Ministers are preparing to change the law to ensure that meat slaughtered in accordance with strict Islamic law cannot be sold to unwitting members of the public.
The Government is drawing up plans to prevent schools, hospitals, pubs and famous sporting venues from serving halal meat secretly to customers.
The move will be welcomed by animal rights campaigners, who argue that the traditional Islamic way of preparing meat – which involves killing animals by drawing a knife across their throats without stunning them first – is cruel and causes unnecessary pain.
'Cruel': Under the halal method, animals are slaughtered by being slashed across the neck without being stunned
It follows a Mail on Sunday investigation in September 2010 which discovered that beef, chicken and lamb had been sold to fans at Wembley without them knowing it had been prepared in accordance with sharia law.
Cheltenham College was found to be one of several public schools serving halal chicken to pupils without informing them, while Whitbread, Britain’s biggest hotel and restaurant group, admitted that more than three- quarters of its poultry was halal.
MPs were furious to discover halal meat had even been sold in House of Commons canteens without them knowing.
Now Environment Minister Lord Taylor of Holbeach has said that if the European Union fails to agree on a new food labelling scheme, the UK will take action. The European Commission is considering the matter as part of its animal welfare strategy and is expected to report by the summer.
Lord Taylor told peers: ‘The Government welcomes this approach as it will allow consumer information to be considered alongside measures to minimise the suffering of animals slaughtered without stunning. In the meantime we are considering how we can use domestic legislation.’
Investigation: The Mail on Sunday's report about halal meat sold at Wembley
Sharia law expressly forbids knocking out an animal with a bolt gun – the method normally used in British slaughterhouses. Instead, the animal must be sentient when its throat is cut, with the blood allowed to drip from the carcass while a religious phrase in praise of Allah is recited.
More than 40 million cattle, calves and sheep and more than 850 million poultry are slaughtered every year in Britain.
The vast majority are stunned before slaughter. In 2003, Government advisory body the Farm Animal Welfare Council published a report declaring that the halal method of killing ‘would inevitably trigger a barrage of sensory information to the brain in a sensible (conscious) animal . . . such a massive injury would result in very significant pain and distress in the period before insensibility supervenes’.
Muslim leaders insist that animal welfare measures are observed during slaughter.
Terry Sanderson, president of the National Secular Society, said: ‘This sounds like a very progressive move. We have been pushing the EU to act for some time. If the Government is going to take this step, it will help consumers to make an ethical choice.’
A Defra spokesman said: ‘We believe people should continue to be able to buy meat prepared in accordance with their religion, but that people should also be able to find out how a product was prepared when they are buying in shops or eating out.
‘We are keeping all policies under review, including our approach to labelling.’