The laws concerning food purity and quality in the U.S. are designed to provide the reasonable assurance that the food you buy will not make you physically ill. Your soul, however, is necessarily your business, because due to varying beliefs, one man’s ticket to perdition is another man’s brunch.
Meanwhile, in Illinois, “many Muslims, however, are frustrated that the law fails to define exactly what is halal,” which would, of course, start the state on the slippery slope of mediating the application of Sharia law.
“Muslims in quandary over state food law,” by Margaret Ramirez for the Chicago Tribune:
As a Muslim mom and teacher, Dilara Sayeed struggles to find the best food to nourish her family and feed their devout faith.
She wants beef and chicken that are healthy as well as halal: slaughtered and blessed according to Islamic law. Yet often she finds there are limits to the information available from the supermarket or even her neighborhood Muslim grocer. So she, like many
Muslims, must trust in God that she is not being deceived.
“Sometimes I just can’t get all the answers, so I make an assumption that I’m being served in an honorable way,” said Sayeed, of Naperville. “I wish it wasn’t true, but there may be some people who are abusing that trust.”
Five years after Illinois lawmakers passed legislation making it illegal to falsely label or sell food as halal, the rules still have not gone into effect and the law is not being enforced. Because there are multiple interpretations of what constitutes
halal, debates about how the law would work have proved difficult and
But after years of stalled discussions, Muslim leaders are hammering out a plan to implement the law. Many, however, say the result is likely to be a bureaucratic mess because of the new registration process and the nearly 30-page questionnaire that must be filled out by every grocer, restaurant owner, meat processor and farmer who prepares or sells halal food.
The Illinois statute, modeled after a New Jersey law, requires anyone selling or producing halal food to register with the state for a $75 fee and fill out a disclosure form by checking off boxes indicating how the food was obtained and who certified the product as halal. Since New Jersey passed the nation’s first halal law in 2000, similar laws have taken effect in nearly a dozen states.
“With this law, a Muslim consumer is empowered,” said Mazhar Hussaini, director of the halal food program for the Islamic Society of North America. “He has to show [the disclosure form to] whoever asks for it. We cannot rely on just the grocer’s word, and we
can trace the meat from farm to retail store.”
Illinois lawmakers say the act purposely does not define halal to allow for the multiple standards in the community. For some Muslims, halal means only avoiding pork or alcohol; others favor hand-slaughter by a Muslim over machine slaughter. Still another
growing movement of Muslims argues that halal goes beyond slaughter to how the animals are raised. These Muslims insist that only meat from animals that were raised on organic or natural farms and were slaughtered in a humane way are halal.
Meeting with lawmakers
Last month, several Muslim community leaders met with state lawmakers at a public hearing to discuss what questions would be on the disclosure form. The state Department of Agriculture submitted comments from the hearing to a joint committee and is awaiting approval.
Because the state cannot certify what is halal, officials want all pertinent information on the form so consumers can make purchases according to their own standard. Statements on the form ask, for example, whether the animal was facing Mecca when
slaughtered and whether the person performing slaughter is Muslim.
Many Muslims, however, are frustrated that the law fails to define exactly what is halal. Others say the check-box system is inadequate, unenforceable and likely to encourage more fraud.
Shireen Pishdadi, Muslim outreach coordinator for Faith in Place, a religious environmentalist group in Chicago and one of the law’s most vocal opponents, believes the statute should be rewritten to provide better oversight and stricter limits for the use of the word “halal.” Pishdadi, who created the Taqwa food cooperative that provides halal organic meat to Chicago’s Muslim community, fears the law would discourage farmers from working with Muslims.
“The problem we have is that the Muslim community knows little about the food industry and the lawmakers have little understanding of Islam,” she said. “Muslims could really raise the standard of food and be part of the solution.”
Because there is no single Islamic authority that supervises halal, dozens of companies and Islamic centers have established their own halal certification for food, meat and products like cosmetics and vitamins. Some Muslim certification companies have begun selling their own products, presenting a conflict of interest.
Muhammad Munir Chaudry, president of the Islamic Food and Nutrition Council of America, based in Chicago, heads the largest Muslim certification company in the nation and labels approved products with a big “M” set inside a crescent. Chaudry had hoped the law would provide for oversight of certification agencies to ensure they are objective.
For Chaudry, the halal law is largely symbolic and the burden remains on the consumer to find out whether the food is halal. Chaudry said he has investigated local markets that claimed to sell halal meat and found that in two cases the meat came from a kosher plant.
“There is a false sense of security because the consumers think, ‘Well, now there is a halal law, so everybody must be following it.’ And the shopkeepers are saying, ‘No one is stopping us, so let’s keep doing it,'” Chaudry said.
Enforcement of the law is sure to be difficult, said Dr. Colleen O’Keefe, a veterinarian who manages the state Department of Agriculture’s food safety and animal protection division. O’Keefe, who is overseeing the law’s implementation, said there is no budget for halal inspectors.
As it should be.
“The community is going to have to enforce the law,” she said. “The purchaser will have to do their homework, and the buyers will have to investigate whether the check marks are correct.”
Besides enforcement, some Muslims are troubled that the law does not take into account the origin of the animals and whether they were disease-free, fed with pork-based protein or treated with hormones or antibiotics. There are also no questions about the
disclosure form addressing humane slaughter.