Harrow, one of our local authorities, offering its primary schools halal only meat in its school meals. The story's everywhere - in the red tops and the "quality" papers.
The reaction has been pretty strong. Despite the fact that a number of the council's secondary schools have been serving halal only meat in school meals for 2 years.
In terms of news management this story has been a disaster for the Council. They clearly didn't expect this story to get out and run around like a headless halal chicken. When asked about this a council official replied rather defensively that halal food had been served in some eleven schools these past two years and no one had complained. He didn't say whether parents knew that their little darlings were eating the stuff. But given the current uproar I suspect not.
The BBC news reports state that the catering company involved Harrison Catering Services only uses halal meat, yet typing in "halal" on the company's website search came up with no references. There is nothing on the company's home page to indicate that they only use halal meat.
Halal Food Authority (HFA), said it welcomed the move but stressed that pupils should not be forced to eat halal meat. The Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) said parents who wanted their children to eat halal meat "should be given the freedom and choice to do so"."Local authorities are under a duty to facilitate this," a spokesman said."Those who do not wish to consume halal should similarly be afforded the freedom and choice."
Note: I wanted to link the MCB to this blog but according to Google their web page is an attack site which tries to steal information etc..etc. I overruled God Google. So view this site at your peril!!!
In this country we appear to be constantly on the brink of a nervous breakdown when discussing anything to do with Islam. Any incident seems to be seen by one community or another as a slight, repression or subversion.
No wonder neither the council nor the catering company publicise the use of halal meat in their school meals. See what happens when the news gets out.
My immediate reaction was very much the same as The Daily Mail's - bloody minority trampling over the rights of the majority. Except on reflection I don't think it's like that. And our reaction shows how unsure we are about our own identity.
I'm a vegetarian. I would, I think, not be being over demanding if, on finding my school only served dinners with meat, I asked that some of the choices were vegetarian. I'm not asking that all the food is vegetarian just a choice. I don't mean by that a plate of veg and a lump of cheese, but an alternative comparable to a meat option. In the past no doubt some would say, if you want a veggie meal, bring your own. That of course is simply not the point.
This does not appear to present a problem for either meat eating kids and their parents, the council or the caterers - they provide vegetarian alternatives.
Now instead of me as a vegetarian, I'm someone who, for equally strongly held views as a veggie, only eats meat killed in a certain way. In fact I'm one of a large number who hold similar views and to be honest there are as many of us as there are vegetarians. Should that pose a problem? If vegetarians can be catered for, why not my group? Where's the distinction?
As the caterer this may pose a problem. First, you have to know how many of us "meat specials" there are. You have to source the meat and have to prepare and cook it separately. Quite a bit of extra cost involved and that would be reflected in the price you charge. (I think it's different from providing a veggie option in that you can get all the vegetables from a single source. I don't see any preparation or cooking separation difficulties and most, if not all, the veggie choices will be acceptable to meat eaters.)
As a caterer how could you resolve this? You source separately, but that will have an impact on costs.
But meat is meat; do you need to source it separately? Most of your meat eater don't hold strong views on how your meat's killed: but some do. Also, the cost of sourcing the meat killed in a certain way is only slightly more than the usual meat. It is less than the cost of having two separate sources.So it makes business sense to source it from the "minority" source.
I should point out that according to the Daily Mail Harrow Council said "dieticians recommended the policy due to difficulties storing and preparing two sorts of meat", and that contracts signed with Harrisons stipulate that only halal meat is served. I leave it to you to judge the veracity of these statements.
All meat eaters in schools end up eating my type of meat. Is that a problem?
It could be. Logically all the meat we all eat could end up being killed in this special way - if it is cheaper for the supplier, buyer and in this case council tax payer to do this.
Some might object to the special way the animals are killed, and to their children eating that meat.
Some might object to not knowing how the meat their kids are eating is killed. Others may protest that a minority group is taking over the eating habits of a generation.
The trouble is it's bringing out all the phobias, prejudices, hates and uncertainties that we have. This story has been grasped by those who think we're over run/subjugated/kowtowing to the Muslim hoards as an example of their overweening influence.
It's a variant of the Jews are poisoning our food scare.
But it is nothing to do with that. It's a question of freedom of choice, respecting the views of minorities. Something we thought we were good at.
It is solved without calling up the spectre of Islamic conspiracies and universal caliphates.
By recognising that there is a cost to choice and valuing that choice. Pay for the "inconvenience" in providing choice.
Harrow Council has said it ain't our decision, it's for schools to decide who supplies their food and whether they introduce halal only meats. That's passing the buck. As a matter of policy they can say there is to be choice. But at a cost. Parents/tax payers then can choose.
Is it really value for money if for the sake of a few pounds, we find we ratchet up the tensions between our communities? And all because of an issue which has nothing to do with religion.