North American Muslims have in recent years seen the number of Islamic-oriented food stores double in number. Drive down Dundas Street in Mississauga, Canada, or take a stroll through Dearborn, Michigan and you will see nearly hundreds of halal food and meat stores festooning the area. 13 years ago, New Jersey for example, became the first state to pass a consumer protection law that specifically deals with issues of halal food. The law established guidelines that sellers and distributors must follow when labeling foods as halal. Living an Islamic way of life, it seemed, was becoming easier in North America.
That perception may have been shattered by a series of events in late May, which until now were virtually undiscovered and kept under wraps.
Mad Cow Disease in Canada
In 2003 Canadian authorities announced that an eight-year old Alberta cow had fallen to bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), otherwise known as Mad Cow Disease. Canada's Agriculture Minister, Lyle Vanclief, immediately went into damage control to assert that the Alberta cow would not be allowed into the food chain. Thousands of cows and other livestock were subsequently destroyed throughout Canada while Japan, the United States and other countries slapped an import ban on Canadian meat products.
While scientific research suggests that one in every million cows may develop BSE sporadically when brain proteins become toxic, the outbreak of BSE in Britain in the late 1980s was attributed to improper feeding practices -- cows and other livestock were fed the remains of other farm animals.
When humans ingest meat from an animal with BSE, they contract the human form of the disease, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, and suffer paralysis and death.
Since 1997, Canada has banned the feeding of rendered protein products from ruminant animals (cattle, sheep, goats, bison, elk or deer) to other animals. Farm feed that is prohibited to livestock and ruminant animals is marked 'Do not feed to cattle, sheep, deer or other ruminants'.
The prospect of BSE in Canadian livestock and the quarantine of several thousand heads of cattle have raised alarm bells in Muslim communities throughout Canada. While the halal standard monitored and adjudicated the slaughter of cattle according to strict Islamic principles, there has been to date no formalized mechanism to monitor feeding practices.
Animal Feeding in Islam
Many Muslims are in fact not even aware that halal classification, according to the Quran, goes beyond merely monitoring the proper method of animal slaughter.
In accordance with strict Islamic law and guidelines, a slaughtered animal is considered halal when its feed is also considered halal; feed therefore plays an important role in halal classification. Feed for animals must be from a vegetable source; no meat feed is allowed.
Furthermore, the now popularly-administered growth hormones are not allowed because they are made with pork-based material. The prevalent method of stunning should be avoided. Blood must also be fully drained from the slaughtered animal.
Sheikh Ahmad Kutty, a Canadian Islamic scholar, says that the issue of proper feeding of livestock never occurred to him or other Islamic institutions prior to the BSE outbreak.
"This issue provides a challenge for us Muslims to ensure that our Islamic standards are enforced not only in slaughtering animals but also, even more importantly, in the way they are bred and treated," he told this writer.
Kutty charged that feeding is a central issue and should take precedence over other matters of contention regarding what may be considered halal.
"[Feeding] is far more crucial and important from a shari'ah point of view than the customary issues often raised by the Muslims such as machine slaughter versus hand slaughter; stunning or not stunning or whether one can eat what is slaughtered by people of the book (Christians, Jews, and Sabaeans)," he explained.
California-based Ahmad Sakr, professor emeritus of Food Science and author of "Understanding Halal Food" and "A Muslim Guide to Food Ingredients" recently told soundvision.com that some halal meats may actually not be halal at all, primarily because of what the animal is fed.
"Islam dictates that if an animal has received meat and/or blood while it was halal, it becomes haram and in order to become Halal you have to put that animal in a quarantine area for 40 days before you slaughter it to make it Halal," Sakr said.
Have Muslim communities taken any steps to monitor feeding practices?
"This is beyond our control, it is a government issue and they regulate feeding practices," says Ehsan Sairally, Canadian representative of the Islamic Food and Nutrition Council of America (IFANCA).
Sairally urged Muslim communities in Ontario not to confuse the issue of BSE with halal, pointing out that BSE has struck only one cow in North America (Alberta) to date. He stressed that Ontario beef and meats were safe and fully halal, citing differing legislation between Ontario and Alberta, where the BSE disease was first detected.
Animal Feed Not Safe in North America
However, Canada and the United States secretly allow dead animals to be fed to live ones, some quarters charge. A 10-year old Washington Post report said that there were loopholes that allowed some dead animals to be ground up and fed to livestock. The 1997 ban does not prevent proteins from dead animals to be fed to poultry, hogs and pigs.
On May 28, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) reported that "meat and bone meal potentially containing material from the infected cow was used in the production of dog food. There is no risk to human health from handling this product."
Three quarantined British Columbia farms under "ongoing animal feed investigation" will have their livestock (60 animals) depopulated (destroyed) because "it could not conclusively be determined that ruminant animals on these premises were not inadvertently exposed to poultry feed".
"We [Muslims] are allowed only to feed cattle and livestock diets that are natural for them as a species, not bits of animals or diets made of animal fats," says Sheikh Kutty.
BSE will likely open up a whole new area for debate in Canada's Muslim community, which have until recently focused exclusively on slaughter methods in determining whether meats are halal.