Imagine an issue that combines Britain’s legendary love of animals, Brexit, politics, religion and a dash of far-right populism – and you have the gruesome but inflammatory question of how to slaughter farm animals. Killed after being stunned, or a knife across the throat while fully awake?

First debated in parliament in 1875, the problem of how to balance animal welfare and religious freedom is hardly new. But it’s now been thrown into national focus with a pending deal for the UK to provide £25m of sheep meat over the next five years to Saudi Arabia.

The issue – in this deal, as in the UK as a whole – is how the lambs and sheep are killed. UK law requires stunning prior to slaughter, but animals slaughtered for specific religious communities are exempted.

Halal for Muslims was allowed, where animals are killed with a knife across the main blood vessels in the throat. In around 80% of cases, the animal – most usually lambs or chickens – is stunned beforehand. Animals similarly knife-slaughtered by the shechita method – producing Kosher meat for Jews – are never stunned beforehand. Kosher meat is produced in far lower numbers than halal.

For as long as the exemption lasted for domestic consumption by Muslims and Jews, it was an uneasy compromise, but a compromise nonetheless. However, with a rise in exported halal meat, the prospect of becoming an export hub for what many British nationals feel is cruelly-produced meat is a step too far.

Figures from a survey by the UK’s Food Standards Agency (FSA) revealed that in 2018, more than 94 million cattle, sheep and poultry were slaughtered without being stunned first in England and Wales.

The majority of sheep slaughtered in England and Wales (71%) are slaughtered by halal methods, using both stun and non-stun. According to the Office for National Statistics, only around 5% of the UK population is Muslim.

Nearly a quarter (24%) of sheep meat that was not stunned before slaughter was exported from the UK – equating to around 750,000 sheep a year being slaughtered without prior stunning, solely for export. The Saudi deal could add another 55,000 sheep to that figure.

11% of chickens were slaughtered without pre-stunning between October 2017 and September 2018: in 2013, that figure stood at three per cent.

Brexit soon rears its head. With a government desperate for new trade deals, if Britain crashes out of the EU on a ‘no-deal’ basis, it’s clear to see that a £25m deal for the farming industry over the next five years is going to be attractive.

But while the government might be prepared to hold its nose over the deal, many senior politicians and influential UK organisations are not.

While making it clear their concern does not relate to the expression of religious belief but the welfare of animals, Britain’s biggest animal welfare charity, The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and many leading veterinary organisations are lining up to support a total ban on non-stunned meat.

Indeed, the UK Government’s own advisory body, the Farm Animal Welfare Council (FAWC) supports an outright ban, concluding that animals slaughtered in this way are likely to experience “very significant pain and distress” before they become unconscious.

Both halal and shechita advocates, however, say the method is humane. Shechita UK says that when the incision is made, it severs major arteries and veins. Blood supply to the brain ceases immediately, all consciousness is lost and, with it, the ability to feel pain. Shechita stuns and dispatches in one action, and is irreversible.

Animals lose consciousness in seconds, and they point to the many instances where pre-stunning has not worked. “The laws of shechita may be old, but they are not outmoded,” they insist, and suggest opposition has little to do with welfare and more about religious ill-will.

Either way, many politicians feel that the religious exemptions are being abused, and reveal a move towards lowering UK standards post-Brexit.

Non-stun slaughter is outlawed already in many European countries, including Denmark, Norway and Sweden. The practice is partially outlawed in Germany and Switzerland. Belgium’s decision to ban the practice in Flanders came into effect this year, drawing criticism and a legal challenge from religious groups that is now going to the European Court. A verdict is expected this year.

At present, whether the Saudi-bound lambs will be stunned or not is not clear. According to the journal of the BVA Vet Record, there is evidence that the Halal Monitoring Committee (HMC) will refuse to certify meat if it has been stunned before slaughter. At the time of writing, the HMC have not responded to questions from InsideOver.

Meat labelling is a connected issue. Meat from animals killed before stunning is only supposed to be for consumption by UK Muslims and Jews. But the supply is not enforced, and non-stun slaughter meat is routinely sold on to the general market. This leads to unsuspecting people buying or consuming meat created by a method they disagree with as much as Muslims and Jews disagree with stunning – and consequently subsidising the religious slaughter industry.

Label it as such, says the National Secular Society (NSS). If religious groups are to be given privileged exemption from UK law, it seems reasonable to expect consumers to have the right to avoid meat from animals killed under that exemption. The Government is now  “considering” the labelling option, and currently engaging with communities around religious slaughter, including consumer transparency.

The NSS has warned the government against turning the UK into “a hotbed of non-stun halal slaughter”, normalising the mistreatment of animals, and empowering “a group which undermines animal welfare in Britain”.

Underlying their comments is a growing sensitivity to what’s been dubbed ‘sharia creep’, the increasing accommodation of Islamic practises in the UK which the NSS, and some politicians, feel is moving into secular areas: food production, finance, law, and state education. For instance, the teaching of LBGT rights in school has become a religious battleground in the UK, fuelling populist and far-right anger towards immigrant populations.

Stephen Evans, the NSS’s chief executive, is uncompromising. He said: “All animals must be stunned before slaughter, without exception. The fact that the religious exemption compromises animal welfare in the UK is unacceptable in itself. It is further concerning that the exemption is being abused to boost the UK’s halal non-stun slaughter industry. Becoming a hotbed of non-stun slaughter would not be a good look for post-Brexit Britain.”

Into the smouldering tinder box steps the RSPCA – bearing, perhaps, a much needed supply of cold water in the form of a potential solution to the Saudi deal.

New Zealand has long been a supplier of sheep meat to Saudi Arabia – and the country has long banned the practice of non-stun slaughter. Saudi Arabia accepts this meat, so there is no reason, say the RSPCA, that they should not accept similarly-killed meat from the UK. In the UK, 58% of halal meat comes from animals which have been stunned and certified halal, showing that this method can work.

The pressure is now on the UK’s new Environment Secretary of State, Theresa Villiers, to find a way through. A joint open letter to the previous Secretary, Michael Gove, in February from the RSPCA and BVA called for a total ban on non-stun slaughter.

BVA president Simon Doherty said: “The UK government has repeatedly stated it would prefer to see all animals stunned before slaughter, but has taken no action to address this critical welfare issue that affects millions of animals every year. There is a huge groundswell of support for a ban on non-stun slaughter.”

Further, in early July, former – now re-appointed – Environment Minister, George Eustice called for a free vote in Parliament on the issue, branding the FSA slaughter statistics “alarming”. They represented, he said: “a shocking backward step. There has been a drift back towards more conservative cultural interpretations of religious faith. We cannot continue to ignore this issue.”

It’s a fair bet, however, that for the time being, that’s exactly what will happen. Boris Johnson’s cabinet has been hand-picked to make post-Brexit trade deals successful – “do or die”.

Whether the tinder box becomes a bonfire or a solution is found, only time will tell.