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The Eco-Halal Revolution: Clean food for Muslims
By Nadia Arumugam
November 4, 2009

On
a brisk November day, Zaid Kurdieh is busy ensuring his chickens are
comfortable. With temperatures well below freezing and snow on its way,
Kurdieh — an organic farmer in the upstate New York town of Norwich — is moving his flock from open pasture to a heated greenhouse.

“They will simply collapse under the weight of the snow,” he says, with the concern of a worried father.

Raised
on organic feed supplemented with organic vegetables, greens, and what
they find scurrying through the pasture, the chickens may miss the
bountiful surroundings of warmer months. But with the icy spell and
frozen ground, they no doubt appreciate the toasty environment of their
new home.

With the birds safe inside, Kurdieh turns to his
next task. Tomorrow is market day, and he still has to prepare chickens
for sale at the Union Square farmers’ market
in Manhattan. In the slaughtering facility on his 35-acre farm, Kurdieh
lifts chickens collected by his workers the previous day and places
them into a series of metal cones. They hang upside down with their
wings folded back, their heads and their necks exposed.

One of Zaid Kurdieh’s free-roaming chickens.

Up
till now, Kurdieh’s routine has been similar to those of other
small-scale organic chicken farmers. But his next action sets him
apart. With a razor-sharp knife, he slits the birds’ necks one by one
with a single, decisive cut, each time quietly reciting a blessing.

Kurdieh is Muslim, and the chickens he slaughters are halal,
or slaughtered according to Islamic tenets. Meat sold as halal is
permissible for Muslims to consume. If a meat product is free from
pork, which the Koran forbids, and if it has been ritually slaughtered
in the zabihah
way — a process governed by a set of precise rules set down by Islamic
law and tradition — it meets the basic criteria for being halal.

Most
Muslims believe that consuming meat that meets this requirement
fulfills the onus placed on them by their religion toward this part of
their diet. Where the meat comes from and how it was reared is largely
considered irrelevant.

But not for Kurdieh. He interprets
Islam in a way that renders the environment and the manner in which an
animal is raised from birth until death paramount. For him, it’s not
enough that the meat is emblazoned with a halal certification stamp. He
believes that food should be produced according to the the complex and
often neglected Islamic principle of tayyib, which he defines as meaning “wholesome” and “pure.”

This
concept, Kurdieh says, is the foundation upon which he has constructed
his ethos toward food. That his chickens are fed on a purely natural
diet, allowed to grow at a healthy rate, and given bug-filled pastures
to explore are as crucial for him as the “Bismallah Allah-u-Akbar” he whispers before that final cut.

And Kurdieh is not alone. He is part of a growing movement of
Muslims seeking to revolutionize the production and supply of halal
meat in the U.S. This drive for a more transparent and environmentally
sound approach to halal meat reflects the natural juncture of Islamic
dietary principles and the increasingly popular but almost entirely
secular sustainable-food movement sweeping across the country.

Halal goes industrial

Of
the eight million Muslims in the United States, 40 percent buy halal
meat. But until the early 1990s, it was still relatively difficult for
those Muslims to buy halal meat commercially. Today, however, the
number of U.S. businesses that supply Muslim grocers and even some
non-Muslim supermarkets with mass-processed halal meat products, such
as chicken nuggets and hot dogs, is growing; according to industry
experts, the halal market now is valued at $16 billion per year.

Kurdieh
argues that the meat products these businesses retail to the Muslim
community defy the natural order of life, directly contravening the
wholesome and pure principles dictated by tayyib. He’s
appalled, for example, by the fact that feed given to commercially
raised chickens legally contains animal byproducts such as ground
animal meal and dehydrated blood.

“Chickens are not vegetarian
by nature,” he admits. “Watch a group of chickens running around; if a
mouse passes though them, they devour it. That’s natural. But it’s
another thing to feed them other dead chickens, or pig flesh. A chicken
is not naturally going to find a pig and eat it!”

Certification
boards have matched the growth of the American halal industry. The 80
or so current certification boards in the U.S. — such as the Islamic Food and Nutrition Council of America
(IFANCA) — charge companies fees to undertake audits of production
facilities and inspect documentation on products and manufacturing. The
products of certified companies bear a symbol meant to reassure Muslim
consumers that these items fully comply with Islamic dietary laws.

IFANCA
guarantees that the meat it certifies comes from animals raised on
“clean food” or vegetarian diets for the last part of their lives.
(Before this period, there is no restriction on feed containing animal
byproducts.) Dr. Muhammad Chaudry, the president of IFANCA, says he’s
satisfied that this final period of cleansing complies with the
precepts of Islam. As evidence, he tells the story of an animal in
Islamic tradition that fed on filth but was considered halal and fit to
eat after it had been purged over a period of time.

Zaid Kurdieh

Chaudry
stresses that there are no mandates in Islam asking Muslims to abstain
from commercially raised livestock. “My definition of tayyib may be different from his definition,” he says when presented with Kurdieh’s point of view.

Using
any method other than intensive farming, says Chaudry, is unrealistic
on a large scale. “There is no way that you can feed the seven billion
people in the world by free range any more,” he argues. “We would
become vegetarians, and certainly we would then run out of vegetables
also.”

But Kurdieh thinks otherwise. He studied agriculture
and business at the universities of Wyoming and South Dakota and worked
for Cornell University’s cooperative extension program, helping farmers
set up business plans, before starting his own farm in 1998. Fifteen
years ago, he became so disillusioned by the provenance of commercially
available halal meat that he vowed not to feed himself or his family
meat that he had not sourced and slaughtered personally. And in 2006,
he decided to extend this service to his customers and the wider Muslim
community.

“When we thought about what livestock to raise, we
decided on chicken, because it is the worst type of meat you can buy,”
he explains.

One man’s meat

Meanwhile, a handful of
other young, professional American Muslims, equally frustrated by the
lack of transparency in the commercial halal meat industry and by the
intensive farming methods these enterprises support, began trying to
build an alternative halal food system based on a local economy of
farmers and growers.

In 2004, 34-year-old Yasir Syeed, who
lives in north Virginia and works as a sales and marketing executive,
started looking into where his food was coming from.

“It is not
about just about eating what has been slaughtered correctly,” he says.
“God sets the bar much higher. It is also about eating what’s good and
pure.”

After seeing a video on factory farming, he decided
that he no longer wanted to feed himself or his young family meat
raised in this way. In part, this decision was born out of concern for
their own health. But more significantly, he was appalled at the
treatment of livestock in that environment.

“I feel that every
piece of meat has a story, and I’m the final chapter. I want that story
where the animal had a life that was pleasurable at the very least,” he
says.

For Syeed, all this resonated strongly with the
principles of Islam, particularly on the importance of animal welfare,
which he says is addressed recurrently in the Koran and reflected in
the profound mercy extended by the Prophet Mohammad toward animals in
numerous instances.

Reading Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma
was pivotal for Syeed. He was particularly struck by how the
increasingly commercial organic-food industry seemed strikingly similar
to factory farming in terms of how its livestock was treated. So even
when Syeed found organic halal meat in the freezer cabinets of local
Muslim grocery stores, he didn’t feel satisfied that it met his
criteria of how meat should be raised.

So he called up several
small-scale farmers in Virginia whose operations he had vetted online.
He explained that he would like to personally hand-select livestock
that he would slaughter himself in the zabihah way and have the farms butcher the meat for him.

Some
were more responsive than others. One farmer turned him down
definitively after discussing the proposition with his pastor. “I told
him I wasn’t going to be throwing blood around or anything,” Syeed
recalls with a laugh. Nonetheless, the farmer said that he felt
uncomfortable having someone of a different religion carry out the
slaughter.

Syeed soon struck up a relationship with Polyface Farm
in Swoope, Virginia. He went there regularly and, on his return, doled
out convenient packs of pre-cut meat to friends and relatives.

Requests
began to pile up. Two years ago, Syeed decided to partner with the
farm, turning his expeditions into a side business that, he hopes, will
one day become a full-time enterprise. He set up a website through
which people could place their orders, and Green Zabiha was born.

Through
word of mouth, recommendations from friends, and by sending out emails
to the listserv of an online community of young environmentally savvy
Muslims in Washington, D.C., called D.C. Green Muslims, Syeed has
accumulated about 100 regular customers, many of whom placed orders in
September for free-range, organic Thanksgiving turkeys.

In 2001, the Muslim arm of a Chicago-based interfaith organization, Faith in Place,
which works with religious congregations to promote sustainable
farming, formed a grassroots cooperative. Local Muslim groups had been
asking for meat that was tayyib as well as halal and zabihah.

“Our products are tayyib
because we ensure that animals are treated with humanity, raised in
respectful environments, and fed a natural diet free from antibiotics,
hormones, and other such additives,” the organization promises on its
website.

Turkeys at the Kurdieh farm.

Qaid
Hassan, who now manages the cooperative, was a volunteer for the
community-based business before he joined the staff. Unlike
conventional co-ops, members don’t have to pay a membership fee; they
simply order specific cuts of chicken, lamb, turkey, and beef from the
website or over the phone. The meat is then shipped directly to
individual members, or to group drop-off sites.

Hassan sources
the meat directly from a local farmer about an hour south of Chicago,
who raises all his animals on open pasture. “We brokered a good
relationship because he was interested in reaching out to the Muslim
community,” says Hassan. “He understood that there were specific
mandates embedded in Islamic law about the slaughter of meat, and he
was committed to re-setting the local food system.”

A halal CSA

At
the farmers’ market, as the last of his customers rifle through the
remaining medley of organic produce, Zaid Kurdieh receives a call on
his cell phone from a young Muslim woman he does not know. Candice Elam
and her husband live in Union City, in northern New Jersey. Since
finding out that she is expecting their first child, Elam has become
increasingly concerned about the quality and provenance of their food.
Though they already belong to a local cooperative that distributes
organic, locally grown vegetables and fruits and cage-free organic
eggs, Elam wants to ensure that their meat is also raised and
slaughtered according to the same sustainable principles. Having heard
about Kurdieh’s organic halal chickens, Elam hopes they can work
together to start a CSA supplying her local Muslim community with meat.

Kurdieh listens to her ambitious plans with interest; after
all, he was already seriously considering raising lamb, goat, and even
cattle on his farm. But his reaction is not the one she had expected.

“The
average Muslim is not interested in where their meat comes from,” says
Kurdieh, shrugging his shoulders. “They don’t know where it comes from
and they don’t want to know. All they care about is that it is cheap.”

And
so his response to Elam was a cautious one, warning her that it would
be difficult to convince local Muslims to pay more than three times the
price of a standard chicken from the local halal butcher.

Kurdieh
isn’t pessimistic, just pragmatic. “It’s better that they are
self-educated, because otherwise they question whether I’m telling them
the truth or simply pulling their legs to peddle something,” he says
about trying to convince fellow Muslims to avoid industrial meat. Given
enough time and activist Muslims, he muses as darkness slowly falls
over Union Square, the mainstream halal industry will eventually
conform to sustainable principles.

A goat on Zaid Kurdieh’s farm.

The
seed of such a transition is perhaps being planted not all that far
away. In a converted garage in nearby Queens, Imran Uddin, a
27-year-old Muslim who runs a popular halal slaughterhouse, is putting
the finishing touches on his new USDA-approved processing plant.

Three
years ago, Uddin abandoned an advertising career to take over his
father’s slaughterhouse in Ozone Park. Providing New Yorkers with
pasture-raised, free-range halal goat, lamb, chicken, and such exotic
poultry as pheasant and quail — all of which he slaughters on site —
Uddin is uncompromising when it comes to upholding the ethical
standards he feels are set definitively by his faith. He frequently
visits the farms in Pennsylvania and Texas where he sources his poultry
and livestock.

Up till now, Uddin’s business, Madani Halal,
has only sold freshly slaughtered meat directly to customers. But from
his new $3 million processing facility, just steps away from his
slaughterhouse, Uddin will slaughter, process, and package halal
chicken cuts for retail in halal stores and mainstream supermarkets
along the East Coast and beyond. Uddin aspires to take his sustainable,
ethical practices to the wider commercial stage, setting a precedent
for other halal meat businesses to follow.

Uddin believes that
the many problems endemic to the commercial halal meat industry have
come about because many of the businesses are non-Muslim owned. For
him, the only way for Muslims to ensure that their meat correctly
fulfills the precepts of Islam is to take control of their own food
system.

“If I went into the kosher industry, I’d be shut down in a second,” Uddin argues. “This is my obligation, my responsibility.”

Ten
months after taking that phone call from Elam, Kurdieh is just two
weeks away from his first delivery of organic, pasture-raised halal
lamb, goat, and chicken to the nascent Al-Ma’ida CSA that Elam is still struggling to organize.

Neither
can remember whether it was Kurdieh who softened to the idea or Elam
who convinced him of the need for such an initiative, but both agree
that their meeting at the Brooklyn Food Conference
in April cemented their joint commitment to the project. As Kurdieh
predicted, the challenge of transforming enthusiastic supporters into
paying members of the CSA has been a sobering process; so far, the CSA
only has 12 members.

But Kurdieh is undeterred. He’s got more on
his mind right now: whether his lamb will be ready for slaughter in
time for that first delivery.

A native of Malaysia, Nadia Arumugam is a New York City-based food writer and cookbook author.

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