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
When 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.
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