Halal or not: that is the question. Last week, the founder of Midamar Corporation, a halal beef producer based in Cedar Rapids, IA, was indicted on 19 felony counts for allegedly exporting mislabeled halal meat to Indonesia and Malaysia. The two countries both have a Muslim majority—Indonesia has the largest Muslim population of any country in the world—and both follow strict import policies to ensure that any meat that crosses their borders was slaughtered under halal guidelines. Midamar founder Bill Aossey Jr. has been accused of processing the southeast Asian-bound beef in a Minnesota plant that didn't meet the countries' standards, then changing package labels and fabricating documents to make the meat acceptable to importers. If he's convicted on all these charges, Aossey faces 246 years in federal prison and fines of $4.75 million.
The Midamar trial is just the latest in a series of headline-grabbing scandals about halal slaughter over the past few years. Though the most recent controversy is an American one, many of the news stories about halal meat have originated in Europe. As the Muslim population there surges—it grew from 29.6 million in 1990 to 44.1 million in 2010, and is projected to exceed 58 million by 2030—halal slaughterhouses have become important businesses in countries such as France and Germany whose Muslim populations have grown exponentially.
Fraudulent labeling aside, the question that's most often posed about halal slaughter is: is it humane? In conventional slaughterhouses, cows, pigs, and sheep are stunned before they're killed, using a captive bolt pistol—i.e. a variation on the freaky weapon wielded by Javier Bardem in "No Country for Old Men"—which forcefully strikes the forehead of the doomed animal, rendering it unconscious and therefore unable to feel pain before it hits the killing floor. But when it comes to halal slaughter, the issue of pre-dispatch stunning is a fraught one.
The word halal translates to "what is permissible" and is the opposite of haram, or "forbidden." In order for an animal's slaughter to be considered halal, it must be healthy and free from suffering prior to its death; it must be killed by a believer via a sharp incision to its neck; the name of Allah must be invoked at the time of death; and its death must come as the result of blood loss. Because Muslims are forbidden to consume blood, the animal must bleed out completely, or exsanguinate, before it's cooked. Some Muslim authorities worry that a stun gun might stop an animal's heart prior to the ritualistic neck cut that is supposed to kill it, rendering it not halal; halal slaughterhouses that subscribe to this belief don't employ the pre-death stun. And if something goes wrong with that neck cut—if it's not fast enough, or clean enough, and fails to sever the carotid arteries and jugular veins, as it's intended to—and the animal takes a long time to die, that's where the question of animal welfare comes in.
Grandin believes that traditional, no-stun halal slaughter can be done humanely—but only if everything goes perfectly according to plan.
"It's not an easy issue," said Dr. Temple Grandin, the well-known autism advocate who is also one of the world's foremost experts on animal behavior. Grandin, who works as a consultant to the livestock industry and has designed slaughterhouses equipped with features that help minimize animals' stress prior to slaughter, believes that traditional, no-stun halal slaughter can be done humanely—but only if everything goes perfectly according to plan.
"If you keep the animal calm and cut it right, it's possible," she said. "But things can also get sloppy quickly."
For the humane slaughter of cattle, Grandin advocates the use of upright restraining equipment that keeps the animal still and helps ensure a clean, fast-acting cut to cow's neck. But she pointed out that such equipment is expensive, and that smaller, less high-volume and therefore lower-earning halal slaughterhouses might choose not to purchase any.
"It's legal to hang a cow up by its leg to restrain it," she said. "If you do that, you don't have to buy any special equipment."
That's the biggest problem with halal slaughterhouses, according to Grandin. Because no centralized authority exists to oversee conditions or rule definitively for or against pre-slaughter stunning, each plant is left to determine its own procedures. In the US, conventional slaughterhouses are monitored—however haphazardly—by the USDA, but halal and kosher slaughterhouses have been exempt from oversight from the federal agency since 1958, when the federal Humane Slaughter Act declared both traditions of ritual slaughter humane across the board.
"So it basically gets down to the attitude of that particular manager" to determine how each plant operates, including whether or not it employs pre-slaughter stunning, Grandin said.
While large slaughterhouses that supply big chains like McDonald's and Whole Foods have an incentive to avoid undue controversy and typically employ stunning as a safeguard against accusations of animal abuse, smaller plants tend to be more likely to cut corners, skipping stunning and the use of humane restraints to protect their bottom line, she said.
"It's in these very small plants that I've seen the worst messes. They can vary from good to terrible."
According to Dr. Najam Haider, a professor of Islam at Barnard College in New York, Muslims are divided on the issues of halal slaughter, and that makes it impossible for slaughterhouses, both in the US and abroad, to adhere to universal practices—because they don't exist.
"There's no standard position on stunning" in the Muslim community, Haider said. He noted that in Sunni Islam—the sect that about 85 percent of the world's Muslims adhere to—"the idea of stunning is looked down upon." And two of the world's most influential Shiite Muslims differ in their views on stunning, he said. Ali Al-Sistani, Iraq's Grand Ayatollah, is against the practice, while Ali Khameini, the Supreme Leader of Iran, permits it. With that kind of division within the international community of Muslims, Haider noted, it would be next to impossible to create any kind of central authority to oversee all halal slaughterhouses.
In many countries, outrage over halal practices can easily be interpreted as thinly veiled anti-Muslim sentiment.
In Europe, issues surrounding halal slaughter have been particularly hairy. Switzerland, Norway, Iceland, Sweden and Denmark have all banned no-stun religious slaughter, and in each instance local Jewish and Muslim communities have claimed that the bans are a form of prejudice against them.
"It's as much a political issue as it is a religious issue," Haider said. In many countries, outrage over halal practices can easily be interpreted as thinly veiled anti-Muslim sentiment. Haider cited the example of France, where a February 2012 television documentary on the French meat industry revealed that the majority of the abattoirs near Paris used halal methods to slaughter all animals, because doing so was cheaper than killing a portion of them conventionally. The revelation set off a frenzied nationalist debate, perhaps best encapsulated by the attitude of then-presidential candidate Marine Le Pen, who claimed that France was being crushed by an invading immigrant force.
"French secularism demands assimilation," Haider said. And when immigrant groups in France and other European countries appear to refuse to assimilate—by preserving practices that set them apart as "other"—debates over issues like halal butchery often tread dangerously close to racist territory.
On a day-to-day level, though, the intricacies of halal slaughtering methods—and how humane they are or aren't—probably don't concern most shoppers, Haider said.
"These issues don't filter down to average people. They want to know that the meat is halal, but they're not thinking about stunning," he said. "If you ask most Muslims, they won't even be aware of the issue."
Editor's note: The original version of this story stated that Midamar Corporation founder Bill Aossey Jr. was indicted on 19 felony counts for "allegedly scheming to export non-halal meat to Indonesia and Malaysia." Aossey Jr. was in fact indicted on charges of allegedly exporting fraudulently mislabeled meat.