The New York Times
For years, at least four companies in the United States were authorized by the Egyptian government to verify that halal meat exported for sale to the country’s 90 million Muslims had been prepared according to Islamic law.
Then, in April 2019, Egyptian officials made an abrupt pivot, U.S. Department of Agriculture documents show. All halal certifications would instead be done by a single company: IS EG Halal, a New Jersey startup that had begun operations that same month and had no known experience in halal certification, according to the USDA.
A report issued at the time by the USDA’s Foreign Agriculture Service warned that the sudden change in policy could disrupt markets and drive up prices.
Seven months later, FBI agents working with prosecutors from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York searched the offices of IS EG Halal and the home of its president, Wael Hana. They seized computers, cellphones, Hana’s passport and “every single piece of paper” in the company’s Edgewater, New Jersey, headquarters, Hana’s lawyer said in a 2020 court filing seeking return of his client’s property.
That search now appears to be linked to the investigation of Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., the chair of the Foreign Relations Committee, according to interviews with two people with knowledge of the current investigation, as well as a lawyer who met with prosecutors.
The nature and extent of the investigation are unclear. Court documents filed after the Nov. 25, 2019, FBI search of Hana’s property refer to statutes that relate to failing to register as an agent of a foreign government, among others.
Menendez said at an event in New Jersey on Friday that he was aware that federal prosecutors were conducting an investigation, and that he stands ready to help “when and if they ask.”
“Don’t know the scope or the subjects,” Menendez said after the event.
Hana’s lawyer, Lawrence S. Lustberg, filed court papers seeking to retrieve items taken from his client about two months after the FBI search. He said in the papers that Hana, a U.S. citizen born in Egypt, was told that he was not a target of the government’s investigation.
Lustberg, in a statement on behalf of his client, said Hana has asked prosecutors “to share with him their concerns,” so that he could respond to them.
“Once he has the opportunity to do so, and the truth comes out, he is confident that the government will agree with him that he has done absolutely nothing wrong,” Lustberg said.
Lustberg said Hana’s firm, IS EG Halal, “was awarded the halal certification contract that it has with Egypt, and which it is performing flawlessly, without any assistance whatsoever from any U.S. public official.”
Telephone messages to IS EG Halal’s Edgewater headquarters were not returned.
Antranig “Andy” Aslanian Jr., a New Jersey lawyer who said he received a subpoena four months ago as part of the investigation into Menendez, said he and Hana once worked from the same office building in Fort Lee, New Jersey, and became close friends.
State records show that Aslanian, 83, registered IS EG Halal and was a member of its founding board of directors.
Aslanian said that during a meeting with Southern District prosecutors in Manhattan he was asked about IS EG Halal, his involvement with the company and whether he had a financial interest in its dealings. He said that he did not.
Howard M. Dorian, a New Jersey lawyer who shares office space with Aslanian, was the company’s registered agent from May 2019 until June 2021, according to records filed with the New Jersey Department of the Treasury. Dorian could not be reached for comment.
To be certified halal, products must meet strict processing and preparation standards and cannot include ingredients prohibited by Islamic law, including pork or alcohol. Egypt imports roughly 300,000 metric tons of halal beef from retailers worldwide, according to U.S. government reports.
Hana acknowledged in the court papers that he had no expertise in halal certification when he began operating the business in 2019, though it had been incorporated nearly two years earlier. In the court motion, Hana said that the Egyptian government had given him resources to ensure that exported products complied with Islamic law.
“They also provided me with employees who can assist me with the halal certification,” he said in the court filing. “As I am a Christian, I am not experienced in halal certification, so the Egyptian government has provided imams and trained veterinarians to assist me.”
Egypt is the only U.S. trading partner that requires all its imported halal meat to be certified by a single company, according to the USDA. After Egypt disqualified the four previously designated companies, the price paid by retailers to get beef certified halal was expected to increase to about $200 a metric ton, up from about $20, according to a USDA report.
“The higher fees will increase beef prices for Egyptian consumers,” the USDA report warned.
Egypt’s shift to a single halal certifier was the subject of news articles there in early 2020 as prices rose.
Before making the decision to switch to IS EG Halal, officials with the Egyptian Veterinary Service spent more than a week in the United States in March 2019 touring slaughterhouses, auditing records and meeting with business owners hoping to either win or retain the lucrative business, according to participants and the USDA report. Halal company owners said they were required to provide client lists and other proprietary information to Egyptian officials as part of the audit.
Officials from the Egyptian Embassy in Washington and from the consulate in New York were not immediately available for comment on Friday.
Habib Ghanim, president and founder of U.S. Halal Certification, in Silver Spring, Maryland, said he and his family had certified meat for the Egyptian government for about 10 years. He said the decision to switch to a single company came as a shock that hurt his company’s bottom line.
“They didn’t give us any reason,” Ghanim said Thursday in a telephone interview. “They didn’t tell us anything. They just decided with one stroke of the pen, ‘We’re going to give all the business to this one company.’”
Records show Hana and Aslanian have some involvement in both American and Egyptian financial circles. Both men donated modest amounts to Menendez’s Senate campaigns, campaign finance records show. And in 2016, Aslanian represented the government of Egypt in a zoning dispute over residential property in East Rutherford, New Jersey, that was purchased for diplomatic use, court records and news reports show.
Hana described himself as an entrepreneur who had experience importing items to Egypt.
In the court filing seeking the seized items, which Hana said were vital to his ability to travel and conduct business, he offered an explanation for why he was awarded sole control of the halal compliance market in the United States. He said the decision was made to deny the Muslim Brotherhood, an international Islamist movement considered a security threat by the Egyptian government, a financial stake in the halal certification business. There is no public indication any of the previous certifiers had those ties, however.
“The Egyptian government took away the Muslim Brotherhood’s authorization to certify halal products in order to deprive the group of financial resources,” Hana said. “They gave me the certification because they know that I am not associated with the Muslim Brotherhood and because they trust my work.”