Slaughtering without prior stunning was cruel, claimed groups including Compassion in World Farming, and consumers were being duped, the stories said.
While many halal organisations, such as the Halal Food Authority, agreed meat should be correctly labelled, many also said the language and images were inflammatory. The Sun used a picture of a cow tied up outside on the snow-covered ground, while a man took a knife to its throat. "The picture clearly bore no relation to how licensed abattoirs slaughter the vast majority of the animals we use for meat in the UK," says Muhammed Yaqoob, chief executive of National Halal Food Group, which operates butchery concessions in Asda and Tesco stores.
But despite the stories' inaccuracies, there is a hidden side to the halal industry that many in the industry believe deserves genuine scrutiny a side where criminal gangs illegally slaughter animals in makeshift abattoirs, unregulated, unlicensed and unhygienic, and sell the meat, often falsely labelled halal, into the food chain.
This multi-million-pound illicit trade is third in size only to illegal narcotics and arms, claims Dr Yunes Teinez, an expert in illegal meat and the former head of environmental health at Haringey and Hackney councils. "Meat crimes threaten public health, violate people's religious beliefs and abuse their trust," he says. "They frequently involve cruelty to animals. Some of the people who carry them out have no moral qualms about the risks they create of infecting the public with diseases such as Variant CJD and E.coli."
While illegal meat is a problem for the whole meat industry, some halal industry leaders believe it disproportionately affects Muslim consumers, because the halal trade is so fragmented, with an estimated 3,500 independent halal butchers in the UK.
Indeed Yaqoob says he believes up to 88% of meat labelled as halal is, in fact, fake. "We know this because there are three million Muslims in the UK and we know the number of abattoirs that are slaughtering," he says. "There are 1,600 plus mosques in this country and every mosque will tell you there is an issue with the supply chain."
Demand for specialist, but illegal products, such as smokies, among some Muslim consumers, also drives the trade. The Food Standards Agency (FSA) is currently pressing for a change in European law to allow the market to be legalised and regulated and Naved Syed, managing director of Janan Meats, says, as does the FSA, that it is perfectly possible to produce smokies (sheep meat with blowtorch-charred skin) safely in a regulated environment. "It is a very big market, especially in east London where there is a large Muslim African community," says Syed.
Smokies are currently illegal, because all slaughtering facilities are required to remove animals' skin for hygiene purposes and to check for disease. However, their production is far from uncommon, and numerous prosecutions have been brought in recent years against farmers operating unregulated slaughter and processing facilities. In 2005, for instance, Welsh farmer Carmelo Gale was sent to prison for six months after being caught by Carmarthenshire County Council, who raided a farm building and found sheep waiting to be slaughtered, newly slaughtered carcases, and blowtorches and gas cylinders.
Difficult to track
The scale of the problem is difficult to gauge due to its clandestine nature. However, the FSA confirms it is far from unusual. "Because of the illicit nature of illegal slaughter, it can only be recorded once detected and, as such, it is not possible to accurately determine the true extent of this," says a spokesman. "We use the National Food Fraud Database to record known or suspected fraudulent activity that is notified to us and the database does contain intelligence on illegal slaughter. As an example, over the three-month period between June and August 2010, illegal slaughter made up 5% of the reports created on the database. This cannot be interpreted as saying 5% of food fraud is illegal slaughter, however, as we are dependent on what we are notified about."
Dr Teinaz says he has seen some horrific examples of illegal meat being sold to consumers while working as an environmental health inspector. "I've seen meat you would not give even to a dog entering the human food chain decomposed, rotten, with slime and mould. It clearly presents a danger to public health and this dirty meat is still arriving in all big cities of the UK." In fact, his work in fighting one particular criminal gang supplying unfit meat into the food chain led to £100,000 being offered for his life four years ago. He still lives with the threat hanging over him, he says.
Dr Teinaz also claims some licensed slaughterhouses operate illegally at night and the situation is getting worse because the resources of the FSA, MHS and local authorities have been cut. "It has resulted in more illegal meat entering into the human food chain all over the country. The illicit trade is booming at the expense of the health of the nation, and the farming industry. Nothing much happens to the criminals. Controlling the problem is not a priority for most enforcing authorities in the country. It is very sad."
However, the FSA denies it has made cuts to its service. "Our inspectors continue to be thorough in their monitoring of meat businesses and take action with local authorities against anyone that breaks the law," says a spokesman. "Our number one priority is to keep food safe.
"It is wrong to suggest our efficiency savings have somehow compromised the effectiveness of our inspections. Savings have been made through better planning and more efficient business arrangements. We have sufficient numbers of inspectors to carry out official controls in all premises as required. We have not seen any indication that the trade in illegal meat has increased, but if anyone has evidence that people are breaking the law, then they should report it to us or their local authority immediately."
More transparency needed
Ultimately, it will be Muslim consumers who drive changes in the industry. Yaqoob wants to make the whole halal supply chain more transparent, to ensure Muslim consumers are getting a genuine and trustworthy product. He claims poor hygiene has been a problem for a long time in independent halal butchers' shops.
"There are good people and bad people in every industry, but the most important issue in retail halal is basic hygiene practices, whether it is premises hygiene, personal hygiene or product traceability," he says. "If you walk into a supermarket there are regular internal and external audits, there are records to be kept, whereas on the high street you just need to make a visit to halal butchers' and you will see it is black and white. With the standards that should be in place, often the hygiene is missing. It is important to get the basics right."
He says an increased interest in traceability is an important consumer trend that will help regulate the problem.
Syed, meanwhile, recently held an open day at his abattoir to show consumers how animals are slaughtered and the welfare measures that are in place, such as watering and caring for the animals when they first arrive. "It is down to education," he says. "And if consumers demand better standards, businesses offering transparency and excellence in the supply chain will thrive."
The Food Standards Agency (FSA), which enforces food hygiene regulations on the meat industry, recently announced it planned to remove the right of non-compliant meat firms to operate pending the determination of appeals. The FSA insists the move is designed to bring UK legislation in line with EU requirements.
FSA Enforcement Strategy Team spokesperson Rufina Acheampong said: "Since the EU regulations that deal with hygiene of food from animal origin are aimed at protecting public health, the FSA considers it inappropriate for food business operators (FBOs) that are non-compliant with food law, to continue to operate until appeals are dealt with." She said refusal or withdrawal of approval to operate would be a last resort.
The FSA is currently consulting on the move, seeking views from the meat industry. But early responses suggest a less than positive reaction from some in the sector.
The Food Standards Agency (FSA) is working in partnership with the meat industry as part of a five-year strategy to tackle the ongoing problem of Campylobacter. As part of the risk management programme, launched this summer, the FSA has studied interventions that have worked in other countries to help it develop projects targeted at different points along the food chain.
A spokesman said: "Finding those that will work for the UK is the challenge. Some approaches present regulatory problems, others may not be considered acceptable to consumers. The trial of different interventions by industry, particularly on-farm and in slaughterhouses, will be key to finding the solutions to this problem." Running parallel to this will be a co-ordinated effort by government and research councils to develop a deeper understanding of the biology of Campylobacter.
To support the FSA's five-year strategy, it recently commissioned research, including the feasibility of developing a rapid on-farm test; effectiveness of biosecurity training; and measuring the impact of interventions.