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Area Muslims want state to regulate meat markets

For the past eight years, Yusuf Faisthalab and his family have had their meats delivered to their home in Lilburn from a butcher shop about 35 miles away, in Atlanta's East Lake neighborhood.

The South African native takes such pains because he wants to ensure that the family's beef, chicken and other meats are "halal" --- permissible for consumption under Islamic law. He trusts the owners of Almadina Halal meat market, one of several grocery stores that cater to metro Atlanta's burgeoning Islamic population.

But Faisthalab and other Muslims say they don't have the same confidence in all restaurants and markets that claim to sell halal food products. They are concerned that some are misrepresenting non-halal foods as acceptable for Muslims to eat. They are pushing Georgia lawmakers to regulate the industry and punish unscrupulous business owners. But their efforts at the state Capitol have stalled so far.

"With the growing number of Muslims, we want to make sure we are protected," Faisthalab said. "We do not want to go somewhere and be told the food is halal and it's not, just because someone wants to make a quick buck."

Faisthalab, 39, began researching state laws around the country about 18 months ago to find out how Muslims in other communities protect themselves from consuming falsely advertised halal foods. The accountant found that at least six states --- California, Michigan, New Jersey, Illinois, Minnesota and Texas --- have passed laws making it a crime to sell food falsely labeled as halal. That's when he contacted state Sen. Steve Henson (D-Tucker) and state Rep. Brian Thomas (D-Lilburn) to ask for their help in sponsoring legislation to address the problem.

The measure would prohibit falsely representing non-halal foods as halal. It also would ban the preparation of halal and non-halal foods in the same kitchen and with the same utensils. A person who violates the law, if passed, could be found guilty of a misdemeanor and punished with a fine of $25 to $500, imprisonment from 30 days to six months, or both. The Georgia Legislature in 1980 passed a similar measure regarding kosher foods --- those foods deemed acceptable under Orthodox Jewish religious rules and requirements.

"It's a pretty straightforward bill that people in the Muslim community feel is necessary so they can have some protection," Thomas said. "There have been some cases of people calling something halal when it wasn't. This seems like an honesty-in-advertising kind of thing."

The bill passed the Senate by a vote of 30 to 5, but it stalled in the House Rules Committee. Thomas said he is working on mustering bipartisan support and would push for passage of the bill again next year.

Halal stores are few

Muhammad Chaudry, president of the Islamic Food and Nutrition Council of America in Chicago, tracks states that have passed or are considering halal food bills. He argues that although the halal food industry is growing, it is not keeping pace with the growth of the Muslim population. Chaudry estimates there are about 8 million Muslims in the United States, but he concedes that figure is compiled from various sources.

A 2000 study by the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies estimated there were 32,469 Muslims in metro Atlanta, although the number likely has increased since then.

"What Muslims are used to calling halal in their traditional societies, wherever they come from, they are not finding those products here under the same definition," Chaudry said. "All types of businesses have sprung up calling themselves halal suppliers, but they just buy meat and poultry from regular commercial sources and call it halal. In a way, it's cheating."

People who sell non-halal foods as halal often charge higher than normal prices because authentic halal foods often are more expensive than mass-slaughtered meats.

A Web site that tracks U.S. markets and restaurants that sell halal foods, Zabihah.com, reports that 41 restaurants and 28 grocery stores in metro Atlanta serve halal foods. The site's listings have a category called "halal authenticity." Many restaurants are "unverified," but others say "halal sign in window" or "Owners are known Muslims."

Trusted business

Fevzi Karabulut, owner of Ali Baba's Mediterranean restaurant in downtown Atlanta, said he sells halal foods because it is good for his business.

"We have so many people here asking for halal," Karabulut said. "I think fully 40 percent of my customers don't want to eat if it's not halal. We get a lot of students from Georgia State; many are Muslim and Jewish students asking for halal."

Karabulut said he buys his meat from the Almadina market in East Lake, the same shop where the Faisthalab family purchases its meats. Almadina is the top-rated metro Atlanta grocer at Zabihah.com.

Brothers Mahmoud and Mohamad Nassar opened the grocery store 15 years ago. They slaughtered the meat themselves according to the rules of their faith.

Now, business is so robust that the brothers hire workers to purchase the products from all over Georgia and slaughter them under Islamic rites. The animal's throat is supposed to be slit with a very sharp knife to cut three main blood vessels. The person killing the animal also must pronounce the name of Allah or recite a blessing that contains the name of Allah, the Aramaic word for God.

Mahmoud Nassar said his customers hail from Malaysia, Indonesia, South Africa, Pakistan, Jamaica, Trinidad, West Africa, and America. About 10 percent are non-Muslims.

The food on the shelves of the shop reflect its diverse clientele. In addition to lamb, beef and chicken, the shop stocks spices, falafel, couscous, lentils, beans, curry mixes, biriyani rice mixes --- and even Jamaican beef patties clearly labeled as halal.

Faisthalab said his family likes the quality of the meat and the fact that they can trust the Nassar brothers.

"We have to eat halal," Faisthalab said. "There are no ifs or buts about it."

(Atlanta Journal-Constitution, May 18, 2005)

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