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Lamb dressed as mutton
How halal mutton is re-localising sheep slaughter. Words by Jess Fagin; Illustration by Heedayah Lockman
Good morning and welcome to Vittles Season 5: Food Producers and Production.
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First of all, Happy Bank Holiday to all those celebrating! I should really take A Day Off, but I’ve got into the habit of sending out on Monday mornings for so long now that I would probably fret away the holiday if I didn’t get it out of the way. In the spirit of yesterday’s May Day, please feel free to enjoy your government allotted break, don’t check your inbox, and come back to this on Tuesday.
Secondly, with the sighting of the crescent moon, it means that today is Eid al-Fitr (or, Little Eid). This is the first of two unplanned coincidences in this newsletter, which is about Eid al-Adha (or, Big Eid), a completely different Eid. Since Season 1, I have generally tried not to publish articles cashing in on religious holidays ─ they’re often a sign of laziness, of newspapers who will do a single ‘Ramadan recipe’ and publish nothing else for eleven months. Publishing an article on the wrong Eid unintentionally would be very much in this spirit, but I quite like the coincidence of these two things aligning (I may start posting Christmas recipes at Easter).
The other coincidence is that this is the third article in a row in a Vittles trilogy on meat production, starting with Rosanna Hildyard’s newsletter on the language of farming animals for meat two weeks ago, moving on Kate Ryan’s investigation into the history of black pudding production in Ireland and its creation by uncredited women last week, and finally today, with Jess Fagin’s reported story on how halal mutton is sustaining the British sheep industry, and also re-localising slaughter from a centuries long trend of being pushed to the margins. Again, this was unplanned, but they gain some power from being in conversation with each other and I recommend you read them side by side.
My concession to it being a holiday is a brief introduction. Whether you’re eating mutton or not, have a peaceful bank holiday and Eid Mubarak!
How halal mutton is re-localising sheep slaughter, by Jess Fagin
On the hottest day of our second Covid summer, dawn sun belts down on an unshaded yard in a field in the middle of England. This looks out towards green-and-brown grids of pasture, and those icons of British rurality: grazing sheep. A trickle of cars wobble down the lane towards the lairage, St George’s Cross flags still flapping from windows after the disappointment of the Euros, soundtracked by bleating, metal scraping from an industrial unit, and the muffled break of Phil Collins belting ‘Easy Lover’ from a radio. Parents, children, and groups of friends arrive until there is a gathering of fifty people taking shade by the barn. Children are lifted to perch on the railings to see the sheep in their pens, and giggle at a lone rowdy goat poking its head above the wool. A brother and sister run down into the yard towards a truck, as a swollen alien-like blob tumbles off its load and splats on the unpaved ground. ‘Urgh! Gross! That’s the stomach! Dad! It just burst!’
I can’t tell you exactly where this field is, because my presence here was based on the agreement that I wouldn’t disclose its location, or identify the farmers, vets, workers, owners, or delivery drivers who come to this small sheep slaughterhouse as part of their everyday working lives. To some, their labours are unethical and violent. Many of these workers recalled leaving a long shift to look under their cars for bombs, or seeing barns which had been razed by flames. Requests to take pictures made them uneasy, as they feared reprisals from animal rights activists or Food Standards Agency inspectors. Slaughter is a process where bodies and their boundaries are in flux, where a frozen moment: a cut of a throat, or a bloated sheep’s rumen falling off a lorry, is not outside the realms of the ordinary. There is no way of slaughtering an animal that can be disguised as anything other than the bloody conversion of a live animal into flesh and organs.
Today, the boundaries between public and private have mellowed. It’s the first day of Eid al-Adha, the annual Islamic festival of sacrifice which celebrates Prophet Ibrahim’s submission to Allah through his willingness to sacrifice his son, Ismail, who was miraculously replaced with a ram at the last minute. Visitors today are repeating the story with Qurbani, the practice of sacrificing a sheep, which is a demonstration of their devotion and closeness to God. The meat from the sheep is then shared between the person practicing, family and friends, and those in need.
In Muslim-majority South Asian and Middle Eastern cities, families may themselves purchase, live with, and slaughter sheep, camels, goats or cattle (in a 2015 article for Roads & Kingdoms, Saba Imtiaz evokes the sensory overload of public slaughter on Karachi streets). But in Europe, where home kills are heavily legislated and livestock is confined to rural areas, religious practice has been shaped in dialogue with local laws, farming systems and identities. Anthropologist Pnina Werbner, researching Pakistani communities in Manchester in the 1970s, saw the reluctance of newly arrived immigrants to identify themselves as in need of charity; instead, they would share meat simply between family and friends. Today, Qurbani is sometimes arranged with family abroad or through high street butchers, while explicit reformists suggest alternative lifestyle-based sacrifices altogether, questioning whether the intense temporality of slaughter is ethical in the context of the global meat complex.
Some Muslims, however, visit a halal slaughterhouse like the one I visited, which offers a Qurbani service. For three days, the closed-shop is open. People arrive from cities around the country to choose a sheep, have it slaughtered in their name by a licensed halal slaughterman, then take the fresh meat home for celebratory meals. No longer restrained by the politics of sight, arms are stretched out for selfies, and chatter about recipes and evening plans mingles into the soundscape. This rural patch, a node in a network of moving sheep, meat and people, becomes a destination where people can be physically present: it allows them to know the animal being slaughtered and who is doing the slaughtering, and to be close to others after eighteen months of isolation. It is a place to connect to individual pasts, to memories of communal slaughter in public squares in Bangladesh; for a recently bereaved son to remember his father, who brought him here as a teenager; a place to remember feeling close to nature in a rural family home in Gujarat, of cooking meat on an open fire in Tunisia, of being taught by family members how to slaughter in Ghana; and a place where people can shift out of the binary formation of being neatly categorised as either a rural producer or an urban consumer. It’s a remaking of traditions, where stories are reinscribed and imaginative lines connect a field in the middle of England to India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nigeria, and Ghana as well as London, Birmingham, Manchester, Nottingham and Leicester.
In the past decade, Eid al-Adha has become one of the busiest weeks for sheep sales and slaughter in the UK. One farmer (somewhat exaggerating) tells me that ‘If you look out over the fields of England, you won’t see any sheep over that Qurbani week.’ A retired halal slaughterman recalls ad hoc arrangements between the local mosque and slaughterhouse forty years ago; since the 2000s however, the halal meat sector has grown alongside the population of British Muslims, and been regulated by the emergence of halal certification agencies which have enabled and tracked its ascension. Under their rubrics, slaughterhouses can specialise as halal and prepare for religious festivals, supported by agricultural boards which advocate to farmers how to capture the market with British-reared sheep, rather than lose trade to Qurbani practiced abroad.
Like the owner of this slaughterhouse, many working within the halal sector are not Muslim, but have folded the festival – and religious slaughter – into their trade. They have weathered crises for decades, from foot-and-mouth to the uncertainties of Brexit and the drop in demand for lamb. Yet, outside of livestock and agriculture market reports and forecasts, and against the slurry of Islamophobic reports in the Daily Mail about halal meat ‘invading’ Pizza Express, the significance of halal markets to British rural livelihoods is rarely celebrated, even though 70% of domestic and exported sheep meat combined, is slaughtered through various halal methods.
For a sheep to be eligible for Qurbani, it needs to be sexually mature – which, depending on breed, can be anywhere from six months to one year old. Last year, Eid fell late in July, when few spring-born lambs had reached maturity. These seasonal breeding cycles impact Easter sales even more: most of the lamb on supermarket shelves is sourced from New Zealand. In preparation for the Eid surge, some farmers held on to their older sheep through winter, while in the weeks before, buyers nodded ferociously to auctioneers at markets as prices rocketed.
This year it will be tougher. Based on the lunar calendar, Eid al-Adha moves back around ten days each year. Halal certifiers shifted their stipulations to accommodate the availability of eligible sheep – from one year to older than six months if they looked mature. But last year the HMC, a leading halal certifier, advised Muslims to avoid lamb altogether and only purchase hogget or mutton – sheep older than a year – to be confident they were not being duped by slaughterhouses. (This year Eid is predicted to fall on 9 July, when even the earliest-born lambs will be skimming six months old.) While the owner of the slaughterhouse I visited is frustrated by the shifting guidance, complaining that accreditation agencies erratically ‘change the rules’, when, for him, religion should ‘do things by the book’, an unchanging technicality, the Qurbani market remains one he will adapt towards in a sector always characterised by uncertainty.
What counts as valuable sheep meat in Britain has always been fluid. While lamb is increasing in popularity both for Qurbani and in halal butcher shops, it was the demand for mutton which first spurned the rise of British halal sheep meat in the 1960s, when British citizens from India, Pakistan, Ghana, Nigeria, Jamaica and Trinidad were invited to help rebuild the country after the war. In those countries, lean, muscular, unaged fresh goat meat and mutton from older animals is common, and cast ewe meat (from female sheep which have come to the end of their breeding lives) was the most texturally similar available. More recently, there have been various campaigns for a mutton renaissance, to introduce ‘British’ consumers to the taste of a ‘lost’ traditional meat and support farmers selling older heritage breeds, slaughtered at small, local slaughterhouses, as a corrective to the fast-paced production of lamb. Largely directed at restaurants and chefs, the virtues of this mutton are described as properly finished on grass, aged for weeks, and with fat so thick it lines your insides.
To elevate renaissance mutton as local, flavoursome, and superior, comparisons are always drawn to halal mutton, which is variously described as ‘poor quality’, ‘unaged’, ‘tough’, found in ‘ethnic’ butchers or otherwise ‘suited to pies or pet food’. These are misrepresentations of the values of halal mutton. Cast ewe meat is instead a re-localised meat, feeding place-bound tastes which have travelled and been remade in Britain by multiple diasporas. The owner I visited continues to adapt and refine his production as migrations change, supplying paya, shaki, mutton and lamb, sourcing the various carcass sizes requested by Somali, Afghan, Syrian and Turkish butchers.
By midday, it’s roasting outside, and anyone who arrived at the slaughterhouse early is still waiting. The owners have devised a ticketing system to track sheep on the slaughter line to people’s names, but the lairage manager is trying and failing to remember who arrived first. He scribbles names on a ticket to pass to the slaughterman, who then picks it up, bloodied fingers smudging the sharpie. Inside the slaughterhouse, the crew of slaughter workers who skin and eviscerate carcasses on the moving line are adapting to a new rhythm, as sheep come through in staggered fits and bursts, then stall as the slaughterman goes outside to meet people. Apart from the slaughterman himself, none of the line workers are Muslim, but this week is the most profitable and dependable time to labour. Retired workers have been called back to help, returning to catch up with old colleagues, fill themselves up on a dose of banter, and visit the pub to reminisce about their years in the trade.
A few hours later, the line comes to a halt. Workers blame people for taking too long to choose, people outside don’t understand how it can take six hours to slaughter a sheep, and the owner blames everyone. Taking advantage of the short circuit, a worker, disinhibited by the heat and exhaustion, stands outside in his pants by the ventilators, not seeming to care that they are blowing hot air, sucking an Aldi ice lolly. A shared tube of Pringles and an emergency trip to KFC later, the line resumes.
All this to say that the British sheep sector and the slaughter line shift logics, and that everyone participating – the farmers, visitors, owners and workers – orient themselves towards one another. It’s a cosmopolitanism rooted in recalibrating systems of production around economics and human connection. Sometimes confusing and inefficient, it is radically human, socialised and storied.
The modern European slaughterhouse, and the moving slaughter line, were never designed for such human connection. Emerging in the late nineteenth century in the imperial centres of Paris and London, slaughterhouses were designed to distance the growing urban masses from the proximity of animals and death in open meat markets. Meat consumption was on the rise in Victorian cities, but meat-making was holding modernity back. Killing was moved from a mishmash of private slaughterhouses owned by butchers in city centres to new out-of-town utilitarian architectural forms. Historian Paula Young Lee describes these ‘public abattoirs’, renamed to rid them of their violent semantics, as umbilically connected to the urban metropolis, hidden from the everyday lives of urban consumers but intimately connected.
The same logic that shifted meat production out of British cities shifted farming out to its empire, constructing a system of multiple dislocations and power grabs: colonised from coloniser, human from animal, city from rural area, producer from consumer, and a collective activity to a private one. Every scandal in the British meat industry has intersected with these dislocated geographies, from horse meat in ready meals to BSE and foot-and-mouth. Victorian moralism and industrialisation mutated into neoliberal capitalism, as supermarkets and agri-business conglomerates dominated the meat chain. Slaughterhouses scaled-up and centralised. Now dependent on underpaid EU immigrant workers, their emergence has run in parallel with wage drops and the deskilling of slaughter labour. Tastes for meat changed too, as people in British cities shifted from eating mutton to quickly reared New Zealand lamb.
In 2018, the Sustainable Food Trust released a report warning that independent rural slaughterhouses were near collapse, pummelled by the costs of legislation after the BSE crisis and unable to compete with the false economies of supermarket procurement. In 2018 there were 249 red meat slaughterhouses, down from 320 in 2003 and 1,890 in 1971. Today, there are only 159 red meat slaughterhouses, and the largest sites dominate the sector. Just 32 process 88% of all sheep slaughtered in the UK..
This absence of smaller rural slaughterhouses was obstructing a ‘nascent renaissance of local food cultures’ corrective to anonymous, industrialised food production. In the report, small, local halal slaughterhouses were erased as a productive force in this renaissance, because the method of sometimes-used non-stun religious slaughter might be off-putting for farmers.
When the owner I visited bought his slaughterhouse twenty years ago, entering the trade was a bleak endeavour. As a former sheep breeder, he wanted to serve local farmers. He’d spotted a profitable microcosm in the market: the demand for unaged, fresh mutton for halal butchers in Peckham, Hackney, Leicester, Birmingham and Nottingham. When he started, cast ewes were cheap outcasts: ‘When I had my sheep many years ago, I might cull ewes for sort of 12–15 pound, but now you can be getting 70 pounds.’ Their value has risen with demand: halal mutton is now more expensive than supermarket-sourced New Zealand lamb. This independent site has provided a workplace for skilled slaughtermen, where they can negotiate their wages. They’ve resisted working on larger lines, where they feel anonymous – ‘like robots’ – and are poorly paid. They are explicit: ‘If it wasn’t for the Muslims, we’d be out of a job.’
Policymakers tell us that ‘Britain needs to feed itself’ by re-localising the national food system – away from its colonial roots, the deleterious impacts of just-in-time supermarket supply chains and the precarity of food imports. Yet for decades, the old sheep, the small rural slaughterhouse, the high street butchers, and skilled workers – all on the margins of the mainstream production of lamb – have been sustaining each other and feeding Britain’s people. There are threats, of course: butchers priced out of gentrifying high streets; the changing tastes of a younger generation. But the production of British halal sheep meat has already re-localised slaughter, intersecting in radical, earthy ways with the farming system; connecting diverse cities to rural fields, people to their faith, and Britain to its colonial past. In this anonymous field in the middle of England, a knot of histories is threaded into rural and city lives in ways that cannot be untangled.
Jess Fagin is an anthropologist and Londoner. She is currently doing her PhD at the University of Exeter, which explores practices of sheep slaughter in England in so called “conventional” and halal slaughterhouses as we shift through the legislative transitions of Brexit, asking what diverse slaughter practices can reveal about how nationhood and national borders are imagined. She is on Instagram: @jessfagin
The illustration is by Heedayah Lockman, a Glasgow-based freelance illustrator and graphic designer, with an architectural background. Inspired by still life and food, she enjoys exploring colour and different techniques by using grids and patterns that contrast the shapes of everyday objects. You can find more of her work on Instagram: @heedayahlockman.
Many thanks to Sophie Whitehead for proofing and additional edits.
All photos taken from Wikimedia Creative Commons.