Interview with Dr. Joe M. Regenstein : "A live worth living"
Dr. Regenstein is a Professor of Food Science in the Department of Food Science and Institute of Food Science at Cornell University and head of the Cornell Kosher and Halal Food Initiative. He also serves as an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Population Medicine and Diagnostic Sciences in the College of Veterinary Medicine.
Dr. Regenstein currently has primary responsibility for a number of courses at Cornell including Kosher and Halal Food Regulations, and Animal Welfare. The Kosher and Halal Food Regulations course has been taught at Carnegie Mellon University and is available by distance learning at both the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Kansas State University. The latter site is available to anyone worldwide who might like to take the course through the Kansas State Food Industry Program. He serves as a member of the Food Marketing Institute/National Council of Chain Restaurant’s Animal Welfare Technical Committee and as the listed reviewer for the American Meat Institutes Slaughter Standards including Religious Slaughter. In addition Dr. Regenstein serves as a technical advisor to the Islamic Food and Nutrition Council of North America and the Jewish Vegetarians of North America. In 2005, Dr. Regenstein became a member of the board of a national project on “Sacred Foods,” that worked with faith-based communities to look at sustainability of the food supply. He is also an advisory to the Kashrus Subcommittee of the Committee of Jewish Law and Standards for the Conservative Jewish Movement.
For more information, you can visit this link (www.foodscience.cornell.edu)
After initial contact between ASIDCOM and Dr. Regenstein, which took place at the World Halal Forum in The Hague (Netherlands) in November 2009, both met again in Barcelona following the DialRel (Dialogue on Religious Slaughter) Committee Meeting in February, 2010. They have decided to continue to exchange information about the various topics of interest that they share in common. ASIDCOM would like to share with consumers some of the richness of this exchange and has prepared this exclusive interview with Dr. Joe Regenstein.
ASIDCOM : You have participated in DialRel. What were the objectives of this project ?
Dr. Regenstein : I was invited as a speaker for their February meeting. I had not been involved with the group prior to then. This EU sponsored group (European Commission Directorate-General for Health and Consumers) has existed for almost three years already. It is intended to be an opportunity for scientists interested in animal welfare during slaughter to interact with the religious communities (i.e., Jewish and Muslim) involved in special slaughter procedures.
It seems to have taken the group some time to really engage in a meaningful dialog WITH each other. It appears that this past meeting was the most successful and the religious communities are cautiously optimistic that the recommendations for improvements in religious slaughter will be appropriate and respectful of both communities and of the diversity of religious and practical options available within each of the religious communities.
ASIDCOM : What are the highlights of this project that you think may help to improve the conditions of animals slaughter with respect to religious freedom ?
Dr Regenstein : The key in my mind is for the Muslim and Jewish communities to work with the scientists to determine how to improve religious slaughter while meeting all of the religious rules. And for the scientists to recognize that there is a place for religious slaughter when done right and that they need to work within the context of the constraints that both communities have. In addition, there are within both Muslim and Jewish communities some differences on the issues of stunning, both pre-slaughter and post-slaughter. It is the responsibility of the scientists to respect those differences and help each group to do the best possible job within that context.
ASIDCOM : What have you tried to say to the scientists during your speech at the DialRel meetings ?
Dr Regenstein : My first emphasis was on the importance of religious slaughter to Muslim and Jewish communities. Meat is a central part of most celebrations and a central component of the daily diet.
The poorly done attempts by the scientists to try to prove that religious slaughter is not humane are an embarrassment to me as a competent scientist. Those efforts have lumped together many different types of slaughter systems, both the good and the bad slaughter systems, as well as totally different systems, and forced them all into a single database.
I then tried to review the scientific and technical issues that really need to be addressed and what details need to be reported that would permit the work to actually be replicated and evaluated in accordance with normal scientific practice.
Finally, I did address the labelling issue – either label all meats with the way the animal was killed, including animals that were poorly stunned or do not label any meat with respect to slaughter. Otherwise this is really an exercise in Anti-Semitism and Islamophobia.
ASIDCOM : In your opinion, has this project been successful in promoting a dialogue with religious communities as its title indicates ?
Dr Regenstein : From what I can ascertain, up until now this goal was not well achieved. Both the Muslim and Jewish communities were frustrated with the process. It does appear that this last meeting finally got to the point of a real dialogue. But it remains to be seen if some in the scientific community can rise above their pre-conceived notions and really work to improve religious slaughter and move away from what appears to be an agenda to make religious slaughter out to be a negative approach. This will require better scientific research, with more rigorous measurements, and the research will need to separate the many external factors that are critical to an animal’s welfare, and calm state, prior to the moment of slaughter.
ASIDCOM : What do you think of the challenge to religious slaughter by associations of animal welfare in Europe ?
Dr Regenstein : I worry a great deal about the attitude of these people. Their real agenda is to eliminate animal agriculture and other forms of human use of animals. They see religious slaughter as a wedge issue which can further their cause, even among meat consumers. They denigrate religious slaughter as ritual slaughter, which suggests to some that it is done as secret sect might do it. They use the wonderfully foreign word « shechitah » for Jewish slaughter to suggest that there is something wrong with it to start. These people are using the inherent Anti-Semitism and Islamophobia of Europe as a way to get support for their agenda. It is interesting that Brigitte Bardot, and her strong anti-fur, pro-animal campaign, is actually married to a sympathizer of LePen’s party in France.
ASIDCOM : What do you think of the practices of pre-slaughter and post-slaughter stunning ? And do you think this may have an impact on animal welfare and meat quality obtained as well ?
Dr Regenstein : The issues of pre-slaughter stunning, usually by a mild electrical shock, which does not kill the animal when done properly is accepted by some Muslim communities. The key is the right combination of amperage and voltage. This is a religious issue and both sides of the dialog within the Muslim community need to be respected. Post-slaughter stunning, usually done with a captive bolt gun, does crack the skull and may or may not be reversible. From a halal point of view, it again remains an issue as to whether the animal is dying from the effect of the bleeding or whether the stun interferes with the process and therefore violates Sheriah. Again, the decisions of the Muslim leaders in different communities need to be respected. Our role as scientists is to work with each community to help them do the best job possible in each community’s specific interpretation of Sheriah.
ASIDCOM : The Muslim religion allows any competent adult person to perform the ritual sacrifice. This gesture is commendable on certain occasions like the Eid, for example. But European law prohibits such practices. Because some people do not trust the slaughterhouses to do the slaughter according to their traditions, they sometimes only have recourse to illegal slaughter. Has this come up in DialRel and do you have any thoughts on this ?
Dr Regenstein : It was not discussed at the meeting itself, although the topic did come up in a private conversation with the delegates from the Muslim Council of Britain. This is a difficult issue to address. I personally feel this is where people of good faith can actually work together and come up with a solution. My own suggestion would be to explore the issues that would be involved in having slaughterhouses that are prepared to welcome individual Muslims to slaughter and to help establish procedures for such individuals. They would need to require some type of registration of the individual slaughter persons to assure some minimal introduction to Western standards of safety, hygiene, and animal welfare, and with respect to their specific community, an understanding of their own Muslim slaughter traditions. My hope is that the Muslim communities in each country (or appropriate sub-areas) would handle this process with oversight from the appropriate EU ministry.
ASIDCOM : In your opinion, from a public health and animal welfare view, what are the possibilities of enabling European citizens of Muslim faith to exercise fully and without risk, either for humans or animals, the individual ritual sacrifice ?
Dr Regenstein : Again, it is clear to me that most of the world outside of Europe has always slaughtered animals without stunning and that even within the European oriented world (e.g., Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand), many farmers and others still slaughter animals without stunning for their own use. The key is to do it with respect and dignity and meet all of the above concerns. Ironically, throughout history Europe had some of the highest levels of cruelty to animals and misuse of animals, including fox hunting and bullfighting.
One effort I have been involved in has been to design equipment for small scale slaughter, right now for sheep and goats, but we also have ideas about larger animals. This would permit on-farm slaughter where permitted by law and would provide equipment where small scale slaughter can take place in smaller slaughterhouses and would make it easy and safe for individual Muslims to slaughter. We encourage interested readers to look at the website : www.spiritofhumane.com.
ASIDCOM : can you tell us about the organization of the halal industry in the United States and that U.S. law provides for its structure ?
Dr Regenstein : In the US we have a strong separation of Church and State – but we also have a high degree of respect for all religions. So, at the Federal level, the US Department of Agriculture at least checks that a claim of religious slaughter has some basis in the practice of a religious communty – they do not evaluate individual religious judgments of certification organizations. At the state level we are seeing a move to religious supervision requirements that meet « truth in labeling » and « consumer right-to-know » approach.
That is to say that the state only hold the the religious certification organization accountable for
- providing the consumer with accurate information about their standard and
- meeting their organization’s own standards.
It then is the responsibility of the consumer to actually determine what is and is not an acceptable standard, so some consumers reject some religious certifications, while accepting others. The state has no interest in the specific standards of an organization, only that the organizations are honestly working in the ways they claim for their consumers.
ASIDCOM : What do you think of the idea of a standard for halal meat ?
Dr Regenstein : I think it is a good idea, but only if it can be done with respect for all legitimate Muslim view points. If some communities cannot agree, then they will need their own standards. I think the larger Muslim community needs to address the issue of labeling of halal products in ways that are meaningful to many different communities. I also strongly believe that the products need to identify the specific person or body taking responsibility for the halal status of the food or meat product.
ASIDCOM : The Jewish and Muslim communities are both involved in the debate around the right to practice ritual slaughter. What advice would you give to these two communities to preserve this right into the future ?
Dr Regenstein : I would strongly urge both communities to take animal welfare seriously. They need to educate themselves and the general public about the long standing animal welfare aspects of Islam and Judaism. The religious communities also need to understand the current concerns of secular and government organizations and work respectfully with them and, at the same time expect the same secular and government organizations to respect the interests of both Muslim and Jewish communities to improve religious slaughter so that it reaches its full potential. We need to be open to suggestions for improvements that are CONSISTENT with the religious requirements. Slaughter, of any type, religious or not, can be done better, in ways that are more humane. This is a problem all people share.
ASIDCOM : The Jewish and Muslim communities are both involved in the debate around the right to practice ritual slaughter. What advice would you give to these two communities to preserve this freedom that is enshrined in European Union Law ? Do you think that religious freedom is related to the exercise of political freedoms, that are feeding on the American and French Revolutions ?
Dr Regenstein : The American and French Revolutions were quite different. In my opinion, the French revolution was an effort to assert freedom from religion, and the result was a periodic retrenchment to a tyrannical state. Again, in my opinion the American Revolution was an effort to assert freedom of religion as a part of a nation of principled differences, and the result has been periodic retrenchment to appeals to a Christian nation. I think we need to start within our own religious communities to raise awareness of the issues, what it take to live well as persons of religious faith. I think we need to get everyone involved in the industry to understand the importance of doing things right and consistent with religious law.
We then need to share our traditions with others and provide some appropriate short and clear materials on web sites and as handouts. The political process requires that we participate in the process in an appropriate way – but we also need to work together between religious communities and to support religious freedom for all in both the US and France (and elsewhere).
The US has often – without regard for its revolution - favored Christian practices at the expense of other religions. France has often derided religion as superstition – and that was a key part of its revolution. So the backdrop of our struggles is different, but the goal for religious freedom is the same. Achieving this goal may require building bridges with thoughtful Christians and secularists.
ASIDCOM : You have read the ASIDCOM research work on “Benefits of religious slaughter without stunning for animals and humans”, that was published by the French Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Fishing as a contribution within the framework of a meeting on animals and society organized in the first half of the year 2008/1429H. What is your assessment of this reflection ?
Dr Regenstein : As you know, I have reviewed this document very extensively and have shared many detailed comments with your organization. I think it is an excellent starting point for relating these important issues within the EU system and encourage ASIDCOM to continue to work on it. However, I also believe that the same high scientific standard I am asking of the traditional science community must also apply to any attempt at modern scientific claims by the religious community. Again, religious issues are very different from claims of scientific proof. I look forward to working with ASIDCOM to produce a truly outstanding scientific document. My major conclusion with respect to the science is that a lot of the work needs to be done with greater objectivity. My hope is that the scientists and the leaders in both the Jewish and Muslim communities will sit down together and establish some general guidelines for this effort. This ought to be something that DialRel takes the lead on, but even if they don’t, then the two communities, working with those persons in the scientific community willing to engage, need to come together and do this important work.
ASIDCOM : Dear Professor Regenstein, any final message to the attention of Muslim consumers in the EU ?
Dr Regenstein : Yes. First, thank you for the opportunity to speak with the Muslim consumer both in the EU and I assume in some cases beyond. Religious slaughter is central to both the Jewish and Muslim communities and we all really need to work together to improve it, to make it the best it can be in keeping with the religious traditions and with the best of modern science. Second, the two religious communities need to communicate more regularly to optimize their efforts at protecting their right to do religious slaughter. And finally, we also need to celebrate the diversity of religious views and the wonderful opportunity that food brings to learn from each other and to share a meal together and work so all of us can lead “A Life Worth Living”. I look forward to working with ASIDCOM and others in the Muslim community.
Voir en ligne : Regenstein lab - Cornell university web site