Canada: Popeyes in fight over Halal chicken

A group of Muslim restaurant franchisees is fighting fast-food chain Popeyes Louisiana Chicken in court over the right to sell hand-slaughtered Halal meat for religious reasons.

The battle in Ontario Superior Court comes after the Atlanta-based franchise moved to replace the chicken supply with machine-killed birds in 14 Toronto restaurants. The company says it’s still Halal-certified; the franchisees claim the machine method is against the beliefs of a majority of Muslims.

“If I begin selling machine-slaughtered chicken, I will immediately lose an enormous segment of my customers,” reads the sworn affidavit from Abdul Haffejee, who owns eight Popeyes in the GTA.

Haffejee, who donates Popeyes chicken to mosques and sponsored Muslim Day at Canada’s Wonderland, said between 50 and 80 per cent of his customers are Muslim.

“All of the members of the Muslim community that I have worked so hard to attract will be gone instantly. They cannot be replaced,” he said in his affidavit, claiming tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of dollars at stake.

Halal is a term used to denote if something is lawful in the Islamic faith.

There are specific requirements for killing animals: a slaughterer who is Muslim or a believer, a blessing, and certain arteries cut before the slaughter.

For over 25 years, Popeyes sold hand-slaughtered Halal meat in all of its 59 southern Ontario stores, according to court documents. This occurred without major incident until January this year, when the long-time supplier announced it would be getting out of the hand-slaughtered chicken business because it was moving on to larger birds, an industry trend.

Thus began an 11-month saga that continues today.

The real trouble, the franchisees claim, began in August when the old supplier stopped shipping the hand-slaughtered chicken to Popeyes. The group of six owners – with stores in Scarborough, east end Toronto, Markham and Vaughan – secured a hand-slaughtered supplier while the other Popeyes stores would use machines. They continue to serve the hand-slaughtered chicken to date.

But according to court documents filed by the franchisees, throughout September and October, Popeyes stopped or threatened to discontinue the hand-slaughtered supply – which they are responsible for arranging – only to reinstate it later due to complaints and legal action.

“Throughout 2011, Popeyes has shown increasing bad faith toward the franchisees. Its actions clearly demonstrate a disregard for their commercial and religious interests,” reads the franchisees’ court motion.

The Toronto lawyer representing Popeyes said he could not comment without consent from the company. In a statement, the company said it is in discussions with all franchisees in the GTA to resolve the situation and it is company policy not to comment on pending litigation. The company also said the two Canadian poultry suppliers currently used by Popeyes are Halal-certified, but didn’t specify if it is hand or machine-slaughtered.

In a court affidavit, a Popeyes representative said the problem stems from the current hand-slaughtered Halal supplier, which uses birds larger than Popeyes’ specification and also has “quality” and quantity problems.

Alice LeBlanc, chief of supply chain management, said that selling hand-slaughtered meat to only a few store owners would amount to discrimination against the other franchisees. She also argued the meaning of Halal is fluid, and Muslims may accept a certified machine-slaughter bird.

“Having multiple suppliers would undermine the advantages of bulk purchasing,” said LeBlanc.

Now, lawyers on both sides have reached a tentative agreement by court order to continue the Halal supply until a resolution can be reached. A commercial trial is tentatively scheduled for February during which the franchisees hope to compel Popeyes to continue supplying hand-slaughtered Halal chicken for their restaurants.

“Both sides have common interest in working together towards a resolution,” said Jonathan Lisus, lawyer for the franchisees. Counsel from both sides released a joint statement to the Star that said the hope is “that the matter will be resolved amicably in the near future.”

But a Toronto Imam, who has consulted with the restaurant owners and also made a presentation to Popeyes’ executives in Toronto, said the only solution is to keep Halal chicken supply as is.

“It seems that (Popeyes) is just not ready to comply or compromise,” said Imam Yusuf Badat at the Islamic Foundation of Toronto.

“I believe it’s all about the bottom line. It’s about the money.”

He explained that for many Muslims, machine-slaughtering cannot be considered Halal because it’s impossible to bless each bird at such a high speed and there are questions surrounding who turns on the machine if he or she is not a believer.