What's Halal about Food?
Issue 100 January 2013
The halal food industry is worth billions, yet it is poor in quality. Sarah Joseph asserts that food in the Muslim lifestyle must be wholesome, not just lawful.
“O mankind! Eat of that which is lawful and wholesome in the earth, and follow not the footsteps of the devil.” 2:168
Lawful and wholesome—“halal wa tayyab”. The Qur’an is clear. It would seem to me however, that we spend a lot of time discussing the former, but rarely the latter. Perhaps we feel that if the food we eat is declared halal, it will inevitably be wholesome. Perhaps we do not care whether it is wholesome.
The halal food industry is reportedly worth $2.1 trillion, with an annual growth of $500 billion. It is big business, but what does that really mean for consumers? At emel, we believe the Muslim lifestyle perspective requires us to ask some tough questions. Can we industrialise our food chain and still eat wholesomely? Is a halal chicken McNugget an oxymoron? If ‘we are what we eat’, then are we a community of fat, fear-ridden automatons addicted to chemicals?
Due to the explosion of junk food in Muslim societies, traditional diets are being replaced by “halal” McDonalds, KFCs, and Burger Kings. However, if one begins to look at the ingredients and the production chain behind some of the global brands, whilst the animals’ throats may have been slit, the blood drained, and the bismillah recited, it is difficult to see how they are wholesome. Chicken nuggets, for example, are generally made with mechanically separated meat. So, once the good parts of the chicken such as the breasts and legs have been removed, the skin and carcass—including the offal and connective tissues—are ground up. The paste—referred to as white slime—then has a variety of ingredients added to it, such as hydrogenated soybean oil with TBHQ, and dimethylpolysiloxane (DMPS)—used as an antifoaming agent. TBHQ is a petroleum derivative used as a stabiliser in perfumes, resins and varnishes. Laboratory studies have linked it to stomach tumours. DMPS is a type of silicone used in sealants, as filler for breast implants, and in head lice preparations. Yummy!
Such information is readily available, but our scholars continue to sign off products as halal, and we, as consumers, continue to demand “halal” fast food for our families. When a “halal” McDonald's opened in a heavily populated Muslim area in Detroit, USA, the demand for McNuggets was double that of an average McDonald’s in America, spawning yet more “halal” branches. We want our children to be happy with their Happy Meals, but we appear less concerned with their health.
One can blame the corporations; however, the food chains of many of the Muslim community’s own companies are flawed. We are churning out our own varieties of nuggets, sausages, and cold meats, which follow similar production processes to the global chains. We are not offering a greater vision for halal in the 21st century.
The problem is not confined to processed food, however. When purchasing a chicken at my local halal butcher, I often find the bird has a wing or leg broken, or the meat is bruised. The butcher explains that when the abattoir mass-slaughters several thousand birds, the chickens flap around when they are unstunned. This leads to the broken wings and legs, and bruising. He assures me that this is not a problem, and that I should be grateful that the slaughter process is “fully halal” given that it follows “the sunnah of being unstunned”. The sunnah however was not to slaughter thousands of birds in a brutal mechanised process. In addition to broken bones and bruising, if an animal dies in the midst of experiencing the death of its fellows, the stress hormones it releases are multiplied. This invariably affects the content of the meat. Do we really want to ingest the flesh of an animal that died in fear and pain?
The Muslim community consumes huge amounts of meat. In the UK, whilst making up approximately 3% of the population, Muslims consume over 20% of the mutton. There are also increasing health problems. Obesity, heart diseases, strokes, and diabetes all disproportionally affect Muslims. These health problems are food and lifestyle related.
There are beacon Muslim companies springing forth. The work of Lutfi Radwan and his family at Willowbrook Farm (www.willowbrookorganic.org), for example, demonstrate that it is possible even in the modern age to have organic farms which rear free-range animals that are then hand slaughtered. The problem is that their relatively small-scale set-up invariably means they are a more expensive option, and generally people are not prepared to put their money where their ideals are. Instead of deciding to consume the expensive meat less often, we simply choose the cheaper mass-produced product.
In the Qur’an, the Merciful is not putting forward an option about lawful and wholesome. The ‘and’ in between is important. Yet it would seem that “wholesome” has become redundant. This has to change. We have to begin to see halal and tayyab, lawful and wholesome, as indivisible injunctions. There has to be a food movement from the Muslim consumer. Muslims have to seriously question what we eat. Our scholars have to stop signing off products as “halal” based upon a reductionist understanding of the moment of slaughter. They have to start asking broader questions about ingredients, processes, chemicals, hormones, and farming, in order to protect the health and wellbeing of future generations.
Increasingly, our food is becoming devoid of nutritional value, yet we are consuming ever-increasing quantities. We are becoming overfed but undernourished, obese but nutrient-deficient. By returning to home-cooked meals, using wholesome ingredients, we can potentially save ourselves and our children, from the nutrient abyss that we are staring into. Food from a Muslim lifestyle perspective cannot simply be about a halal sign; it has to be a considered understanding of the food chain and our place within it.
The Islamic world was once exporters of the finest scientific ideas, goods, and social philosophy. We must not now become importers of junk.