By Shahed Amanullah, November 22, 2007
Trust me, this one’s ok
As American Muslims gather on Thanksgiving to enjoy their halal turkeys and assorted trimmings, some of the food they may consume is likely to come from Al-Safa Halal, North America’s largest manufacturer of halal food products. Al-Safa, a Canadian company started in 1999, grew rapidly due to the increased demand for zabihah halal meat from the continent’s 4-8 million Muslims. But the company was shrouded in controversy for many years for reasons few spoke openly about – the owners were not Muslim. In fact, they were Jewish.
The consensus view on the ownership of zabihah halal meat production is one of irrelevance – only the method of slaughter (though by a Muslim) is explicitly stated. As Al-Safa’s sales (along with the vast number of non-Muslim owned halal restaurants) testify, non-Muslims can be involved anywhere else in the food chain and most Muslims won’t blink. In the UK, Muslim youth (and their parents) feasted on Ramadan chocolates produced by an Orthodox Jew with scarcely a negative word. But given Al-Safa’s pioneering status in North America, the creeping opposition started to gain traction, affecting the company’s ability to operate.
Shortly after its founding, Al-Safa’s halal certification by the Canadian branch of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA-Canada) was withdrawn (or not sought, depending on who is asked) because of Al-Safa’s use of machine-slaughtered chicken (not permitted under some interpretations) and the alleged low pay of the slaughtermen. Al-Safa quickly changed to hand-slaughtered meat and obtained certification from the Islamic Food and Nutrition Council of America, a Chicago-based organization, in 2000. But unfortunately, the underlying ownership issue would not go away.
Some critics, though not explicitly arguing against the production of halal meat by Jews, framed the argument as a matter of trust and sincerity, stating that Al-Safa should have been more forthcoming about their non-Muslim ownership. More pernicious rumors accused them of donating money to Israel. These are charges that David Muller, one of Al-Safa’s founders, rejects. “There is probably no Jew who has been in more mosques than I have, no Jew who has been in more Imam’s homes than I have,” says Muller. “I feel that I have been given a unique insight into how similar Jews and Muslims really are.” Indeed, scores of Muslims are employed by the company as slaughtermen and management.
Al-Safa eventually overcame their obstacles over the past eight years to become a common sight in many supermarkets across North America. Competition in the halal industry flourished, with a mainstream meat producer, Maple Lodge Farms, offering ISNA-Canada certification for its machine-slaughtered meat with no similar backlash about the meat or the ownership, highlighting the current unresolved debate about what proper halal procedures should actually be.
Though under no pressure to do so, the company has now been sold to a Muslim entrepreneur, Adnan Durrani. Intriguingly, Mr. Durrani built his career as a founding partner of Stonyfield Farms Yogurt, which is now the largest organic yogurt brand in the world with over $350 million in sales. The thought of denying Mr. Durrani the opportunity to manage a large mainstream food business because of his religion – for reasons not codified anywhere – would be unconscionable. That Al-Safa suffered the same fate should give Muslims pause.
Now that Al-Safa is a Muslim-owned company (110% halal, as one observer puts it), Muller plans to devote himself full time to furthering cooperation between Muslims and Jews, as well as promoting a strict halal certification scheme so that the lessons he learned at Al-Safa can be passed on. “In North America, anyone can mark anything Halal and get away with it,” notes Muller. “This profoundly disturbs me, and I hope that in the future the Muslim community is able to band together to put a stop to this fraud.”
Shahed Amanullah is editor-in-chief of altmuslim.com