Thanks to increased trade in food and farm products, and the growth of Muslim communities in traditionally non-Muslim regions like northern Europe and the US, many non-Muslims are now aware of halal as a distinct food category, with its own dietary rules. Some have recognized the potential of halal as a market opportunity. This interest naturally raises questions for anyone who is not familiar with Muslim traditions: What exactly does halal mean? What standards must be met in order for a farmer’s produce or meat, or a food processor’s product, to qualify as halal? Today marks the first day of Eid Al Adha, a Muslim festival that features halal in a central role; therefore it is an appropriate time to examine these questions.
Eid Al Adha
The concept of halal is closely linked to Eid Al Adha, a four-day Muslim festival known as the Feast of Sacrifice. This festival commemorates the prophet Abraham’s willingness to kill his son under God’s command, and God’s acknowledgment of his obedience by replacing the son with a sheep for slaughter. Each year, two million Muslims from around the world travel to Saudi Arabia for Hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca) at the time of Eid Al Adha. Hajj is one of five pillars of Islam and it is regarded as a demonstration of solidarity of the Muslim people (1). Hajj includes such rituals as Tawaf: Pilgrims walk counter-clockwise seven times around Kaaba, the house that Muslims believe Abraham built for himself, Hagar and Ishmael. Muslims who are able to do so must go on Hajj at least once in their life time to honor God. At the time of Eid Al Adha, Muslims who cannot go to Saudi Arabia sacrifice an animal instead to commemorate the triumphs of Abraham (if they have the finances to do so). The ceremony of sacrifice is also used in Muslim culture to celebrate key milestones, and to give valuable meat protein to the poor.
For Eid Al Adha, pilgrims perform zabiha: the slaughtering of a halal animal in the Islamic method. The animal is usually a sheep, camel or goat. Swine are not acceptable, because Muslims are forbidden to eat pork. “In the name of God, God is great” must be recited before slaughter. This is a reminder that people do not have the right to take the animal’s life except by the permission of God to meet our needs for food. The sacrificial animal must be facing Mecca during the sacrifice. A sharp blade and skill in slaughtering is required to minimize pain and unnecessary suffering for the animal (2). Most of the meat from the sacrifice is gifted to others. One-third is consumed by family, one-third is given to friends and one-third is donated to the poor and needy. As a whole, the sacrifice symbolizes the believer’s willingness to give up valuable things in order to follow God’s commands.
The Importance of Charity in Eid Al Adha
This Islamic tradition generates a donation of $1 billion worth of meat protein in just one day. Of course, such concentrated generosity creates considerable challenges related to food safety, storage and efficient transferral of the donated meat to the right recipients. For example, Dubai sets up special barns to house imported animals before Eid Al Adha. According to the Director of Public Health Services, the barns are part of an effort to ensure food safety, as all the imported livestock must undergo veterinary quarantine in order to prevent epidemics. The public is urged to take livestock to approved inspection centres and slaughterhouses run by the Dubai municipality for quarantine (3). If the animals are free of bacterial, viral and fungal diseases, the meat will be safer while it is being stored and transported. Saudi Arabia also has a robust infrastructure in place to handle the great influx of halal meat during Eid Al Adha.
It is reasonable to ask whether the flood of such a large supply of meat in such a short time could cause market problems. For instance, would giving away free meat to the poor drive livestock prices down? According to the Institute of Management Sciences, Eid Al Adha redistribution practices appear to be arranged to stimulate rural economies. In Pakistan, research shows that the religious ritual of sacrifice produces profitable by-products such as leather, wool and slaughtering business. These services bring US $140 million into rural economies (4).
Halal, Animal Welfare and Food Safety
Halal means ”that which is permitted by God”. In order for meat to be considered halal, the animal must be killed according to the rules of zabiha. The process involves a quick cut across the neck to sever veins and arteries, without harming the nervous system or spinal cord. The quick blood loss makes the animal unconscious within seconds. Leaving the spinal cord intact allows for convulsions from the contraction of the muscles in response to the lack of oxygen in the brain. This leads to maximum drainage of blood that will carry away waste and micro-organisms, which will improve the healthiness, taste, and quality of the meat (5). In order to ensure that halal animals are slaughtered in the least painful and most humane manner possible, and to comply with Muslim law, the Halal Food Authority and the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) have set forth the following requirements:
In addition to requiring humane slaughtering practices that conform to religious law, halal regulations also ensure that the product is healthy, wholesome, nutritious and good quality. Halal meat should be antibiotic and hormone free, and the practice of draining the animal’s blood may reduce the amount of toxins in the meat. Internationally, halal manufacturing and processing facilities are committed to maintaining good hygiene and are expected to conform to applicable food safety standards (7).
Because Muslims generally seek to obey God’s order to be kind to all living things, treating animals humanely is a highly important aspect of halal. This was powerfully demonstrated by the recent controversy surrounding pre-stunning: the practice of rendering an animal unconscious before the actual slaughter. Traditionally, pre-stunning of the animal before zabiha was not allowed. But to accommodate the high volume of animals that must be slaughtered according to zabiha when halal meat is produced by a food processing plant, processors have generally been permitted to immobilise birds through gas asphyxiation or an electric water bath. Immobilisation reduces the risk of harming the birds before slaughter.
This practice generated disagreement erupted as to whether pre-stunning was a proper Islam practice, and whether religious slaughtering was humane. Some scholars objected to pre-stunning on the grounds that some animals died as a result of pre-stunning rather than by slaughtering, which is haram–forbidden by God. Others objected to pre-stunning because research suggested that pre-stunning was painful – hence inhumane and therefore not halal. The argument became intense enough that one halal food authority did not certify any companies that used stunned animals (8).
The difference of opinion was eventually resolved by the Muslim World League and the University of Cairo Committee, which concluded that pre-stunning is halal if it does not kill the animal, but rather shocks it unconscious so that the slaughtering will be less painful. As a result, pre-stunning become a mandatory requirement. The debate may not be entirely over, as some scholars suggest that pre-stunning should be preferred but not a mandatory requirement.
The Economic Impact of Halal
Each year, over 100 million animals are sacrificed for Eid Al Adha. That amounts to $3 billion worth of livestock being slaughtered in one day, making this the most active day of the year in livestock trade. Although the halal market is often perceived as a niche market, its market volume and economic impact certainly indicate that it is not a small one. The halal meat market does not exist only on Feast of the Sacrifice; over 1.5 billion Muslim around the world eat Halal daily. This market is lucrative year-round.
The halal market is more strongly established in the Middle East and Asia than in North America. Therefore, farmers and ranchers in North America may have an opportunity to establish a meat market that specifically caters to Islamic communities, many of which are growing and increasing their demand for certified halal and organic food products. New Zealand’s predominantly free-range meat industry has already acted to take advantage of the opportunity. Many New Zealand slaughter houses changed their procedures to meet halal certification standards; now New Zealand is the largest halal sheep exporter in the world, and also exports a significant amount of halal beef. The export revenue from sheep alone by year end June 2011 was NZ$ 2.9 billion (9).
Livestock producers in North America could market halal meat in two different ways. First, farmers could produce good quality meat locally for the growing market (both halal and non-religious) that is concerned with ecology, health and sustainability. Secondly, organic, free range and halal products could be sold to high end markets in the Gulf or Saudi Arabia: countries which require, and generally can afford, premium quality food.
Other opportunities arise because many foreign countries are interested in becoming self-sufficient in food production. This creates business opportunities based on know-how in animal husbandry and technology transfer. Russia, for instance, is currently one of the world’s largest food importers. Russia’s President Vladimir Putin is attempting to change Russia from one of the world’s largest food importers to a country that will be self-sufficient in agriculture. He plans to cut his country’s $3 billion annual import bill for beef by heavily subsidizing livestock farms. American agriculturists such as Anthony Stidham, a third-generation rancher from Oklahoma, have been hired to teach Russian farmers how to rear livestock safely and efficiently (10).
Eid Al Adha in particular, and halal in general, contribute significantly to the world’s livestock trade. It is likely that this niche market will continue to grow because halal products have a reputation for being healthy, hygienic, humane and of good quality. Moreover, the redistributive aspect of Eid Al Adha can stimulate rural economies. Finally, increasing demand for halal products creates opportunities for North American farmers to venture into this profitable market.
(1) “Halal / Haram / Zabiha.” http://www.isnahalal.ca/info.html (last accessed 20 Oct. 2012).
(2) “Brief Guidance for Halal Meat& Poultry Slaughter,” Halal Food Authority.
(3) Mariam M. Al Serkal, “Municipality Opens Special Barns Ahead of Eid Al Adha” 17 Oct. 2012, Gulfnews.com<http://gulfnews.com/news/gulf/uae/health/municipality-opens-special-barns-ahead-of-eid-al-adha-1.1090713> (last accessed 23 Oct. 2012).
(4) Syed Waqar Hussain and Muhammad Mohsin Khan. “Poverty Alleviation: The Redistribution Impact of Eid-ul- Azha Animals’ Sacrifice on Rural Economy” Journal of Managerial Sciences, vol.3, 2.
(5) “ISNA®’s Role in Certification.” http://www.isnahalal.ca/info.html (last accessed 20 Oct. 2012).
(7) Zurina Shafii and 2W.M.N. Wan Siti Khadijah. “Halal Traceability Framework for Halal Food Production,” World Applied Sciences Journal no.17 (2012).
(8) “The Opinions of the Ulema on the Permissibility of Stunning Animals,” Abraham Natural Produce http://www.organic-halal-meat.com/article/fatwa-stunning.php (last accessed cot 21, 2012)
(9) “New Zealand Meat Industry.” http://business.newzealand.com/vBFwRkA/media/957498/meat_industry_factsheet_2012.pdf (last accessed 23 Oct. 2012).
(10) “Russia Investing Heavily in Becoming Self Sufficient in Beef Production,” Merco Press. South Atlantic News Agency, (28 July 2012) http://en.mercopress.com/2012/07/28/russia-investing-heavily-in-becoming-self-sufficient-in-beef-production ( last accessed 22 Oct. 2012).