A regional government in Austria recently proposed that people buying halal or kosher meat should have to register with authorities. There have been periodic “scares” in Britain over customers being sold unlabeled halal meat. Until a constitutional court overturned it, Poland imposed a ban on halal and kosher slaughter. The party platform of the far-right Alternative for Germany includes a similar provision.
The argument in some cases has been driven by animal rights activists. In others, the debate is more about the perceived quality of the meat. And often underlying it all are essential questions of identity and belonging.
For meat to be classified as halal — meaning, broadly, permissible according to Islam — the animal in question must be slaughtered in a certain way: with a sharp incision to the front of the throat, and with a blessing.
It is similar to kosher slaughter practices that comply with Jewish dietary law, although the two religions have different rules about what parts of an animal may be eaten.
The fight over animal rights centers on whether halal slaughter is more or less humane than other practices.
In Europe, there has been a movement — enshrined in European Union law — to require that animals be stunned before they are killed, so that they are unconscious and do not feel pain or distress. Exceptions can be granted, however, for religious practice. And critics charge that halal slaughter causes unnecessary suffering at the time of death.
Defenders note that many animals slaughtered according to halal practice in Europe — including more than 84 percent of halal slaughter in Britain — are, in fact, pre-stunned, which is widely considered acceptable if done in a way that an animal can be returned to normal consciousness. (By contrast, kosher slaughter prohibits stunning.)
Islamic traditions also pay specific attention to animal well-being — not only at the moment of death but throughout life. Animals are not to be caged or abused. No animal should have to suffer the distress of seeing another animal killed. And the knife used for slaughter should be as sharp as possible, with the idea that a swift, precise cut minimizes pain.
For some Muslim consumers, halal products signal ethical production that other meats may not have undergone. “It’s understood that they have certain attitudes,” said Bogac Ergene, a historian at the University of Vermont who co-wrote “Halal Food: A History.” “It’s a comfort for a Muslim to see some kind of halal packaging.”
That comfort may in some cases be misplaced. In France, for instance, multiple halal certifiers exist, and each abides by its own practices and standards, although all are based on religious sources. “Any observer can enter the market,” said Yasser Louati, a Muslim community organizer. “We don’t know how they set their standards; it’s unclear even for the consumers themselves.”
As the global market for halal meats has grown, a number of producers have turned to factory farming. And undercover videos have revealed mistreatment at certain halal slaughterhouses.
But halal’s defenders say those cases point to systemic problems within the industry rather than problems specific to halal, and they suggest that animal rights activists are somewhat cynical in their focus on halal.
“They need some victories and the easiest way to get them is to focus on soft targets, i.e., targets which are marginal in terms of volume,” Fetallah Otmani, managing director of AVS, France’s largest halal certifier, said in an interview published this year in the organization’s newsletter. “Besides, it’s an even more interesting target as anything related to Islam is likely to receive greater political and media attention.”
Another line of resistance to halal meats relates to quality. Although there is little about the method of slaughter that should affect taste, there is an impression in some quarters that halal products are inferior — the sort of food you might get from a shawarma cart on the street as opposed to a fine restaurant. In France, insistence on halal meats is seen
by some as a rejection of the centuries-old artisanal traditions that have helped to establish the nation’s gastronomic superiority. Some reports have claimed that the halal market is like a clearance sale, offering “old animals, especially sheep, past their usefulness” and “animals whose physical characteristics exclude them from standard marketing channels.”
These are myths that the brothers who run Les Jumeaux have had to push against.
“I am Muslim. I am an Arab. But I am also producing products of quality,” said Slim Loumi of Les Jumeaux, noting that the shop produces the same kind of brochettes and blanquettes de veau beloved by many French customers. “We are 100 percent halal, but we really are artisanal, and in the French tradition.”
But perhaps most of all, halal has been a source of controversy in Western Europe because, for some, the designation is synonymous with cultural self-segregation and “Islamization.” This is especially the case in France, a staunchly secular society, where dietary restrictions that come from religious dictates are often seen as undermining the ties that bind all citizens.
Hakim El Karoui, an adviser to French President Emmanuel Macron and a proponent of further assimilation, has reinforced this view, arguing that eating halal products is not so much a religious requirement as it is a “social marker” and a sign of “the penetrations of Islamist behaviors.” He further notes that Islamic groups make significant earnings by selling and certifying halal meat, and he proposes instead that France “run the cult.”
Among the most explosive topics are public school cafeterias and whether French republican values permit observant Muslim and Jewish students to skip weekly pork offerings in favor of “substitution meals.”
On the right side of the political spectrum, the answer has been a resounding “non.” This year, Julien Sanchez, the far-right mayor of Beaucaire, in southern France, outlawed alternatives to pork in local schools. “My decision is so that the republic wins, that in France the republic has priority and not religion,” Sanchez told The Washington Post in January.
The center-right Mayor Nicole Goueta in the Paris suburb of Colombes has launched a crusade against halal establishments, insisting that businesses cater to all customers rather than a select few. One small grocery that did not sell pork or alcohol was forced to close.
Rodizio Brazil, a halal churrascaria, has managed to resist the mayor’s demand to start serving alcohol — but has been repeatedly denied a permit for a lucrative outside terrace, according to its proprietor.
“Why do you want me to serve alcohol in this establishment? If I rent an apartment, it would be the same thing as demanding I keep cheese in my fridge when I don’t like cheese,” said Mohammed Boucherit, 36.
For halal butchers and, further down the supply chain, restaurant proprietors such as Boucherit, the halal issue — if there even is an issue — is hardly about identity. In communities with large Muslim populations, it is a basic economic calculation.
In Colombes, Boucherit said, roughly 70 percent of the community buys halal meat. “There’s a very strong demand,” he said. “As a businessman, why would I do something counter to the market?”
If, for some, halal represents an example of the failure of Muslim assimilation, it also contains the potential for greater integration, through products that are available to all.
When it is marketed as “wholesome, healthy, ethical and nutritious, halal can have meaning beyond the Muslim community,” said Febe Armanios, the other co-author of “Halal: A History” and a historian at Middlebury College.
“For us, what matters is quality,” Loumi said. “We are open to everybody.”