US Muslims fight halal meat scam
Of the many ways Musa Abdus Salaam could break the tenets of his Muslim faith, eating a cheeseburger might seem the least threatening.
But one year ago, not long after he and his family dined on beef he purchased from a shop in Norfolk, Virginia, Abdus-Salaam learned they had unwittingly violated the Quran: His investigation revealed the store’s meat was not halal.
“It is a major sin in our religion,” Abdus-Salaam said.
Halal is the Muslim equivalent of kosher, a method of slaughtering, blessing and preparing food to purify it.
Believers are willing to pay a premium for halal, and across the US, states and localities are targeting unscrupulous dealers who prey on their dietary devotion.
The state of Virginia, home to 350,000 Muslims, is weighing three proposals.
One would make selling halal knockoffs a misdemeanour punishable by up to $500 in fines.
“In my research, I realised that Virginia does not have a programme to certify kosher or other religious foods,” said Kenneth Alexander, a state legislator who sponsored the bill at his constituents’ request.
Fines or jail
Other legislation would force vendors to offer certification information and a toll-free number or website for confirmation of halal and kosher foods.
Violators could face up to six months in jail and $1000 in fines.
Halal meats go through a strict
The bills are pending in legislative committees.
Last summer, New York enacted a law requiring halal food distributors to register with the state.
Pending legislation would fine vendors caught possessing mislabelled halal items.
Similar codes are on the books in a handful of states, including California, Illinois and Michigan, despite the misgivings of some who maintain that state governments should not be policing religious laws.
In Virginia, growing communities are bringing Muslim needs to the forefront, said Imad Damaj, president of the Virginia Muslim Coalition for Public Affairs.
He pointed to a 1994 survey that found 11 mosques between Richmond and northern Virginia.
“Now there’s no less than 45,” he said, adding that the 9-11 attacks highlighted the American Muslim presence.
“Now the community is more higher profile and more under the microscope, too.”
Halal foods are vital for the expanding group.
Halal means lawful and applies to anything from lunch meat to potato chips, depending on things such as additives and what something’s cooked in.
Seafood is automatically halal while pork automatically is not.
Other meats undergo a complex procedure.
The Muslim population in the
Generally, the butcher must invoke the name of Allah while cutting the live animal’s neck; once the blood has drained and the animal’s heart stops, Abdus Salaam said, it is halal.
Years ago, he was among many residents who travelled as far as Philadelphia to find properly prepared cuisine.
Now halal foods – and their lookalikes – are popping up in grocery store meat cases, on carryout menus and in fast food drive-throughs.
Difficult to decipher
Scams have become common.
Some vendors will blend regular meat with a little halal meat to justify Muslim-friendly labels and higher prices.
Others simply lie, preying on Muslims’ trust and devotion, said Habib Ghanim Sr, president of the USA Halal Chamber of Commerce.
“It’s not like Third World countries, where you can just slaughter a lamb in your back yard and feed the family,” he said, pointing out that halal meat has no special smell or appearance.
“You wouldn’t know the difference.”
His group is one of several sniffing out fakers.
They ask questions such as which supplier one uses – guaranteed to trip up vendors unfamiliar with the tight-knit community of halal butchers and slaughterhouses.
Sometimes it pays off.
In 1997, authorities fined Springfield’s Washington Lamb Inc $10,000 after they found that the company was falsely claiming its products were halal.
Federal agriculture officials can pursue litigation against a company for misbranding a product, considered a violation of the federal meat inspection act.
“It’s not like Third World countries, where you can just slaughter a lamb in your back yard and feed the family. You wouldn’t know the difference”
Habib Ghanim Sr
But creating laws could put state governments in the touchy position of interpreting religious rules, said Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
He argued that it is up to community members to confront vendors.
“That seems to me vastly more powerful an instrument than going and expecting some young district attorney to understand the complexities of this,” he said.
Yet, without legal repercussions, proponents argue, it is impossible to ensure phony vendors would not resume business.
That troubles Abdus-Salaam. His faith mandates that he ask forgiveness for eating non-halal food and promise never to do it again – a tough proposition with shady vendors pushing phony foods.
The regional administrator with the Islamic Political Party of America is promoting Alexander’s law.
“In our religion, if we see a wrong, we have to right that wrong,” he said. “We can’t just stand around and wish for it to go away.”