The eco-halal revolution
Clean food for Muslims
November 4, 2009
On a brisk November day, Zaid Kurdieh is busy ensuring his chickens are comfortable. With temperatures well below freezing and snow on its way, Kurdieh — an organic farmer in the upstate New York town of Norwich — is moving his flock from open pasture to a heated greenhouse.
“They will simply collapse under the weight of the snow,” he says, with the concern of a worried father.
Raised on organic feed supplemented with organic vegetables, greens, and what they find scurrying through the pasture, the chickens may miss the bountiful surroundings of warmer months. But with the icy spell and frozen ground, they no doubt appreciate the toasty environment of their new home.
With the birds safe inside, Kurdieh turns to his next task. Tomorrow is market day, and he still has to prepare chickens for sale at the Union Square farmers' market in Manhattan. In the slaughtering facility on his 35-acre farm, Kurdieh lifts chickens collected by his workers the previous day and places them into a series of metal cones. They hang upside down with their wings folded back, their heads and their necks exposed.
One of Zaid Kurdieh’s free-roaming chickens.
Up till now, Kurdieh’s routine has been similar to those of other small-scale organic chicken farmers. But his next action sets him apart. With a razor-sharp knife, he slits the birds’ necks one by one with a single, decisive cut, each time quietly reciting a blessing.
Kurdieh is Muslim, and the chickens he slaughters are halal, or slaughtered according to Islamic tenets. Meat sold as halal is permissible for Muslims to consume. If a meat product is free from pork, which the Koran forbids, and if it has been ritually slaughtered in the zabihah way — a process governed by a set of precise rules set down by Islamic law and tradition — it meets the basic criteria for being halal.
Most Muslims believe that consuming meat that meets this requirement fulfills the onus placed on them by their religion toward this part of their diet. Where the meat comes from and how it was reared is largely considered irrelevant.
But not for Kurdieh. He interprets Islam in a way that renders the environment and the manner in which an animal is raised from birth until death paramount. For him, it’s not enough that the meat is emblazoned with a halal certification stamp. He believes that food should be produced according to the the complex and often neglected Islamic principle of tayyib, which he defines as meaning “wholesome” and “pure.”
This concept, Kurdieh says, is the foundation upon which he has constructed his ethos toward food. That his chickens are fed on a purely natural diet, allowed to grow at a healthy rate, and given bug-filled pastures to explore are as crucial for him as the “Bismallah Allah-u-Akbar” he whispers before that final cut.
And Kurdieh is not alone. He is part of a growing movement of Muslims seeking to revolutionize the production and supply of halal meat in the U.S. This drive for a more transparent and environmentally sound approach to halal meat reflects the natural juncture of Islamic dietary principles and the increasingly popular but almost entirely secular sustainable-food movement sweeping across the country.
Halal goes industrial
Of the eight million Muslims in the United States, 40 percent buy halal meat. But until the early 1990s, it was still relatively difficult for those Muslims to buy halal meat commercially. Today, however, the number of U.S. businesses that supply Muslim grocers and even some non-Muslim supermarkets with mass-processed halal meat products, such as chicken nuggets and hot dogs, is growing; according to industry experts, the halal market now is valued at $16 billion per year.
Kurdieh argues that the meat products these businesses retail to the Muslim community defy the natural order of life, directly contravening the wholesome and pure principles dictated by tayyib. He’s appalled, for example, by the fact that feed given to commercially raised chickens legally contains animal byproducts such as ground animal meal and dehydrated blood.
“Chickens are not vegetarian by nature,” he admits. “Watch a group of chickens running around; if a mouse passes though them, they devour it. That’s natural. But it’s another thing to feed them other dead chickens, or pig flesh. A chicken is not naturally going to find a pig and eat it!”
Certification boards have matched the growth of the American halal industry. The 80 or so current certification boards in the U.S. — such as the Islamic Food and Nutrition Council of America (IFANCA) — charge companies fees to undertake audits of production facilities and inspect documentation on products and manufacturing. The products of certified companies bear a symbol meant to reassure Muslim consumers that these items fully comply with Islamic dietary laws.
IFANCA guarantees that the meat it certifies comes from animals raised on “clean food” or vegetarian diets for the last part of their lives. (Before this period, there is no restriction on feed containing animal byproducts.) Dr. Muhammad Chaudry, the president of IFANCA, says he’s satisfied that this final period of cleansing complies with the precepts of Islam. As evidence, he tells the story of an animal in Islamic tradition that fed on filth but was considered halal and fit to eat after it had been purged over a period of time.
Chaudry stresses that there are no mandates in Islam asking Muslims to abstain from commercially raised livestock. “My definition of tayyib may be different from his definition,” he says when presented with Kurdieh’s point of view.
Using any method other than intensive farming, says Chaudry, is unrealistic on a large scale. “There is no way that you can feed the seven billion people in the world by free range any more,” he argues. “We would become vegetarians, and certainly we would then run out of vegetables also.”
But Kurdieh thinks otherwise. He studied agriculture and business at the universities of Wyoming and South Dakota and worked for Cornell University’s cooperative extension program, helping farmers set up business plans, before starting his own farm in 1998. Fifteen years ago, he became so disillusioned by the provenance of commercially available halal meat that he vowed not to feed himself or his family meat that he had not sourced and slaughtered personally. And in 2006, he decided to extend this service to his customers and the wider Muslim community.
“When we thought about what livestock to raise, we decided on chicken, because it is the worst type of meat you can buy,” he explains.
One man’s meat
Meanwhile, a handful of other young, professional American Muslims, equally frustrated by the lack of transparency in the commercial halal meat industry and by the intensive farming methods these enterprises support, began trying to build an alternative halal food system based on a local economy of farmers and growers.
In 2004, 34-year-old Yasir Syeed, who lives in north Virginia and works as a sales and marketing executive, started looking into where his food was coming from.
“It is not about just about eating what has been slaughtered correctly,” he says. “God sets the bar much higher. It is also about eating what’s good and pure.”
After seeing a video on factory farming, he decided that he no longer wanted to feed himself or his young family meat raised in this way. In part, this decision was born out of concern for their own health. But more significantly, he was appalled at the treatment of livestock in that environment.
“I feel that every piece of meat has a story, and I’m the final chapter. I want that story where the animal had a life that was pleasurable at the very least,” he says.
For Syeed, all this resonated strongly with the principles of Islam, particularly on the importance of animal welfare, which he says is addressed recurrently in the Koran and reflected in the profound mercy extended by the Prophet Mohammad toward animals in numerous instances.
Reading Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma was pivotal for Syeed. He was particularly struck by how the increasingly commercial organic-food industry seemed strikingly similar to factory farming in terms of how its livestock was treated. So even when Syeed found organic halal meat in the freezer cabinets of local Muslim grocery stores, he didn’t feel satisfied that it met his criteria of how meat should be raised.
So he called up several small-scale farmers in Virginia whose operations he had vetted online. He explained that he would like to personally hand-select livestock that he would slaughter himself in the zabihah way and have the farms butcher the meat for him.
Some were more responsive than others. One farmer turned him down definitively after discussing the proposition with his pastor. “I told him I wasn’t going to be throwing blood around or anything,” Syeed recalls with a laugh. Nonetheless, the farmer said that he felt uncomfortable having someone of a different religion carry out the slaughter.
Syeed soon struck up a relationship with Polyface Farm in Swoope, Virginia. He went there regularly and, on his return, doled out convenient packs of pre-cut meat to friends and relatives.
Requests began to pile up. Two years ago, Syeed decided to partner with the farm, turning his expeditions into a side business that, he hopes, will one day become a full-time enterprise. He set up a website through which people could place their orders, and Green Zabiha was born.
Through word of mouth, recommendations from friends, and by sending out emails to the listserv of an online community of young environmentally savvy Muslims in Washington, D.C., called D.C. Green Muslims, Syeed has accumulated about 100 regular customers, many of whom placed orders in September for free-range, organic Thanksgiving turkeys.
In 2001, the Muslim arm of a Chicago-based interfaith organization, Faith in Place, which works with religious congregations to promote sustainable farming, formed a grassroots cooperative. Local Muslim groups had been asking for meat that was tayyib as well as halal and zabihah.
“Our products are tayyib because we ensure that animals are treated with humanity, raised in respectful environments, and fed a natural diet free from antibiotics, hormones, and other such additives,” the organization promises on its website.
Turkeys at the Kurdieh farm.
Qaid Hassan, who now manages the cooperative, was a volunteer for the community-based business before he joined the staff. Unlike conventional co-ops, members don’t have to pay a membership fee; they simply order specific cuts of chicken, lamb, turkey, and beef from the website or over the phone. The meat is then shipped directly to individual members, or to group drop-off sites.
Hassan sources the meat directly from a local farmer about an hour south of Chicago, who raises all his animals on open pasture. “We brokered a good relationship because he was interested in reaching out to the Muslim community,” says Hassan. “He understood that there were specific mandates embedded in Islamic law about the slaughter of meat, and he was committed to re-setting the local food system.”
A halal CSA
At the farmers’ market, as the last of his customers rifle through the remaining medley of organic produce, Zaid Kurdieh receives a call on his cell phone from a young Muslim woman he does not know. Candice Elam and her husband live in Union City, in northern New Jersey. Since finding out that she is expecting their first child, Elam has become increasingly concerned about the quality and provenance of their food. Though they already belong to a local cooperative that distributes organic, locally grown vegetables and fruits and cage-free organic eggs, Elam wants to ensure that their meat is also raised and slaughtered according to the same sustainable principles. Having heard about Kurdieh’s organic halal chickens, Elam hopes they can work together to start a CSA supplying her local Muslim community with meat.
Kurdieh listens to her ambitious plans with interest; after all, he was already seriously considering raising lamb, goat, and even cattle on his farm. But his reaction is not the one she had expected.
“The average Muslim is not interested in where their meat comes from,” says Kurdieh, shrugging his shoulders. “They don’t know where it comes from and they don’t want to know. All they care about is that it is cheap.”
And so his response to Elam was a cautious one, warning her that it would be difficult to convince local Muslims to pay more than three times the price of a standard chicken from the local halal butcher.
Kurdieh isn’t pessimistic, just pragmatic. “It’s better that they are self-educated, because otherwise they question whether I’m telling them the truth or simply pulling their legs to peddle something,” he says about trying to convince fellow Muslims to avoid industrial meat. Given enough time and activist Muslims, he muses as darkness slowly falls over Union Square, the mainstream halal industry will eventually conform to sustainable principles.
A goat on Zaid Kurdieh’s farm.
The seed of such a transition is perhaps being planted not all that far away. In a converted garage in nearby Queens, Imran Uddin, a 27-year-old Muslim who runs a popular halal slaughterhouse, is putting the finishing touches on his new USDA-approved processing plant.
Three years ago, Uddin abandoned an advertising career to take over his father’s slaughterhouse in Ozone Park. Providing New Yorkers with pasture-raised, free-range halal goat, lamb, chicken, and such exotic poultry as pheasant and quail — all of which he slaughters on site — Uddin is uncompromising when it comes to upholding the ethical standards he feels are set definitively by his faith. He frequently visits the farms in Pennsylvania and Texas where he sources his poultry and livestock.
Up till now, Uddin’s business, Madani Halal, has only sold freshly slaughtered meat directly to customers. But from his new $3 million processing facility, just steps away from his slaughterhouse, Uddin will slaughter, process, and package halal chicken cuts for retail in halal stores and mainstream supermarkets along the East Coast and beyond. Uddin aspires to take his sustainable, ethical practices to the wider commercial stage, setting a precedent for other halal meat businesses to follow.
Uddin believes that the many problems endemic to the commercial halal meat industry have come about because many of the businesses are non-Muslim owned. For him, the only way for Muslims to ensure that their meat correctly fulfills the precepts of Islam is to take control of their own food system.
“If I went into the kosher industry, I’d be shut down in a second,” Uddin argues. “This is my obligation, my responsibility.”
Ten months after taking that phone call from Elam, Kurdieh is just two weeks away from his first delivery of organic, pasture-raised halal lamb, goat, and chicken to the nascent Al-Ma’ida CSA that Elam is still struggling to organize.
Neither can remember whether it was Kurdieh who softened to the idea or Elam who convinced him of the need for such an initiative, but both agree that their meeting at the Brooklyn Food Conference in April cemented their joint commitment to the project. As Kurdieh predicted, the challenge of transforming enthusiastic supporters into paying members of the CSA has been a sobering process; so far, the CSA only has 12 members.
But Kurdieh is undeterred. He’s got more on his mind right now: whether his lamb will be ready for slaughter in time for that first delivery.