Muslims In Quandary Over State Food Law

Margaret Ramirez, Chicago Tribune, April 23, 2007

As a Muslim mom and teacher, Dilara Sayeed struggles to find the best food to nourish her family and feed their devout faith.

She wants beef and chicken that are healthy as well as halal: slaughtered and blessed according to Islamic law. Yet often she finds there are limits to the information available from the supermarket or even her neighborhood Muslim grocer. So she, like many Muslims, must trust in God that she is not being deceived.

“Sometimes I just can’t get all the answers, so I make an assumption that I’m being served in an honorable way,” said Sayeed, of Naperville. “I wish it wasn’t true, but there may be some people who are abusing that trust.”

Five years after Illinois lawmakers passed legislation making it illegal to falsely label or sell food as halal, the rules still have not gone into effect and the law is not being enforced. Because there are multiple interpretations of what constitutes halal, debates about how the law would work have proved difficult and divisive.

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The Illinois statute, modeled after a New Jersey law, requires anyone selling or producing halal food to register with the state for a $75 fee and fill out a disclosure form by checking off boxes indicating how the food was obtained and who certified the product as halal. Since New Jersey passed the nation’s first halal law in 2000, similar laws have taken effect in nearly a dozen states.

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Illinois lawmakers say the act purposely does not define halal to allow for the multiple standards in the community. For some Muslims, halal means only avoiding pork or alcohol; others favor hand-slaughter by a Muslim over machine slaughter. Still another growing movement of Muslims argues that halal goes beyond slaughter to how the animals are raised. These Muslims insist that only meat from animals that were raised on organic or natural farms and were slaughtered in a humane way are halal.

Meeting with lawmakers

Last month, several Muslim community leaders met with state lawmakers at a public hearing to discuss what questions would be on the disclosure form. The state Department of Agriculture submitted comments from the hearing to a joint committee and is awaiting approval.

Because the state cannot certify what is halal, officials want all pertinent information on the form so consumers can make purchases according to their own standard. Statements on the form ask, for example, whether the animal was facing Mecca when slaughtered and whether the person performing slaughter is Muslim.

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As much as the halal debates speak to differences among Muslims and their faith, the law is also a testament to the broadening reach of the Muslim community in the Midwest and across the nation. Enforcement of the state law would directly affect hundreds of Muslim grocers, restaurants, slaughterhouses and farmers who provide meat to Muslim residents. But the ripple effect would also hit Amish farmers, organic farmers and other non-Muslims who have begun supplying animals for halal meat.

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Independent certification

Because there is no single Islamic authority that supervises halal, dozens of companies and Islamic centers have established their own halal certification for food, meat and products like cosmetics and vitamins. Some Muslim certification companies have begun selling their own products, presenting a conflict of interest.

Muhammad Munir Chaudry, president of the Islamic Food and Nutrition Council of America, based in Chicago, heads the largest Muslim certification company in the nation and labels approved products with a big “M” set inside a crescent. Chaudry had hoped the law would provide for oversight of certification agencies to ensure they are objective.

For Chaudry, the halal law is largely symbolic and the burden remains on the consumer to find out whether the food is halal. Chaudry said he has investigated local markets that claimed to sell halal meat and found that in two cases the meat came from a kosher plant.

“There is a false sense of security because the consumers think, ‘Well, now there is a halal law, so everybody must be following it.’ And the shopkeepers are saying, ‘No one is stopping us, so let’s keep doing it,’” Chaudry said.

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At Halal Farms U.S.A. in the western Illinois town of Shannon, Gamal Zayed oversees the slaughter of nearly 600 goats, 100 lambs and 10 cows every week to feed Muslim families from Rogers Park to Rockford. In a meat industry dominated by machinery, Halal Farms adheres to Islamic principles that require all animals be slaughtered by hand and by a Muslim. No animals are stunned or shackled, Zayed said.

The Muslim-owned and operated slaughterhouse supplies meat to more than 50 grocery stores, mainly in Chicago, and it’s expected to expand to other Midwestern areas with growing Muslim populations, such as Iowa.

More deception feared

Marketing manager Javed Akram fears the Illinois law would lead to more deception. Grocers, he said, could use the forms submitted by Halal Farms to pass off other meats as halal.

Hussaini, of the ISNA halal food program, concedes the law is not perfect. Yet he fears that efforts to revise it could delay action even further. Fine-tuning, he said, can come later.

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