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Eid sacrifice ritual latest casualty of BSE

In the latest twist in the mad-cow saga, Muslims in the United States are scrambling to find new sources of live goat sacrifices now that Canadian exports have been cut off.

Demand for Canada's live goats normally surges in the weeks before Eid, an Islamic festival in which the faithful cut an animal's neck and divide its meat among family, friends and the poor.

That export business halted along with the sale of other ruminants after a case of mad-cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy, was discovered in Alberta last May.

As the festival of Eid approaches on Feb. 1, some U.S. slaughterhouses and consumers are worrying that they won't find a proper source of the meat known as halal, which is handled according to Islamic rules.

"Suddenly you've got all these people looking around for halal meat on local farms," said Shahed Amanullah, owner of Zabihah.com in Oakland, Calif., a consumers' guide to halal meat since 1998.

"It's been an earthquake for the whole industry," Mr. Amanullah said. "A lot of the people who e-mail me are frantic." Goat farmers in Canada are equally concerned. Prices have dropped significantly since the border closed. Goats mature more quickly than cattle, so it's more difficult to keep them until prices improve.

The partial reopening of the U.S. market to boxed, boneless meat cuts also didn't help the goat industry because Canadian slaughterhouses aren't equipped to handle huge amounts of goat meat -- and buyers often prefer live animals anyway. "A lot of our goats are sold live, for ethnic rituals," said Sandy Larocque, general manager of the Canadian National Goat Federation. "So, our industry hasn't slowed down like the beef industry. It's absolutely stopped." Goat farms accounted for only 7,700 of Canada's 247,000 farms in 2001, according to Statistics Canada.

Like many smaller livestock industries, experts say, it's been overlooked in the beef crisis.

"These guys have been left out of the public debate," said Kurt Klein, a professor of agricultural economics at the University of Lethbridge. Farmers of bison, goats, sheep and other banned animals have been devastated and largely uncompensated, Mr. Klein said, along with exporters of embryos and semen.

It's difficult to add up the damages, said Brian Oleson, an agricultural economist at the University of Manitoba. But the cost of mad-cow disease outside the beef industry might total something like $2-billion or $3-billion in 2003, he suggested. "All these numbers are so big and unknown right now," Mr. Oleson said. "But you'll get a stream of direct and indirect impacts, right down to the people who give haircuts to farmers." The effect on the impending Islamic festival isn't entirely clear, said Munir Chaudry, president of the Islamic Food and Nutrition Council of America, but it seems to be making the tradition more expensive.

"The price of the meat has gone up," Mr. Chaudry said.

Mr. Chaudry estimates that about two million families in North America celebrate Eid, which marks the climax of the annual pilgrimage to Mecca. Rural families sometimes slaughter animals themselves, he said, but most observant Muslims pay a butcher to perform the ritual on their behalf at a slaughterhouse.

One slaughterhouse in Illinois recently complained that its order for 1,500 live goats, requested for the Eid festival, has been scuttled because of the mad-cow ban.

On the other side of the border, farm groups are hoping the government will distinguish between animals at risk of mad-cow disease and those that aren't.

"Goats do not get BSE, but we're still getting nailed with this closure," said Melanie Hooker, president of the Manitoba Goat Association. "We need the government to take a closer look at this."

(The Globe & Mail, January 13, 2004)

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