Sasha Chapman, Toronto Life, March 9, 2008
Image credit: Rob MacInnis
From hot dog vendors to health food stores, halal is suddenly everywhere. It’s the latest twist in the story of ethical meat, and secular diners are eating it up.
When Maple Leaf Foods announced that listeria had infected its processing plant on Sheppard Avenue, people purged their fridges and freezers, and vowed never to eat mass-produced bologna again. Sales of cold cuts plummeted across the country. But not at BlossomPure, a small retail and wholesale business in Mississauga, where sales remained strong. The store’s owner, Fahim Alwan, fielded calls from prospective customers anxious to know the provenance of his salami.
Tainted-food scares usually run this predictable course: consumers stop, at least for a while, buying conventional, mass-produced foods and turn to alternative sources with a healthier, safer reputation. Not only is Alwan’s meat organic and locally sourced, it’s also halal—permitted under Islamic law. Like the kosher industry, which projects an aura of respectability among conscientious eaters of all faiths, halal meat is gaining favour with secular customers. Because it’s usually processed on a smaller scale and often receives third-party certification from such organizations as the Islamic Society of North America, halal is becoming synonymous with quality, cleanliness, safety and superior animal welfare.
Besides a ban on pork, the main difference between halal and non-halal meat is the method of slaughter, traditionally done by hand. According to zabihah (the Islamic law of ritual slaughter), an animal should not see another animal die, nor the knife used to kill it. The slaughterer must also invoke the name of Allah before drawing the scimitar quickly across the animal’s throat. The spinal cord is left intact to ensure that the blood drains out as quickly as possible.
Many people—Muslim or not—believe this process “purifies” the meat and results in a cleaner, better flavour, that the chicken tastes more chickeny. While I can’t tell the difference between halal and non- halal chicken, I do appreciate the less common cuts available at halal butcher shops. At BlossomPure, Alwan sells chickens biryani style: cut into small pieces, bone-in, to keep the meat moist and tender when stewed or braised.
Among non-believers, the most persuasive argument for choosing halal meat is that zabihah rules are more stringent than basic Canadian regulations. No animal by-products can be used in the feed, for instance. The animal must be in good health and able to stand. You’d think this would be an obvious requirement, but before BSE scares, the slaughter of “downer” cattle (animals that are too sick to stand) was permitted in North American abattoirs.
Halal is one of the fastest growing industries in North America. The U.S. market is estimated at $12 billion a year; Agri-Food Canada estimates the domestic halal meat market at $214 million. It’s nearly impossible to go anywhere in Toronto without encountering halal, whether it’s the hot dog vendor at the corner of McCaul and College, the boxed pizzas and chicken nuggets in the deep-freezers at grocery stores or the organic beef jerky sold at the Big Carrot.
In the 1970s and 1980s, it was a different story. An observant Muslim family had to trek across town to buy their meat from a halal butcher shop or drive a few hours to a farm where they could slaughter their own animal. Since many of the rituals and rules are the same, halal is often considered an acceptable alternative to kosher and vice versa. So those who couldn’t get to a halal butcher shop might ask to borrow a knife from a shochet, a kosher ritual slaughterer, and perform the deed themselves (back then you could still buy live birds in Kensington Market), or they might simply choose to eat kosher instead.
A few years after Alwan emigrated to Canada from Syria in 1988, he began his own search for halal meat. He also wanted it to be local and organic. “The Koran tells us to eat halal and eat pure,” he says. Along with a small but growing number of “eco-halal” believers, he takes this directive to mean that animals should be raised naturally and fed what Allah intends them to eat—grass, not corn, for beef cattle. He found nothing, so he and a group of families from his mosque got together to do it themselves, investing in a steer and sharing the meat once it was slaughtered. Soon, he was driving out to St. Jacobs to buy better quality yogurt, eggs and Middle Eastern–style cheeses to feed his family.
In the 1990s, Toronto’s Muslim population doubled (Statistics Canada predicts it will increase 75 per cent within the next decade), and soon halal butcher shops were springing up to serve it. With about 350,000 Muslims living in the GTA, we have the highest concentration in Canada.
Alwan, who has a background in sales and marketing, formally launched Blossom Pure in 2002. Since then, it has grown about 50 per cent each year. He now sources his meat from a number of local small-scale farm ers. He also employs a full-time slaughterman to travel to nearby processing plants to perform zabihah. (To minimize the animals’ stress, he puts the burden of travel on his slaughterman.) Customers come from all over: Richmond Hill, Ancaster, even Ottawa. Though he cannot yet export to the U.S. (the slaughter houses he uses are only provincially licensed), he regularly fields calls from interested Americans.
Tapping into the new secular market—more than half his customers are non- Muslim—this fall, Alwan started advertising in English the fact that his meat was halal. Like Jewish entrepreneurs before him, who chose the Orthodox Union symbol (a U inside a circle) so as not to discourage any anti-Semitic consumers, Alwan perhaps had more to lose than gain.
The reputation for quality that is catapulting halal into mainstream diets may lead to its undoing. Large meat-packing plants and grocery chains are getting in on the act. (Maple Leaf Foods already has three halal poultry plants.) At a large scale of production, controversies swirl: is it all right to play a pre-recorded prayer as the chickens whisk by on conveyors? Is machine slaughtering acceptable? Does stunning the animal adhere to zabihah? Such “innovations” dilute the putative virtues of halal, making it more and more like the conventional meats we buy at the grocery store, especially since there are no laws in Ontario (as there are, for example, in Illi nois) governing what can and cannot be labelled halal.
Further industrialization would be a shame. We live in an era when consumers of all stripes are concerned about where their food comes from and how it’s produced. Like kosher and organic, the appeal of halal—at least for someone like me, a resolute non-believer when it comes to any sort of dietary restriction— is that the word gives me some clue as to how my meal got to my table.
Originally published in Toronto Life Magazine