By M. Scott Bortot - Staff Writer
Washington - America's Muslim community is starting to go organic.
Businesses that prepare organic halal meat - meat prepared in keeping with the dietary practices of Islam - say Muslim Americans are following a nationwide trend of opting for chemical-free, natural food sources.
But while the tendency to eat organic meat is growing, those involved in the budding industry say barriers remain before it fully takes root with Muslim Americans.
Perhaps the biggest challenge to spreading the organic halal message is in educating Muslim Americans about its benefits. Yasir Syeed, co-founder of online organic halal meat market Green Zabiha ( http://www.greenzabiha.com/ ), says many Americans, Muslims included, buy meat from grocery stores without thinking about its origins.
"There is a lot of education that needs to take place about this in the Muslim community," Syeed says, "because a lot people honestly just don't know where the meat is coming from."
Syeed, who started seeking organic halal meat after his children were born, says most meat in America comes from factory farms. Many meat and poultry businesses feed hormones and antibiotics to their animals. Syeed says this makes meat raised in these conditions unhealthy.
Apparently, many Americans agree.
The latest information from the U.S.-based Organic Trade Association says sales of organic products in the U.S., both food and nonfood, reached $24.6 billion at the end of 2008, a 17.1 percent rise over 2007.
Although the organic business is growing, organic halal meat farmer Zaid Kurdieh says high prices for organic products impede further industry growth. Kurdieh, who owns Norwich Meadows Farm in New York state and sells organic poultry, says high prices make it difficult for him to compete.
"When somebody can go buy what is called a halal bird at the regular market for $1.29 a pound when you charge $4.00 to $4.50 a pound, they accuse you of trying to rip them off or of making exorbitant profits," Kurdieh says.
An industrial system, Kurdieh says, is his competition in the poultry business.
"You have huge buildings that house anywhere from 25,000 to 1,000,000 birds, everything is automated, very little manual labor. It is a factory process," Kurdieh says. "Under those conditions, you can produce chickens really, really cheap."
Organic meat is also pricier because natural feed costs almost twice as much as conventional feed.
Despite the hurdles, Kurdieh says interest in organic halal meat keeps growing.
"Right now, we really can't meet the demand," he says, adding that although Muslim customers are increasing, most of his clientele for meat is Jewish.
For Syeed and Kurdieh, halal is more than a ritual way of slaughtering an animal. Kurdieh last year began raising goats, lambs and beef organically for halal slaughter but soon abandoned the effort for humane and religious reasons.
"The big issue is that when the animal meets its maker, when it is sacrificed, it has to be done in a proper way, and a lot of Muslims who are slaughtering the animals right now don't do it in a proper way," Kurdieh says.
A slaughterhouse Kurdieh refused to use hangs up live lambs by driving a shackle through their ankles before slitting their throats.
"You are supposed to put it at ease at the time of death, not under duress, under extreme duress," Kurdieh says.
Like Kurdieh, for Syeed the halal process is about the whole life of the animal. Syeed says Islam teaches that animals must be treated well because they are created by God.
"What this is really about is restoring sacredness," Syeed says. "It is the idea that these animals, from a Muslim perspective, have a certain sacredness about them."
Muslims from the Baltimore and Washington area flock to Joseph Kavanagh's lamb and goat processing facility, Lambco LLC. Kavanagh's small plant caters to religious cultural groups, including halal for Muslims and kosher for Jews.
Although Lambco technically is not an organic operation, animals for slaughter come from local farms that do not use hormones and antibiotics. Lambco is recommended by the U.S.A. Halal/Zabiha Certification Association.
"Every month is better than the month before," Kavanagh said. "And it's strictly a word-of-mouth business."
As Kavanagh's business expands locally, Syeed's Green Zabiha is growing nationally and internationally. Syeed's new overseas market is a sign of the potential of organic halal meat as a business. In America, he is growing operations in California from his Virginia base to provide local meat, rather than ship it cross-country.
"I tell this to famers all the time. I say, 'The best friends of these grass-fed, pasture-raised farms moving forward are going to be Muslims,'" Syeed says. "In our tradition, it is so emphatic about the importance of eating pure and halal."
(by the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State)