The Latest Twist in the Story of Ethical Meat

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
By Sasha Chapman

Image credit: Rob MacInnis

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.

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

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 Blossom­Pure 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 farm­ers. 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 slaughter­houses 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
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 Illi­nois) 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.