Monday, January 11, 2010

Halal Certification Companies; a messy business.

Fauzia Hasnie and her husband travel to Chicago every two months from their home in Fort Wayne for two reasons; one – to meet their son and his wife and two- to stock up on meat.

It’s not as if there isn’t enough meat in the second largest city in Indiana, it’s just hard to find the kind of meat that the Hasnie’s are looking for.

As practicing Muslims, they only eat Halal meat, food products that are prepared in a manner that conforms to the dietary laws set out for Muslims in the Quran.

Fauzia Hasnie says she’s been shuttling meat for her family for 10 to 12 years now. It’s not unusual, she says, for her Muslim friends to travel long distances just to get the right Halal meat. There are not many shops in Fort Wayne that provide Halal and those that do have low standards, says Fauzia Hasnie.

31-year old Sarah Zaidi, a practicing Muslim and pediatrician in New York, doesn’t have to travel that far. She makes a 4-mile journey from her apartment on 96 street and Broadway every 2 weeks. But it’s not easy hauling three full chickens and 2-kilograms of minced meat through the subway, says Zaidi.

The only exception to her adherence is that she will substitute Halal with Kosher meat in a last minute cooking spree for friends and family. Kosher and Halal are essentially the same, only the prayer recited at the time of incision and the position of the knife when slaughtering the animal are different.

Halal is described in the Quran as a Muslim lifestyle. On a dietary level, it has to do with how meat is acquired, the health of the animal, the slaughter procedure, chemicals used for preservation and the mention of Allah at the time a swift incision is made. The incision is supposed to sever the jugular veins and carotid arteries at both sides of the animal’s neck. Halal slaughter technique emphasizes on being a humane way to kill hence sharpening the knife is important because it decreases the animal’s pain.

Islam defines all food as Halal if treated a certain way. However there are exceptions; pork and its by-products, alcohol, blood and by-products, carnivorous animals, birds of prey, improperly slaughtered or already dead animals do not qualify as Halal.

The animal must be of good health and should not have fed on carcass. The facility and the chemical products used to preserve the meat when being transported from city to city need to be inspected for following Halal guidelines before they can be certified.

As the Muslim community in New York grows, so does the demand for Halal products and by extension, the need for Halal-certification companies. These independent organizations are licensed by the state to, among other things, oversee slaughter of poultry and livestock so to ensure that it is done in a way that conforms to the dietary laws set out for Muslims in the Quran.

In 2000, New York became one of the first states to pass the Halal Protection Bill, which made it a misdemeanor to market food as Halal when it actually wasn’t. But a decade later, the state still cannot confirm the number of Halal companies; much less keep track of them. There is no guarantee that the small stamp used by certification companies to identify Halal meat from non-Halal is being used judiciously or not.

As a result, doubts about every Halal meat store force families like the Hasnie’s to drive as much as several hundred miles to Halal butchers or slaughter houses that they trust.

Joe Regenstein, a professor teaching a course on Kosher and Halal Food regulations at Cornell College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, believes certification standards vary among Muslims. “There are many different standards and attitudes among Muslims about certification of Halal foods. Although it is commonly accepted that some Muslims do not do a "proper" job, I would not call them sham. Unless a non-Muslim appends a Halal "certificate" or claim to a product -- which would be fraudulent, the community has the responsibility to monitor the situation.”

Certification companies are independent organizations that are licensed by the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets. The applicant is required to fill in a form, describing the education, training, and experience that qualify him or her to certify food as Halal. Certification companies then charge Halal slaughterhouses that approach them for a Halal certification for their products. This certification usually has to be renewed every year.

The Food and Safety Inspection department of the United States Department of Agricultural says that enlisting certification companies according to Halal and non-Halal is not part of their procedure.

Without an organized public record of Halal certification companies it becomes hard for the Muslim consumer to figure out whether the stamp from a Halal Certification company is reliable or not.

Dr. Muhammed Munir Chaudhry, the director of the Islamic Food and Nutritional Council of America (IFANCA), which is the largest Halal certification company in the United States, says the Halal bill is more ‘symbolic’ than it is effective. The onus of checking if a slaughter house meets Halal standards still lies on the consumer and not on the certification companies; a situation that could be avoided if the “Muslim consumer pushed hard enough”, says Chaudhry.

But its not like the Halal certification industry is not a lucrative business. According to PEW Research Center Publications, 6 to 8 million Muslims in North America observe Halal food laws. Even though the U.S. Census is forbidden to record a person’s religion, research done by various groups and universities suggest that there are over 600,000 Muslims in New York.

Chaudhry, estimates that American Muslim consumers spend $20 billion on food every year. He says Halal certification companies have just touched the tip of the iceberg when it comes to business coverage and that there is still lots of work to do.

So why is it that the Halal certification business has not seen the boom that should have coincided with one of the fastest growing communities in New York?

Mary Anne Jackson, the president of J&M Halal certified meals, a brand that was introduced to the US military making it the first Halal certified ration for Muslim American soldiers, attempts to explain why the Halal certification industry has not grown as it was expected to in the past 15-years in her report ‘The real world of Halal from a manufacturer’s viewpoint.’

One of the reasons are that certification companies have made little to no effort in reaching out to consumers and remedying their negative image. One way to remedy this, Jackson suggests, would be to publish their procedure and standard of assessing products as Halal on their websites.

Jackson says there’s also the guardian mechanism that’s badly needed in the Halal business; a mother certification company that can keep track of all the other Halal certification companies. This will prevent slaughterhouses that have been denied certification by one Halal Certification company to obtain a stamp from another more lenient certification company.

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