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A taste for Halal meat

For three hours, Imad Rababe helped slit the throats of more than 100 goats and lambs at his white cinderblock slaughterhouse near Hagerstown, murmuring a quick blessing to Allah with each flick of his sharpened knife then immediately hoisting the animals by their feet on hooks to drain the blood.

It's a tough business, Rababe said. Turnover is high among his eight employees, most of them Muslim immigrants who could not find other jobs. In addition to teaching them the Islamic style of slaughter, Rababe must also shop for livestock, drum up business, track orders and collect payments -- often using his limited English to communicate with customers who do not speak Arabic.

But as the Washington area's Muslim population grows, so do Rababe's moneymaking opportunities. Because the Koran instructs mankind to eat meat that is "halal," the Arabic word for lawful, devout Muslims are willing to pay a premium for the type of product Rababe sells at his Hamzah Slaughter House LLC in Williamsport.

These days, more than 140 of the region's restaurants and grocery stores advertise themselves as halal, according to Zabihah.com, a Web site that posts reviews of halal food establishments across the country. When Rababe, a native of Lebanon, arrived in the United States in 1978, only a few did. Now at least three major halal meat suppliers serve the region, including Rababe, who says he slaughters 500 to 700 animals a week for his wholesale and retail customers.

"Look, I'm not from Harvard. I have no high school education, no nothing," said Rababe, a practicing Muslim who learned the trade from his father in Lebanon. "But this is the business I know best. It serves the Muslim community, and it makes me financially comfortable."

The fledgling halal business remains far less established than the kosher trade, its Jewish cousin, and there are no reliable estimates of how much halal meat is sold in the Washington area. But it is no longer relegated to traditional kabob houses or ethnic grocery stores either, as new immigrants and others seek out products consistent with their religious practice.

Pizza Roma in College Park serves pizzas with halal meat toppings, and Double A Burgers & Shakes in Springfield Mall offers "homemade, halal burgers hot off the grill." Some Giant Food and Shoppers Food Warehouse stores stock frozen halal chicken nuggets and other products from Al Safa Halal Inc. in Canada. Even the White House does its part, ordering halal for visiting Muslim dignitaries.

"For decades we conformed because we really didn't have much choice" when it came to meeting Islamic dietary needs, said Muhammad Chaudry, president of the Islamic Food and Nutrition Council of America, a nonprofit group in Chicago that certifies halal meat. "That's changing."

Mohammad Abdul-Mateen Chida, owner of Halalco Supermarket in Falls Church, recalled how he slaughtered his own chickens when he arrived in the United States in the mid-1960s, for lack of better options. A decade later, when he started selling meat at Halalco, he scoured the region for a place that would allow him to slaughter animals for his retail customers.

He ended up slaughtering cattle in Baltimore, goats and lambs in Manassas, and chickens near Frederick. But it wasn't an easy sell, he said. Most plants scoffed at disrupting their production lines for a low-volume slaughter that would generate little money for them, Chida said.

"Now there are so many places I trust to do these things for me," Chida said.

In Islam, the Koran bans followers from eating swine, carnivores and birds of prey no matter how they are slaughtered. Muslims are allowed to eat other animals that meet two requirements, said Imam Mahmoud Abdel-Hady of Dar al-Taqwa mosque in Columbia: They must be slaughtered from their necks, and the name of Allah, the Arabic word for God, must be mentioned as the animals are killed.

From the hadith -- compendiums on how the Muslim prophet Muhammed lived-- Muslims are also taught that animals must be well rested, fed wholesome foods and handled in a way that minimizes suffering during slaughter, Abdel-Hady said. That is why the butcher must use a sharp knife and prevent one animal from witnessing the slaughter of another, he said.

It is undesirable to sever the animal's neck because preserving the spinal cord is less painful to the animal and maintains the convulsive movements necessary to rapidly drain its blood -- another requirement, according to the Islamic Center in the District.

The time involved and the labor-intensive requirements boost the price of halal meat, said Jim Williams of Midamar Corp., a Muslim-owned halal meat company in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Midamar has 92 customers in the Washington area.

Some cuts of halal beef can be as much as 20 cents a pound more expensive than the mass-produced beef slaughtered by the conventional "stun and stick" method, Williams said. Adding to the price is the cost of hiring a company to certify meat as halal.

The extra costs help explain why the four companies that slaughter 80 percent of federally inspected cattle in this country -- Tyson Fresh Meats Inc., Excel Corp., Swift & Co. and National Beef Packing Co. -- do not do religious slaughter, Williams said.

"It slows down their production lines," he said. "The plants doing a kosher or halal slaughter have to get a premium for their meat because they can't slaughter as many animals in a day."

Abdul Baig, owner of Pizza Roma in College Park, said the higher price of turkey ham, beef pepperoni and halal chicken breasts cut into his profit, but he said he hopes that as demand for halal grows, so will his pocketbook. He converted to halal agreements slowly after buying the restaurant five years ago.

"If I'm going to practice my religion this is all part of it," said Baig, a Muslim from Pakistan who, for religious reasons, also does not sell alcohol. "I cannot sell food that is not halal or sell beer and then go home and start praying. I cannot earn money from something that is not allowed."

The halal business is fraught with marketing headaches, many stemming from well-founded apprehension among Muslim consumers about the authenticity of products marketed as halal.

In 1997, the Agriculture Department's Food Safety and Inspection Service fined Washington Lamb Inc. in Springfield $15,000 for fraudulently mislabeling and selling ordinary meats as halal, after the owner pleaded guilty to related charges in U.S. District Court in Alexandria, according to the agency. Because of similar problems, California, New Jersey and four other states have enacted laws fining anyone who sells or advertises meat as halal when it is not.

A group of Muslims in Virginia is pushing for similar legislation in their state, said Habib Ghanim Sr., president of the USA Halal Chamber of Commerce, which distributes information about halal meat and non-meat products from its offices in the District and Silver Spring. The group has 30 members, mostly meat and poultry companies, Ghanim said.

Part of the problem is that there is no standard authority to certify halal meat and poultry. Slaughterhouses that sell halal meat are inspected by the Agriculture Department, but the agency oversees only food safety issues. Certification is left to dozens of individuals or groups, some more reputable than others.

Then there are issues open to interpretation. Can the slaughterhouse pipe in recorded prayers to make the lines move faster? If halal meat is not available, would a prayer before eating suffice? Can a company's meat be halal if its owner or workers are not Muslim?

"It's a very sensitive topic, and there are many issues that need to be resolved," Ghanim said. "The final responsibility is on the person selling it who claims it to be halal. Ultimately, it is between him and his creator."

Al Safa, the Canadian company that supplies frozen halal products to area stores, initially was involved in controversy when word got out that its owner is an orthodox Jew. But, according to many Muslims who sell Al Safa products, the company overcame doubts when it hired Muslims to do its marketing and slaughtering.

Al Safa also adopted an open-door policy under which anyone can visit its facilities unannounced, said Steve Hahn, the company's vice president. The policy includes the three plants where its Muslim slaughter teams work.

"We've received hundreds and hundreds of [mostly Muslim] visitors to witness our slaughter" since Al Safa started selling halal products in 1997, Hahn said.

But it will probably take time for halal meats to gain a foothold in conventional supermarkets because many halal-meat shoppers feel more comfortable shopping in ethnic stores, Hahn said. Giant, which carries Al Safa products in only 15 stores nationwide, said that the line sold well when it was introduced about two years ago but that sales waned when coupon offers and other promotions ended.

Malik Abbas, owner of Pakeeza Market in Gaithersburg, said reputation plays a key role in the halal marketplace. Before he opened his store about three years ago, he would drive far from his home in Gaithersburg to butchers he trusted in Baltimore or Virginia.

"My wife would prefer to stay hungry if she can't find the halal meat," said Abbas, a Muslim from Pakistan.

But Abbas said many of his customers are not necessarily driven by faith. Some come because they swear halal meat has a different taste, he said. Others come because they believe halal meat is more wholesome.

Sayeed Quraishi, a retired scientist at the National Institutes of Health, comes to Pakeeza Market because of the mutton chops. They're hard to find elsewhere. But if he is in the mood for chicken, he picks up Perdue.

As Abbas wrapped up Quraishi's mutton chops, six in one-pound packages, Quraishi apologized to his friend for his bluntness.

"You will probably go to heaven," Quraishi told Abbas. "And I will be your servant."

(Washington Post, May 2, 2005)

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