Muslims Disagree on Halal Standards

appeared in The Daily Herald, Dec. 6, 2006
originally published by the Medill News Service, Nov. 15 2006

Halal means different things to different people.

When Yousuf Khan first started distributing Halal meat in 1987, he trusted the people who sold to him. He did not question where the meat came from or how the sellers could guarantee it was truly Halal, which means permissible or lawful according to the Muslim religion.

But then Khan started investigating. “I am a cop from back home,” the Pakistani owner of Glendale Heights-based Zabiha Halal Meat Processors Inc. said with a laugh. He once even secretly tailed one of his meat suppliers all the way from Chicago to Detroit.

He discovered a lot of fraud. He tracked some of the meat he was buying to slaughterhouses where the owners asked him, “What is Halal?” So in 1989, Khan decided to start slaughtering the animals himself.

Khan said he still sees problems. “Left and right, cheating is going on in that market,” he said.

But although there are some cases of obvious fraud, there are other instances that may be a matter of difference of opinion.

In 2001 Illinois passed the Halal Food Act, which makes it a misdemeanor to mislead someone into believing that a non-Halal product is Halal. Illinois was the third state in the country to make such a rule.

Five years later, the specifics of the Illinois rules are still not finalized, according to Kris Mazurczak, meat and poultry inspection bureau chief for the Illinois Department of Agriculture. “We hope to publish these rules in spring,” Mazurczak said.

“The challenge of the community is they have different expectations,” Mazurczak said. “Different parts of the community do not agree on a definition of Halal product.”

For example, the Islamic Food and Nutrition Council of America, or IFANCA, an international Halal certifier based in Park Ridge and the largest Halal certifier in North America, was very active in getting the Illinois Halal Food Act passed.

But according to Kahn’s definition, a lot of meat certified by IFANCA is not Halal.

Kahn follows strict guidelines. The animal must be hand-slaughtered by a Muslim in the name of God, the neck must be cut horizontally to ensure that all of the blood drains out, and the animal must not be stunned before it is slaughtered.

Zeshan Sadek, a Halal auditor for Ifanca, concurs that a Muslim has to be at the slaughterhouse and a blessing must be said in order for meat to be considered Halal. He also agrees with Khan that that the neck must be cut horizontally “so there is a complete drainage of blood.”

But IFANCA allows animals to be slaughtered by machine. “We prefer hand slaughter,” Sadek said, but the organization will certify machine-killed animals.

On the issue of stunning the animal before slaughter, the two are even more divergent. “We prefer animals that are stunned,” Sadek said. “It’s just a more humane handling of the animal.”

Khan said most of the Muslim clerics he has consulted “agree that the animals should not be stunned.” Instead, the sharpest knife should be used so the animal dies quickly with minimal pain.

Sadek acknowledged, “Different groups have different views.”

Halal food products are a $16 billion-a-year industry in the United States and $150 billion worldwide, according to Mazhar Hussaini, director of the Halal Program for the Islamic Society of North America. He said the U.S. market is growing 25 percent to 30 percent a year.

Khan said his customer base in the Chicago area is also growing steadily.

Khan and some colleagues recently founded the North American Halal Foundation, which spelled out strict rules for the labeling of Halal meat. The group has circulated disclosure forms to Chicago stores selling Halal products, and will publicize and promote those stores that affirm they are complying with the rules.