“There is not an animal on earth, nor a bird that flies on its wings, but they are communities like you…” (Qur’an 6:38)
Over 10 billion animals are killed for food every year in the USA. The majority of them do not lead natural lives; they are raised, killed and processed with more of an eye on the bottom line than on the animal’s welfare. For the proponents of Halal food, we have to start asking ourselves how the animal lived, not just how it died.
One of the great challenges within the Halal movement is to maintain a balanced sense of priority. Letting the big things remain big, and keeping the small things small is not so easy in these times we live in. One could indeed argue that this applies to the application and practice of Islam throughout the world today. It is easy to lose a sense of proportion, get caught up in the details and lose the bigger picture altogether.
There is a tendency within the Halal movement in general to focus almost exclusively on the method of slaughter, and, undoubtedly, it is the critical factor that distinguishes Halal meat from all other types. However, if we overlook the issues surrounding the humane treatment of the animals that we eat, then surely we are really missing the point.
There is a default perception in many parts of the world that Halal is outdated, primitive and cruel. While we may all like to assume that this is down to either ignorance or ill-will, we need to accept that not enough has been done, from within the pro-Halal camp, to pro-actively change this perception.
When it comes to conversations about animal welfare, we tend to find ourselves on the defensive, and the primary reason for this is that we are simply not demonstrating the real concern for animals that is an inherent part of Islam.
Food manufacturing on an industrial scale has an inbuilt tendency to see animals as things rather than living creatures. They are the ‘raw material’ that goes into a finished product. Profitability becomes paramount, and any part of the process that does not directly contribute to the bottom line can be removed. Trim the fat.
The humane and compassionate handling of animals that are heading for the dinner table can all too easily fall into the category of things that do not contribute to the bottom line. Consumers want to pay a minimum, so food becomes a commodity where the producer with the lowest price wins. This is the default setting in our marketplace; but it is not the only option.
Over that past two decades, the inherent value of treating animals with kindness, even if – or especially if – you are going to eat them, has gained more traction with both customers and manufacturers.
There is a growing recognition that despite the economic imperatives of doing business, the humane treatment of animals is not only better for the animals and the products derived from them, but it can also be better business. This shift of values in the marketplace offers a unique opportunity for Halal food manufacturers to embody the inherent animal welfare component of Islam, and at the same time, turn it into added value for their products.
Getting Certified Humane
In 1998, former congressional staff member Adele Douglass recognised that the most effective means of changing abusive farming practices was through the market place, via consumer awareness and demand. People vote with their wallets every time they make a purchase, and as she puts it, “If people had any idea how their food was produced, they would not buy it.”
After travelling to the UK to meet representatives from the RSPCA’s Freedom Foods project (http://www.rspca.org.uk/freedomfood), she returned to tackle these issues in the US, and finally set up Humane Farm Animal Care and the Certified Humane programme in February 2003.
A decade further on, with a staff of five and an impressive scientific committee of twenty-five experts, including luminary Dr. Temple Grandin, the HFAC programme is established as the leading animal welfare label requiring humane treatment of farm animals from birth to slaughter.
The website at www.certifiedhumane.org provides a wealth of information, including comprehensive Standards for nine different animal types, policy manuals and slaughter standards, including sections on Halal and Kosher.
Response from the farming community has been positive. Consumers have become increasingly aware, not just about the welfare of the animals, but also of the improved quality of meat derived from animals that have lived natural lives. Less stress equals less adrenaline and other toxins in the meat. Shoppers can ease their conscience and their bodies at the same time.
From under 150,000 animals under the HFAC programme in 2003, 2011 saw over 25 million animals reared and handled according to the Certified Humane guidelines. Clearly the message is getting through to the market.
Customers like the products, and farmers, especially small independent producers, appreciate the niche that the HFAC programme gives them. It turns out that being kind to animals is good for business.
Halal and Humane
If you are looking for Certified Humane options for Halal, the choices are of course more limited. Some Halal producers, such as Crescent Foods and Saffron Road, have made a point of sourcing chickens from Amish farmers who bring a strong sense of ethics and morality into their farming practices. In accordance with their own beliefs, as well as ours, these farmers insist on vegetarian feed without the antibiotics, growth hormones and animal by-products found in most chicken feeds. They also allow the birds to live a life that is as natural as possible, roaming in barns without cages, and there is no doubt that all of this translates into a better tasting and healthier product
According to Adele Douglass, Murray’s Chickens in upstate New York is the only chicken farmer certified by the HFAC programme. Saffron Road’s strategy to source Certified Humane chicken from Murray’s has to be seen as a ground-breaking move, as it allows them to have the ‘Certified Humane’ logo on their Halal chicken range, the first time these two logos have appeared side by side.
It is hoped that this reflects a shift of awareness among the Muslim community, and is a sign that the focus is moving past the tunnel-vision of the slaughter process to take in the ‘tayyib’ aspect of what we are eating.
So why are there not more Halal producers taking the humane route? No doubt there is greater awareness and demand from mainstream consumers than there is from the Muslim community. But why? Why is the welfare of the animals we eat only of marginal interest to us? Why are we only concerned about how the animals have been slaughtered? What about the way they lived?
A recent poll on Halalfocus.com found that over 85% agreed with the statement that ‘the humane treatment of animals is an integral part of being Halal compliant’.
At a time when the spending power of the American Muslim customers is starting to be recognised, we need to widen our field of vision. We don’t want to suffer from the same dietary disorders and health problems that are associated with the fast-food culture. We have to want more than that, and as we in fact make a statement of our values every time we open our wallets, this is the moment to think again about what is really important to us.
Our Prophet has taught us that a good deed done to an animal is like a good deed done to a human being, while an act of cruelty to an animal is as bad as cruelty to a human being. While most of us would not treat an animal in a cruel manner, we may be unknowingly participating in cruelty by the foods we buy.
Concern for the creation –the air, the water, the earth– and the creatures that we share it with, are surely essential elements of our Deen. We cannot claim to be vice-regents on God’s earth if we are only concerned with ourselves.
Isn’t it time we broadened our horizons?