Sun and The Daily Mail's decision to report on the issue.

The initial story argued that shops and restaurants are not adequately labelling products which contain halal meat, a perfectly reasonable qualm to have. Yet it was clear that the issue of labelling wasn't the major catalyst of The Sun's outrage; references to Subway's decision to adopt halal meat and abandon pork products in 185 stores to satisfy Muslim customers, along with quotes from The Christian Institute and the National Secular Society, expose the paper's not-so-hidden agenda.

The Sun might argue that insufficient labelling was indeed the foundation of the article. In truth, the issue appears to have been employed as a convenient façade to legitimise the paper's genuine grievances. It doesn't take much reading between the lines to spot the anti-Islamic undercurrent in the piece, the references to Subway and quotes suffice. Not only that, but it's written in The Sun's brand of chauvinist rhetoric, one which has sadly characterised much writing in the right-wing press in recent months.

Beneath the surface legitimacy, the article is designed to fuel the wave of xenophobia being ridden by UKIP and, in some cases, the BNP. It's forcing the multi-faceted issue of the halal meat industry in the UK into the all-too-familiar mould of 'them vs. us', and thus suggesting that the increase in halal meat sales is a symptom of a Muslim complot to impose Islamic beliefs and customs upon the British population, rather than the result of commercial pragmatism.

There are several issues to be addressed here. Primarily, as the New Statesman pointed out, this isn't news. The Guardian reported on the growth of the halal meat market last year, specifically citing Pizza Express for its use of halal approved chicken. Pizza Express' labelling protocol is no different now from as it was then; they advertise their use of halal meat on their website, and restaurant staff inform those who inquire that the chicken is, indeed, halal.

The main arguments against halal meat are centred on animal rights. UK law does not enforce the stunning of animals prior to slaughter, a practice which prevents suffering to the animal. The British Veterinary Association and the RSCPA recently launched a HM Government petition calling for an end to non-stun slaughter. Some animal rights supporters deliberately avoid halal meat, and may well find the labelling of halal products inadequate, so why would companies risk alienating customers by not being clear about the origins of the meat they sell?

If companies like Pizza Express seem reluctant to advertise their decision to adopt halal products, it would be safe to assume that they perceive that to do so would harm their commercial prospects. Otherwise, they would most probably have labelled their products more clearly when the insufficiency of labelling was first noted last year; there is no incentive not to clearly label the origin of meat unless businesses are concerned that selling halal meat might decrease sales.

In light of The Sun's furore, this is perhaps unsurprising. The decision to switch to halal meat is a solely pragmatic one; even The Daily Mail concedes that serving halal products 'saves money because the end product can be eaten by Muslims and non-Muslims alike.' It is also likely that some restaurants which have made the change hope to appeal to more Muslim customers. Halal-approved chicken is sold in nearly 100 KFC outlets UK-wide, allowing it to compete with similar chains like Chicken Cottage which are popular amongst British Muslims because they sell halal meat.

To be outraged at such a decision also shows an ignorance of the changing make-up of British society, or worse, an antipathy towards minority cultural elements in our communities. The Muslim population of Britain currently stands at 5%, according to the 2011 census, a figure set to augment. In several cities, the Muslim community makes up an even more significant proportion of inhabitants; in Blackburn just under 30% of local people are Muslim, and in Bradford, Muslims form nearly a third of local residents.

KFC have been open about the impact of growing Muslim communities on their decision to sell halal chicken in certain stores. The company has implemented an open-ended trial of halal meat 'in areas where [they] expect demand for halal restaurants', in order to cater for the needs of a changing population. Importantly, though, KFC and Nando's have taken steps to try to ensure that there is another non-Halal restaurant available to customers within a reasonable distance.

On their websites, the vast majority of food chains who have introduced halal meat into certain stores or products advertise the changes online. Much of the uproar in The Sun and The Daily Mail is focused upon the lack of transparency when it comes to serving halal meat. It is, however, precisely these disproportionate reactions which dissuade companies from publicising the switch to halal products; companies fear bad press from these papers which could have a negative impact on the sales they were hoping to boost by making the change.

Right-wing publications have fomented a fear of the 'foreign' and its influence in British life, because it's a popular theme in a time of euroscepticism and financial hardship, and they have done so to sell more copies. This article, along with many others, is fodder for the misinformed who dread the growth of the Muslim community in Britain, and are vocal in their opposition to such growth, lest Britain become less 'British'.

Articles such as The Sun's piece on the 'Halal Secret of Pizza Express' serve to incite anger towards a minority ethnic group, and rouse suspicions that this group has designs to implement its beliefs and rules upon British society. Right-wing sensationalist writing, such as seen in Wednesday's piece, validates destructive attitudes like these and undermines communities and relationships within the UK. Ultimately, these papers are putting profitability before the health and cohesion of our society.