UKIP's Nigel Farage
UKIP's Nigel FarageReuters

The right-wing UK Independence Party (UKIP) has become the first party running in this year's British elections to announce its backing for a ban on shechita.

A statement placed prominently on the UKIP website's homepage voices the party's opposition to "non-stun slaughter" - effectively calling for an end to traditional Jewish and Muslim forms of slaughter.

"Animal and veterinary science has long concluded that cutting the throats of animals whilst they are fully conscious can cause significant distress and pain," the website quoted a party spokesman as saying. 

"We see no reason why religious groups should not take into account the concerns of animal welfare when carrying out slaughter."

UKIP branded the British government's stance - which is to protect the rights of kosher and halal slaughter - as "weak, lazy and bordering on spineless."

"We respect religious groups to carry out slaughter in the UK according to how they define and read their scriptures. What we do not allow however is for the rights and demands of groups within those religions override the UK's compassionate traditions of animal welfare," the statement continued. 

It also went on to back "mandatory labeling" so that even in the case of meat slaughtered abroad, customers could know how the animal had been killed.

"UKIP's forthcoming manifesto on animal welfare will be the strongest of any major political party in the UK," it pledged.

The announcement represents an abrupt about-turn for the Euroskeptic party, whose leader Nigel Farage had in 2013 pledged to oppose a ban on shechita at a public event in London.

Responding to the news, Shimon Cohen, the campaign director of Shechita UK, told the UK's Jewish Chronicle that UKIP had got its facts wrong.

"Citing weak, agenda-led science, UKIP has become the first major political party in the UK to call for a ban on religious slaughter," Cohen told the paper.

"This latest move is opportunistic and a disappointing shift from UKIP's previous position, when both Mr Farage and [UKIP MEP] Stuart Agnew publicly advocated their support for shechita.

"UKIP’s new assertion that ‘[mechanical] pre stunning before religious ritual slaughter is fully compatible with all world religions' is plain nonsense.

"The Jewish community does not permit any of the industrialized mechanical stunning methods used in factory slaughter.

"By joining the campaign to prioritize 'animal welfare' over the rights and beliefs of the UK’s faith communities UKIP has returned to the fringes of mainstream politics."

For his part, MEP Stuart Agnew - who is also the party's agricultural spokesman - told the Jewish Chronicle he had opposed the change in UKIP's position, but had been overruled as the party sought to ride a wave of public support for a ban.

"There are more votes to be gained and I expect that’s what they were looking for. We’ll lose the Jewish vote for sure, but we might gain votes elsewhere – and that’s what they’re after, general election votes," he said.

Agnew however insisted that the new policy was not in fact aimed at the Jewish community at all, but that it would suffer as "collateral damage" as the party went after its real target.

"This isn't aimed at you - it’s aimed elsewhere - it’s aimed at others," he said. "You've been caught in the crossfire; collateral damage. You know what I mean."

His comments were likely a reference to a renewed controversy over halal (Islamic) slaughter practices, after animal rights activists exposed shocking evidence of animal cruelty at a Muslim slaughterhouse. A petition to ban "non-stun slaughter" in response to the expose has already garnered more than 100,000 signatures.

But Jewish groups have insisted kosher slaughterhouses are very strictly regulated, and note several scientific studies which prove that kosher slaughter - which requires the animal to be killed instantly with a single, clean cut - is in fact more humane than methods often used in "pre-stunning" abattoirs.

The news couldn't come at a worse time for British Jews, who are already alarmed over rising anti-Semitism both at home and on the European continent. Over last summer alone, the UK witnessed a whopping 400% increase in the number of anti-Semitic crimes committed; and while that number has leveled off slightly since then the community remains very much on edge.

Although UKIP is not one of the UK's three major political parties, it is projected to strengthen somewhat in May's elections, capitalizing on widespread voter disillusionment with mainstream political parties. 

In 2014 the party received its first two MPs in the British parliament, and it is already the fourth largest British party in the European Parliament.

Britain's Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron has pledged to protect kosher and halal slaughter, but with polls projecting no clear winner in May's elections, renewed calls by a rising political force such as UKIP will leave many British Jews increasingly concerned.