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Halal food is more than just an article of faith,
it is an exciting cultural medium that allows humanity to see Islamic values in action
Shahed Amanullah, Zabihah founder

The halal way

When Shaheda Sayed was growing up in Southern California in the 1960s, her father would occasionally drive 100 miles to slaughter animals so his family could have meat. That's because the family, devout Muslims, only ate food that was halal permitted for Muslims. And, in those days, it could not be found in U.S. stores.

"We never ate in McDonald's," Ms. Sayed said.

So when she grew up, Ms. Sayed decided to address the problem.

In 1998, she and her brother co-founded Crave Foods, a company that produces halal hamburger patties and frozen prepared dishes, including chicken rolls and spicy wings. The Los Angeles-based company soon will expand its product offerings to include hot dogs and Philly cheesesteaks.

Halal is an Arabic word meaning "permitted." It's used to describe acceptable behavior under Muslim law. When applied to food, the term refers to dietary laws that, among other things, require meat to be slaughtered in a prescribed manner. (Muslim law also sets out actions that are haram, or "prohibited." These include drinking alcohol and eating pork.)

Halal slaughtering must be done by a pious Muslim who says a prayer immediately prior to the act, uses only healthy animals, slaughters each one away from other animals, employs a sharp knife to the neck to ensure a quick death, and lets the blood drain. According to most authorities, slaughtering must be done by hand, not machine. Some companies marketing themselves as halal sell machine-slaughtered poultry a source of controversy among Muslims.

Crave Foods, which now employs about 100 people, exemplifies the growth of the American halal food industry in recent years. Estimates on the size of the industry are hard to come by, but Muslim-friendly restaurants are easier to find than ever before, and packaged halal foods, once found only in ethnic shops, are increasingly stocked by mainstream supermarkets.

Ms. Sayed might even be able to enjoy a Happy Meal today. Two McDonald's restaurants in Dearborn, Mich., serve halal Chicken McNuggets and McChicken sandwiches.

"The Muslim consumer population is becoming much more savvy, and the market has grown up around them," said Shahed Amanullah, who runs the Web site, which lists halal restaurants in cities around the world. ("Zabihah" is the word for the type of slaughter that makes meat halal.) "Muslims are starting to demand higher quality."

Mr. Amanullah's site started in 1998 with 300 restaurants. Now, it lists more than 3,000 establishments, "everything from Mexican to Brazilian to Philly subs to pizza," he said. "That diversity only happened in the last year or two."

Still, many Muslims say the industry has a long way to go to fully serve the needs of America's Muslim community, estimated at anywhere from 2 million to more than 6 million people, and growing quickly.

"The halal industry has not reached maturity," Mr. Amanullah said. "There's a market opportunity there for somebody."

When Muslims can't find foods that have been certified as halal, they rely on ingredient lists on labels. Or, they look for symbols marking a product as kosher, since the Jewish dietary laws are similar to Muslim ones.

But labels sometimes omit ingredients found in minute quantities. Or they're vague what, exactly, are "natural flavors"? And the kosher laws, while similar to halal, are not identical: Jews, for example, are not prohibited from consuming alcohol. And halal does not share the kosher ban on mixing meat and dairy ingredients, so relying on kosher symbols can be overly restrictive for Muslims.

There are other pitfalls, said Rasheed Ahmed, founder of the Muslim Consumer Group, which educates Muslims about halal products and certifies products as halal.

Many Muslims, for example, might eat a fast-food fish sandwich, figuring it's acceptable since fish need not be slaughtered in any particular way. But if the fish is cooked in the same oil as non-halal meat products, it is haram, Mr. Ahmed said.

And marshmallows found in sweetened cereals and other packaged foods may be made with pork products.

As a result of problems like these, many devout Muslims feel they have few choices.

"Muslims who are serious about halal have been avoiding mainstream food," said Muhammad Munir Chaudry, president of the Islamic Food and Nutrition Council of America, the largest U.S. organization that certifies products as acceptable for Muslims.

Mr. Chaudry hopes to turn American Muslims from a people of label readers into one of symbol spotters.

The council's symbol, a crescent with the letter "M," graces the products of nearly 2,000 companies, attesting that they are halal. That's up from around 50 in 1990, he said.

Other groups have their own symbols, such as the Muslim Consumer Group's "H" in a triangle.

"The trend is there," Mr. Chaudry said of halal certification by mainstream food producers. "Companies have realized there's a good-sized Muslim market here."

For a processed food to be certified as halal, it must pass muster with a certification group such as Mr. Chaundry's. Representatives visit the production plant to inspect the ingredients used as well as the manufacturing and packaging methods.

Representatives then revisit at least once a year. For companies that produce meat, the council has a halal supervisor on premises at all times, since the rules for slaughtering meat are complex, Mr. Chaudry said.

His group's fees range from about $2,000 a year to as much as $40,000 for large companies for which many products are certified.

With the growth of the halal food industry, debates have broken out in the Muslim community over the rules and standards for deeming food acceptable. Must meat be hand-slaughtered or are machines acceptable? Must food businesses be Muslim-owned? Can a restaurant be considered halal if its food is OK but it serves alcohol?

For many, such debates signal that the market has grown large enough to give Muslim consumers choices: It's good if they have the luxury of discussing standards.

If all that's available is, say, machine-slaughtered meat, people will "make do with what they have," Ms. Sayed said.

But increasingly, Muslims do not want to nor are they forced to simply make do. Muslims born and raised in America are more likely than their immigrant parents to call companies and request halal certification, Mr. Chaudry said.

Advocates say certification brings benefits beyond helping America's Muslims. For one thing, it helps U.S. companies export their products, since some Muslim countries mandate that all imports be halal.

And certification can be used to market a product as wholesome. Being halal means a food has no hidden ingredients, and in the case of meat, that it does not come from a giant, automated slaughterhouse.

"It's going back to a simpler way of life," Ms. Sayed said. "What we eat affects who we are and what we are, and our spirituality."

Such arguments were compelling to Cabot Cheese, a Vermont-based company that received certification in December 2003.

The idea came up when company officials were discussing their kosher status, and the decision was based largely on demographics: Cabot services Northeast cities such as New York and Boston, which have large and quickly growing numbers of Muslims, as well as their Jewish populations.

But the company was looking beyond these religious communities, hoping that kosher and halal certification sent a message to all consumers looking for healthy, natural foods.

"If these foods are made in such a way that they can be both kosher and halal, it just speaks to a certain attention to detail and attention to food quality," said Jed Davis, Cabot's marketing director. "A lot of times, customers are looking for that type of third-party endorsement."

Becoming halal did not involve changing any Cabot products, so it's "an inexpensive way of potentially dramatically increasing the market for our products," Mr. Davis said.

For now, Cabot's decision is a minority one.

Though finding halal food has become easier in recent years, many American food manufacturers still aren't rushing to certify their products at least, not yet.

"But we are educating them," said Mr. Ahmed of the Muslim Consumer Group.

(Dallas Morning News, June 4, 2005, and Detroit Free Press, July 19, 2005)


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