By Chaya Rappaport
Back in the 1950s, most American Orthodox Jews read food labels to determine if the food they were buying was kosher. They stayed away from foods with ingredients like gelatin and lard, which are derived from pigs. If the vegetable shortening was listed as pure, it qualified as kosher. Today, Orthodox Jews search for kosher symbols on food packages to determine if the food they are buying is kosher, because reading ingredients has become an inadequate method of determining a food’s kosher status – with globalization and new food technologies, consumers don’t recognize many of the ingredients. Substances like soy lecithin, a common ingredient in processed foods, are unfamiliar to many lay people, and processed foods can be contaminated with traces of other non-kosher products processed in the same plant. Organizations like the Orthodox Union and Star-K use their expertise in Jewish law and food technology to certify hundreds of thousands of products worldwide.
American Muslims are trying to develop their own rules for determining which foods conform to Islamic religious strictures. Food prepared under Islamic law is deemed halal, meaning lawful or permitted. The halal-certification industry began to develop in the 1990s, according to Maria Omar of the Islamic Food and Nutrition Council of America, an organization based in Chicago that was established 28 years ago and is recognized by Islamic organizations around the world.
Compared with the variety of foods deemed kosher, halal certification has still not made major inroads. There are 85 American and 33 non-American kashrut organizations – kashrut meaning expert in Jewish dietary law – listed on KosherQuest.org, the Web site of the Kosher Information Bureau. The Orthodox Union’s OU symbol is featured on more than 400,000 products in 80 countries worldwide. While 50 or 60 U.S. organizations are involved in halal certification, according to Soundvision.com, an Islamic media organization, the Islamic Food and Nutrition Council of America’s crescent M, halal-certification symbol appears on only 23,000 products.
Whether because of the relative dearth of halal products and restaurants or simply as an ingrained habit from the days when there were virtually no halal-certified foods, many American Muslims turn to kosher foods to satisfy their dietary laws. In fact, kosher and halal dietary laws are similar. Both kosher and halal ritual slaughter share similar requirements, like a sharp knife to enable the animal’s swift, relatively painless death, a contrast to the procedure in commercial meat-processing plants. Both involve draining the animal’s blood after slaughter. And both religions eschew the eating of pork. According to Mintel, a market research company, about 6 percent of sales of kosher food in the U.S. come from Muslim followers of halal.
However, some Muslim religious authorities disapprove of Muslims eating kosher. Not surprisingly, halal certifiers focus on the differences between halal and kosher laws, most notably the haram (forbidden) status of alcohol, which can be kosher. For example, a halal consumer may eat a kosher chocolate bar unaware of the haram liquor it contains. On its Web site, Islamic Services of America, a halal-certifier based in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, says, “If a product is kosher certified, it does not mean the product is automatically halal … halal and kosher are similar but yet as different as ‘vegetarian’ and ‘vegan.’”
Kosher meat raises different issues than kosher food in general. “The Mosaic Law governing the kosher slaughtering bears a stark resemblance to the Islamic method of halal slaughtering, although they are diametrically different in meaning and spirit,” declares ISWA Halal Certification. Unlike kosher slaughter, which requires a blessing, but not necessarily over each individual animal, halal slaughter requires bismillah, an act of worship that involves pronouncing Allah’s name over each animal before it is slaughtered.
“Q’uran, the Holy Book, mentions that Muslims are allowed to eat the slaughtering of People of the Book, Jews and Christians,” explains Imam Shamsi Ali of the Islamic Cultural Center of New York, adding that in the United States “we assume that most restaurants you would walk into, the food is okay, as long as it’s not pork, of course.”
But there is a difference of opinion among Muslim religious leaders as to whether the meat slaughtered by Jews and Christians, to be considered halal, must receive the bismillah. According to some leaders, it is sufficient for meat to receive an explicit blessing, though it need not be bismillah. In a debate posted on Cool Guy Muslim’s Blog, Sheikh Yasir Qadhi argues that this requirement is fulfilled by the blessing a Jewish slaughterer recites before the slaughter. Thus, he concludes, in contemporary America, “this verse applies to kosher meat and it doesn’t apply to a Big Mac,” because the meat slaughtered for a Big Mac does not receive a blessing.
Others say that the blessing given by a Jewish slaughterer does not fulfill the bismillah requirement because it is recited only once before a number of animals are slaughtered and not over every animal. By this view, kosher meat is not considered halal.
“No imam has given me a good, clear answer” as to the permissibility of kosher meat, says Abdul Siddiqui, a Muslim student at Baruch College. “I generally avoid strictly kosher.” As for other food items, Siddiqui says that he looks for a kosher symbol, and won’t buy a bag of chips without an OU. “I was brought up, if it hasn’t gone through the halal or kosher process, don’t touch it,” he says.
Before the proliferation of halal carts and butchers, religious Muslims had no choice but to slaughter meat themselves—or to buy from kosher butchers, which is what many chose to do. “I grew up eating kosher because halal was so rare,” says Shahed Amanullah, founder of zabihah.com, a guide to halal restaurants and products worldwide.
Today, Siddiqui says, “there’s always halal right nearby” and it is not necessary to resort to kosher meat, at least in cities like New York.
But not all Muslims trust that the word “halal” on a sign signifies that the food is truly halal. Unlike many kosher shops, most halal carts and delis do not have a certification to back up their claim. Mohammed and Hussain Aldahiri are Saudi Muslims who recently began promoting their deli in Flushing, Queens, as halal. They purchase their meat from a halal distributor in Brooklyn, but say that a halal certification is unnecessary.
“If it says halal on the cart, I believe them,” says Siddiqui. “However, simply because something is Pakistani or Indian, be it cart or restaurant, I will need either a certificate or their vocal confirmation that the food is indeed halal.”
Differing standards as to what constitutes halal also makes reliable halal certification tricky. “Muslims in North America and Europe are still not actively searching for a third-party certification symbol,” says Omar. “That is something we are trying to change in the public realm. Many Muslims will take a neighborhood butcher’s word on the halal status of meat, many perceive that there are no such agencies” that provide certification and many are unaware of the “large numbers of fraud or questionable halal certification present today.”
Some manufacturers self-certify or use certification agencies that are co-owned by the manufacturer, an obvious conflict of interest. There have been cases of certifications being issued without any inspection or regulation. “The lack of standards is a large issue in the industry,” says Omar. Though a few states have halal consumer protection laws, “they have never been used even once,” says Omar.
Despite all the debate in academic and scholarly circles, “most Muslims I know consider it an acceptable alternative,” says Amanullah of kosher rules.
At a time when the adherents of these two ancient religions are in conflict in so many parts of the world, the fact that many Muslims in the U.S. rely on kosher certification for their daily sustenance is no small irony. As Mohamed Shahadat Hussein, a Bangladeshi fruit stand vendor at Park Ave South and East 23rd Street, says: “Kosher, halal is the same thing.”