When halal is not enough – Demand for organic all-natural meat among American Muslims increases

| 07/12/2008 | Reply


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By Ayesha Ahmad, Contributing Writer

  
Finding
halal meat has always been a challenge for Muslims in America, though
many larger communities now boast stores and companies catering to
Islamic dietary regulations.

But with rising
awareness of the nature of food production – particularly meat
production – in the giant farms and factories that supply America’s
grocery stores, some Muslims are coming to an understanding that simply
halal, or zabiha meat, is not enough.

“We were under
the assumption that if it was zabiha, it was somehow okay,” said Sahra
Nadiir, a mother of four in Baltimore. “People who are doing zabiha
meat are… [often] just buying it from the same commercial growers.”

That is why in
the last year, Nadiir and her family began purchasing meat from Green
Zabiha, a small business started by local Muslims in the Washington,
D.C., area to offer meat that is not only
slaughtered within Islamic criteria, but raised
within Islamic criteria as well: animals treated with respect, allowed
to live and feed as they were intended to, without unnatural hormones
and antibiotics.

Pursuing such an
elusive standard often comes as part of a greater awareness in a Muslim
family’s lifestyle: an awareness of their own impact on the world
around them and on their children, of the realities of their country’s
health and environmental problems, and of the nature of their obedience
to Qur’anic guidelines in regards to both of those areas.

“You are what
you eat,” said Karima Shamma, a co-founder of Green Zabiha, describing
how she became interested in the idea of organic zabiha meat.

 

“Who handles
your food, who raises your food, the way your food is being treated
before it comes to you and sits on your plate and you eat it, [all of
this] has a spiritual effect on you, has an effect on you as a person.”

And if most Americans knew how their meat was raised, fed and produced, they wouldn’t eat it, Nadiir said.

Factory farms
developed in the mid-20th century with the goal of mass-producing meat
for consumption with the highest output and lowest cost possible, just
as many other production processes were being similarly streamlined.

To reach these
goals, farm owners can keep animals constrained in small spaces to
improve efficiency, subject them to artificial living conditions to
speed their growth, inject them with antibiotics, supplements and
hormones and provide high-protein, low-cost fodder to increase their
bulk.

Though these
actions increase the farm’s output and contribution to the economy,
they all have consequences for the animals themselves, for the people
who work with them and the people who consume their meat, and for the
environment in which they live and die. According to statistics
published by the Center for Food Safety, more than 5,000 people fall
ill with Campylobacter poisoning every year in America – and the
primary source of that bacteria is contaminated chicken. The average
lifespan of a dairy cow – about 25 years – is shortened to four years
on a factory farm. And genetic selection for fast growth, along with
artificial lighting conditions, for factory farmed chickens can cause
numerous health problems, making their lives short and miserable,
according to the Humane Society of the United States.

“Yes, the
animals are subservient to us,” said Mona Eldadah, a mother of three in
Silver Spring, Maryland who is also buying meat from Green Zabiha. “But
at the same time, they’re a creature of Allah. Shouldn’t we treat them
with respect while they’re living… especially because that animal is
later going to become part of the cells in our body?”

Factory farming
can also pollute groundwater with nitrates found in fecal waste from
chickens and cows, as well as in fertilizers.

Nitrogen excess
is the most serious pollution problem for the Chesapeake Bay, according
to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, with the single largest contributor
of that contamination being agricultural runoff from chicken farming.

But the problem
can also return to haunt humans when drinking water tainted with
nitrates causes health problems, including gastrointestinal illness,
reproductive problems and neurological disorders, with infants, young
children, pregnant women and the elderly being especially susceptible,
according to the Center for Disease Control.

One of the greatest concerns for Muslims, in terms of meat being halal to eat, is the feed provided to animals.

It wasn’t until
1997 that the Food and Drug Administration prohibited the use of most
proteins derived from ruminant animals (cattle, goats, sheep) in the
feed provided to the same animals.

Further
regulations since then have strengthened the ruling, but animal feed
can still contain “meal” produced from the blood, bone, meat and even
waste of other animals.

“The meat that
is commercially grown on these farms and these places where they
process meat is polluted… it’s toxic meat,” said Imam Mohammad al-Asi
of Washington, D.C. “We hear that in some places chickens are fed
najaasa, so yes, if that is what they are fed until the time that they
are slaughtered then yes, that meat is questionable.”

As Nadiir
mentioned, the Qur’an contains numerous injunctions from Allah to eat
that which is lawful, good and pure, often accompanied by an admonition
to be grateful to Him for His blessings, to fear Allah, to commit no
excesses, or to beware of Shaitan. At one point, Allah even describes
the creation of vegetation for the consumption of both man and beast:
with water from the sky.

“We produced
diverse pairs of plants, each separate from others. Eat (for
yourselves) and pasture your cattle: verily, in this are Signs for men
endued with understanding.” (Qur’an, 20:53-54).

Many companions
of the Prophet Muhammad reported that he forbade them from eating the
flesh or drinking the milk of animals that had consumed impurities,
said Imam Mohammad Baianonie of Raleigh, North Carolina. Scholars say
such animals may be slaughtered after their diet has been cleansed and
their flesh has been purified for a period of time, he added.

But as Imam al-Asi also noted, no factory farms would actually do that today.

Though it is not
specifically prohibited to consume the meat, milk or eggs of animals
that have been tortured or harmed, Imam Baianonie said, it is certainly
prohibited to torture or harm animals in the first place.

“As a Muslim
community, we should always ensure that not only is our meat
slaughtered in an Islamically acceptable manner but that it be raised
and fed in a humane and Islamic manner as well,” he added. “Animals
have been entrusted to us as a gift from our Creator, the Almighty God,
and they are our responsibility.”

As more and more
Muslims have become aware of these issues, there have been stirrings of
movement to obtain or provide meat that is both halal, in terms of
being slaughtered Islamically, as well as raised in a halal manner,
whether that is organic by label, or simply raised naturally without
the use of artificial living conditions, hormones, antibiotics,
steroids or other chemicals, and fed the food Allah intended it to eat.

Such awareness among Muslim families is often part of a greater awareness of one’s impact on the environment.

Nadiir described
how she first began educating herself on food when her children were
born, discovering and making correlations with growing health problems
in America, such as cancers. Initially she began buying organic milk
for her children, and then fruits and vegetables, to avoid the
pesticides that lade ordinary, mass-farmed versions.

Members of her
family began eating zabiha meat only, too, for the first time, but over
the last year they have learned enough about commercial meat production
to make them look for something more. “We want to do what Allah and His
messenger told us to do, and feel good about what we’re eating,” she
said.

For Teyebeh Bashir of Tustin, Calif., it started with, of all things, polar bears.

Just a few years
ago, she began learning more about global warming and its impact on the
polar bears’ environment, and it got her thinking about her
responsibility as a Muslim toward the Earth.

“As Muslims, we’re not doing enough to give back,” she said.

“Here in this
country… the biggest deal is just go to the masjid, do your prayers,
but there it stops. There’s not going to be an earth for you to live
in… for the children to enjoy if we don’t protect it.”

From her own
research on environmental issues, she began “going green” – first by
using natural cleaners in her house, then by buying organic, local
produce.

Then she wanted
to buy natural beef – not organic, because she was concerned the label
didn’t mean much, but grass-fed, as cows are meant to be, and free of
hormones and chemicals.

So Bashir is
trying now, along with other families in the Orange County area, to buy
a cow from a local farmer who has been raised in a natural manner, and
have it slaughtered Islamically. It is a huge project, literally – the
cow she is interested in, she said, is about 1,500 pounds and would
need to be divided between several families, providing each with a few
hundred pounds of meat.

It has been a
challenge to organize, she said, but it is extremely important to her –
enough that she would prefer to eat organic or grass-fed meat over
zabiha, if that is the only choice available.

“It is better
for you to have a tayyib (pure) meat and say ‘bismillah’ over it, than
it is for you to have one that is slaughtered [under Islamic
guidelines], but the cow is not being fed the way it is supposed to be
fed,” she said.

There are more
opportunities for organic, grass-fed and natural meats in Northern
California, she said. For example, San Francisco’s Alhambra Halal Meat
Market provides meat that is not only hand-slaughtered in the Islamic
manner, but is also free of hormones and steroids, without animal
byproducts in the feed, and fed on grass (for cows) and corn or grain
(for chickens).

Owner Souleiman
Ghali sells both all-natural meat and meat that is labeled organic,
though the latter often commands much higher prices, he said.

He compared the
natural goat meat he sells – “fantastic meat… free range, never seen a
cage, grazes up in the mountains in Colorado” – for $4.99-$5.99 a
pound, to the organic goat meat – “$10-$12 a pound, just because of the
classification.”

While his Muslim
customers often try to haggle the prices down, without concern for its
quality, it is Ghali’s non-Muslim customers – about 80 percent of his
total – who tell him they “love halal meat because of its quality.”

Organic and
natural meat does cost considerably more than factory-farmed meat. But
many Muslims who are choosing to buy it anyway consider this a blessing
in its own way, because it forces them to eat less meat and more fruits
and vegetables.

Bashir described
how she changed aspects of her lifestyle – avoiding spending money
“here and there”, avoiding eating out – in order to be able to afford
better food for her family, and how she has seen a similar movement
among other Muslim families.

“Anyone can do it who wants to do it,” said Nadiir.

“It’s a little
bit more expensive… overall you spend the same amount of money, but you
eat a little bit less. When you eat organic and you eat healthier
things, you need less of it anyway.”

Green Zabiha
lets its customers know exactly why “ordinary” meat costs so much less
– that if it costs the customer less money to buy factory-farmed meat,
it costs much more in terms of animal and human health, life cycle and
environment.

Eldadah said she
feels whether Muslims are eating organic zabiha or not, they should try
to support the efforts of people like those behind Green Zabiha, to
show Muslims that a healthier option is possible.

But the growing
awareness begs the larger question of how Muslims can take such aspects
of their lives in America into their own hands, said Imam al-Asi; if
Muslims need meat that is halal to eat, they need to begin to own farms
and raise and feed animals in a halal manner, too.

He pointed out the presence of entire aisles of kosher foods in grocery stores, in keeping with Jewish dietary laws.

“Someday [we can have] Islamic aisles of halal products,” he said.

“We [need to] think progressively and proactively and courageously and ambitiously so we can do what we have to do.”

 



 

Category: Halal Integrity, The Americas

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