It’s been a week of big announcements about animal welfare from the Minister of Agriculture, David Carter. We’ve seen not only the phase-out of sow crates but also the reversal of his decision in May 2010 to outlaw the traditional Jewish method of slaughter, schechita, for chickens.
Schechita slaughter requires the animal to be fully conscious as its throat is cut and it is allowed to bleed out. The NAWAC animal slaughter code created under the Animal Welfare Act 1999 (AWA) requires that an animal to be slaughtered must be first rendered insensible – stunned – so that it does not experience ‘unnecessary’ pain or distress. Although Muslims also object to the stunning of animals at slaughter, a compromise has been reached with halal slaughter whereby the animal is stunned at the instant the cut is made.
But there’s one revelation about the reasons behind the decision to ban schechita in the first place that the Minister would rather not see the light of day.
Documents obtained by the Herald on Sunday:
[A]ppear to show Carter broke the rules governing his portfolio by considering trade implications when making the original decision.
An allegation of conflict of interest has been made because of that – he holds shares in a company which exports meat and met with senior managers who wanted a ban on shechita to protect their interests.
The MPs Register of Pecuniary Interests shows Carter owns shares in Silver Fern Farms Ltd and another major meat exporter to Muslim countries, Alliance Group Ltd.
Silver Fern Farms Ltd processes about 30 per cent of New Zealand’s cattle market. With other stock, it exports more than $200 million of meat to the Middle East … Carter owns three farms – a 1200ha cattle breeding property in Teddington, a fattening unit at Southbridge and shares in a property in Waiau.
Emails obtained under the Official Information Act 1982 show that Carter met in March with Silver Fern Farms Ltd chairman Eoin Garden and chief executive Keith Cooper, who said New Zealand meat exports [to halal-importing countries] would suffer if shechita wasn’t banned as Muslim countries may perceive the exemption for schechita while restrictions are placed on halal as favouritism. So, it would appear that Carter’s decision carried no small amount of potential personal financial benefit. Whether this is so or not – there is at least a clear case for a conflict of interest.
Carter was being sued by the Auckland Hebrew Congregation for changing the law in May to make schechita illegal. The case was set to begin in the High Court at Wellington until a reversal of the ban just days before the hearing was to begin.
The judgement of Justice Alan Mackenzie dismissing the action reveals that Carter’s office continued to talk about the trade implications of the decision even after being advised by Crown lawyers that only animal welfare issues were to be considered by the Minister in reaching his decision. It is also mentioned that Carter made his decision in substantial ignorance of some important facts, believing that chicken, lamb, and beef could all be imported from Australia where schechita is legal. Chicken may not be imported into New Zealand under the Biosecurity Act 1993 – an intriguing oversight given that Carter is also the Minister responsible for Biosecurity – because of the risk of Newcastle disease (END). Lamb is prohibitively expensive, costing about $120 per kilogram to be air-freighted from Australia.
Despite the obvious and significant issues around animal welfare and religious freedoms (as provided for in the Bill of Rights Act 1990) engendered in this controversy, the whole story shows the axis around which all decision making regarding animals in the Ministry turns. Although the Minister’s own (apparent) conflict of interest makes this a particularly egregious case, it is eminently clear that the motivation behind animal welfare codes in New Zealand is principally the facilitation of continued economic exploitation of animals.