The number of sheep slaughtered in Britain without being stunned first has doubled in the last six years to more than 3 million, official figures show.
Former president of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons, Lord Trees, pointed out this meant animals were having their throats cut while still conscious and argued the country was moving “backwards” in this area of animal welfare.
Ministers attributed the rise to the Muslim community eating more sheep meat.
The Government has said it would prefer all animals going to slaughter to be stunned first, but there was long-standing convention to respect the rights of Jewish and Muslim communities to prepare meat in accordance with their religious beliefs.
Ministers also pointed to plans to introduce CCTV at all abattoirs as part of a drive to improve animal welfare.
They attributed the increase in animals killed without being stunned to the Muslim community eating more sheep meat and “an enhanced religious observance”.
Highlighting the latest Food Standards Agency figures, independent crossbencher Lord Trees said: “That is 3.3 million sheep that have their throats cut without being rendered unconscious first.
“Does the minister agree with me that in that aspect of animal welfare we are going backwards?”
Environment Minister Lord Gardiner of Kimble said: “The Government would prefer all animals to be stunned before slaughter but we have been very clear over a long period of time… that we do respect the rights of the Jewish and Muslim communities to consume meat in accordance with their religious practices.”
Labour former environment minister Lord Rooker pointed out all New Zealand sheep and lamb that arrived in this country was halal, but had been stunned prior to slaughter.
He said: “So if it’s good enough to have a standard in New Zealand that classifies as halal, why do we put up with a local decision that is not an international rule?
“Why can’t we adopt the New Zealand practice in respect of the Muslim community?”
Lord Gardiner said there were different requirements within the Muslim community.
On the introduction of security cameras in abattoirs, the minister said: “What we want is for all animals to have a good life and a respectful end to their life and I think this will advance that.”
Tory peer Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts pressed the minister about labelling to ensure people did not end up eating meat they believed to have been killed by a method that caused unnecessary suffering.
Lord Gardiner said it was “absolutely essential that there is an informed choice for everyone”.
He pointed out farm assurance schemes such as the Red Tractor and the RSPCA ethical food label required the stunning of animals before slaughter.
The RSPCA and British Veterinary Association are among the groups calling for an end to slaughter without pre-stunning – a move that would mean an end to religious exemptions from European and UK legislation on this element of slaughtering, and also, say campaigners, an end to unnecessary suffering. Denmark has already banned non-stun slaughter as the country’s government said “animal rights come before religion”.