Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Muslim Meat Market

WoodTurtle is a Canadian Muslim feminist currently using her extended maternity leave to explore developments of Islamic feminism in the Western and Muslim world.  As a woman who wears the hijab (owns several abayas and a niqab monogrammed with her initials in pink, sparkly sequins), she writes frequently on genderized Islamophobia. She also works toward dispelling myths and stereotypes about women in Islam for both Muslims and non.  

I love doughnuts. And pizza. I dream of pizza. I also love French fries, all-dressed Ruffles chips, marshmallows in hot chocolate, creamy Havarti cheese, garlic shrimp, and chocolate chunk fudge cake with hot caramel topping. Mmm... caramel.

People have told me that these are forbidden foods.

One time on a trip to Montréal, the Hubby and I stood in line for 15 minutes waiting to order fries at a local chip shop. I got bored and left to get a closer look at a dancing street performer. The Hubby met me a few minutes later without fries in hand. Imagining he forgot his wallet, I asked what happened:

"They wouldn't sell them to me."
Seething. Islamophobia? " they wouldn't sell them to you?"
"She said they weren't halal."
Incredulous, "And..? So? I want my fries! What exactly wasn't halal about them? Lard in the crispy coating? They deep-fry meat with the potatoes? Each French fry is injected with beef flavouring?"
"She didn't say"
[insert halal expletive]

The server was a fellow Muslim who was looking out for our well being. Seeing the goatee-bearded Hubby and me in hijab, she made a value judgment and decided to save us from possible sin. Afterward, when I had calmed down and bought an ice cream instead, I recognized that her intentions were good. And we did appreciate her honesty. Normally we ask certain establishments if their food is halal, or permissible, and go by their word.

When I converted, I thought living a halal food lifestyle was going to be easy. I was a vegetarian, and the main Islamic dietary laws revolve around meat and meat processing. So I didn't think that following this Qur’anic injunction was going to be an issue for me. No pork, no road kill, no blood, land animals have to be processed according to Islamic specifications, and no food blessed by any other than God’s name.

No problem – pass me a carrot.

But I got worried when I started receiving mass emails extolling the dangers of unlawful or questionable food. There's rennet in cheese and yogurt – and you never know if it's from a pig belly or a cow. There's gelatin in marshmallows. Beef flavouring in fries. Microscopic levels of pig fat in food additives. Alcohol in doughnut glaze. Bacon flavour in all-dressed chips. Pepsi is pure evil in a can.

For many people, keeping halal includes looking out for non-halal animal products or alcohol used in yogurt, cheese, candies, baked goods, fast food and soups, to name a few. Some even prefer to ask for a separate grill when ordering a veggie burger, as to not contaminate their patty with any previously grilled non-halal beef burger. Some absolutely refuse to use any product – from toothpaste to shoes – that may have come in contact with non-halal products at any stage of production. Some don’t worry about it at all, or just say bismillah (a common Arabic blessing meaning in God’s name) before eating anything – halal or not.

When it came to certain foods, I decided to follow a Qur'anic injunction implying: keep halal, but if you can't because it's not available, then it's okay (2:173). So if vegetable-enzyme based yogurt wasn't available, a little rennet was going to be okay. Later, I learned from a scholar that alcohol based flavouring, like vanilla essence, was also okay as long as you couldn’t get drunk by indulging in that substance. How much red wine vinegar would you have to drink in order to get drunk? How many slices of vanilla cake? Cognac chocolates? Well, that's a different story.

At the time, I was living in a small Muslim community, where commercially available halal meat was unheard of. Most people simply opted for a flexible veggi lifestyle – only eating halal meat when it was available. Families would pool their resources together and send volunteers to Toronto to pick up a month’s worth of meat.

It was a luxury. Going to Toronto or Montreal for a halal burger was a big deal. A halal shawarma shop opening in smaller Muslim populations like Regina, Saskatchewan was a really big deal. People would swap stories of their favourite halal restaurants from “back home” – drooling over halal Popeye’s, Burger King, Pizza Hut, Subway and MacDonald’s. These days many North American cities can boast the same list of halal outlets, including HERO Burger and Boston Pizza.

By the time I got married, I was no longer vegetarian (for reasons unrelated to either marriage or religion). Suddenly, I had to bone up on halal meat.

The specification for slaughtering meat is known as zabihah – and requires the animal to be killed and blessed by a Muslim, drained of all blood, and more specifically, for the entire process to be halal, the animal:
  • should be raised in healthy and free conditions
  • be led away so that other animals do not witness it’s death
  • not see the knife being sharpened
  • be gently laid down, facing Mecca and given water to drink
  • and the slaughter should happen quickly, without any excessive terror, pain or suffering.
And these are just a few of the requirements intended to make the raising and slaughtering of animals as humane as possible.

Further dietary restrictions include not eating animals that have been beaten or otherwise savaged to death, carnivorous animals, and birds of prey. Everything from the sea is permissible without special processing. And the meat blessed and slaughtered by Jews and Christians is also fine to eat.

My family is privileged in the sense that not only can we afford to buy meat, but we can do so from a trusted and local seller. Fahim, an in-town butcher, purchases his animals from a free-range, local, organic, Mennonite farm. He then slaughters the animals according to Islamic requirements, and processes and sells the meat from his shop – offering everything from ground beef to halal German salami cured by the Mennonites.

When eating out, we’re more flexible -- eating local when we can, opting for vegetarian, fish dishes or kosher food, and not necessarily worrying too much about cross-contamination with non-halal food when we can't see what's on the grill. Just say bismillah and off we go.

When I can’t make it out to his shop, I’ll go to one of the many other local Muslim butchers – though, I don’t really know where they get their meat from. Is it direct from a free-range, Ontario farm and processed under Canadian/Islamic standards, or is it certified by a Chicago-based Islamic Council with questionable standards? Shipped frozen from DC? Brazil?

Then, there are the very, very rare times where convenience will lead me to buy directly from a big-name grocery store who stocks halal chicken products from a large Canadian chicken processor. While I know their birds have been blessed and killed by a Muslim, I really have no idea how or in what conditions the chickens were raised, and what they experienced before being processed at an abattoir. I much prefer going to Fahim, who has a staff of five and provides free farm tours.

The booming, multi-billion dollar, global zabiha meat industry is massive. But I wonder if it's halal.

When it comes to mass-production, Malaysia has one of the strictest standards of the industry – outlining detailed requirements for plant-based animal feed, no genetic modification (can we assume no hormones as well?), and strict meat handling for workers and equipment. PakistanKazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan also use Malaysia’s standards in their halal certification process (source). Australia, who exports halal meat and live animals to over 40 countries globally, has government standards that balance both Islamic and Australian legal requirements. Almost every country involved with providing halal meat has Islamic Halal Authorities and watchdogs, making sure that everything is processed properly. Online, I see a lot of talk about healthy, plant-based feed, cross-contamination standards, and requirements to abide by the laws of non-Muslim countries – but not a lot on the method of raising or even slaughtering based on the full list of Islamic requirements.

I’m trying not to be too cynical, but somehow I don’t imagine that the MacDonald’s supplier to the Middle East purchases their beef from free-range, organic farms, and gently processes each cow in an idyllic, mid-western field. Though, if you've heard otherwise, please let me know.

The Qur'an and prophetic traditions teach that humans are stewards of the earth and that we must be kind toward the animals and plants under our care. Muslim and non-Muslim activists alike argue that many large corporations miss this important point. We are supposed to sustain ourselves and care for the earth -- not over consume and waste. Part of this duty is to protect animals, especially in situations where we've been given a divine commandment in regards to their treatment.

Slaughtering animals humanely becomes even more important when tied to a religious event. At the end of the Hajj, or yearly pilgrimage to Mecca, people the world-over celebrate and commemorate the Biblical and Qur'anic story in which Abraham slaughters an animal instead of his son. Slaughtering an animal at the end of Hajj and distributing the meat to the poor is a religious requirement for millions of people. Farms and abattoirs have to process hundreds of thousands of animals in just 3 days -- at times under horrific conditions, and with animal abuses that are definitely not in accordance to Islamic standards.

I think there's a difference between intentional animal cruelty and cruelty based on a lack of education or misunderstanding. The finer Islamic legal details are sometimes lost in the mantra "no pork, no alcohol, killed by a Muslim." Situations where untrained people go to local farms to slaughter their own animal have the potential to cause as much harm as situations where animals are processed en mass on a factory floor -- both in the name of zabiha.

Perhaps I can make an issue out of this because I am privileged to afford and live in an area that offers me halal meat according to the strictest Islamic model. But we can all make choices when keeping halal. Fulfilling this requirement is not supposed to be a burden on people or on animals. And if you're going to stress over French fries, cheese and soda, shouldn't you also be concerned with where your meat comes from?

The halal model may not be feasible or realistic to feed the millions demanding zabiha meat. Nor can it match the demands of companies who have made the effort of supplying specialty foods and fast food globally to Muslims in a niche market. But this isn't necessarily because the halal model is archaic or rigid -- it's in place to ensure a level of compassion toward animals. The relationship between humans and animals is supposed to be sacred. What makes the halal model not feasible is the fact that we've bought into and support a halal meat industry based on mass production and consumption. Instead of demanding local and sustainable programs.