Little regulation of halal causes confusion over certification

Cedar Rapids' Midamar case quickly becoming example

A Cedar Rapids police officer on scene at MidAmar, an international food supplied based in southwest Cedar Rapids on Wed
A Cedar Rapids police officer on scene at MidAmar, an international food supplied based in southwest Cedar Rapids on Wednesday, October 17, 2012. (Christy Aumer/The Gazette)

A Cedar Rapids food distributor thatís had $454,000 seized by federal agents believes the government might be concerned its halal products arenít processed according to religious laws.

But what constitutes certification by Islamic law isnít clear, some agricultural and food law experts said.

Some suggest Midamar Corp.ís own certification represents a conflict of interest.

There is no national regulation of halal or kosher foods, with the U.S. Department of Agriculture requiring only that food with halal labels ďbe handled according to Islamic law and under Islamic authority.Ē

Foods labeled kosher or halal also must be certified by a ďthird-party authority.Ē

This relatively hands-off policy has caused private certifying groups to spring up across the United States, said Adam Soliman, an agricultural economist and lawyer who specializes in food law. Certifying groups use varying standards, leaving Muslim consumers in doubt about their food.

ďI see the labels when I go to the butcher, but Iím not 100 percent sure itís halal,Ē Soliman said.

Midamar is certified by the Islamic Services of America (ISA), which the Midamar website describes as the ďleading Halal Certification body in the United States and North America.Ē Midamar does not say that ISA is registered to Midamar Director Jalel Aossey and shares offices with the food supplier.

ďItís definitely a conflict of interest,Ē Soliman said.

Midamar officials disagree.

ďThe fact that Midamar was founded by Bill Aossey in 1972 and that ISA was founded by Bill Aossey and other individuals in 1975 only proves the American spirit of entrepreneurism and community service was soundly grounded and developed in Iowa,Ē Jalel Aossey said in a statement.

Jennifer Williams Zwagerman, a Drake University law professor, said itís not illegal for a food producer to be connected to its certifying body.

ďWhile it is always ideal for certifying entities to be completely separate and removed from those they certify, I donít know that there is a requirement that it be so,Ē she said. ďIt also may raise the appearance of a conflict, but there may not be one.Ē

More important is that the certifiers establish clear criteria and hold all suppliers to the same standards, she said.

ISA requires a company seeking certification to submit an application that includes slaughtering techniques, ingredient lists and facility details. ISA also does a facility audit, the groupís website states.

Midamar, which produces only halal products, requires turkey, beef, lamb, duck and unprocessed chicken to be hand slaughtered, according to spokeswoman Sara Sayed. Processed chicken products, such as nuggets and patties, are machine-slaughtered because of the high volume and production requirements, she said.

Most Muslims agree on the basics of halal slaughter:

  • An animal must be alive before slaughter.
  • A sharp knife must be used to cut the animalís throat.
  • The animalís blood must be drained before processing.
  • The slaughterer must say a blessing before killing the animal.

Muslims dispute other issues, including whether halal meats should be hormone free or stunned before slaughter, Soliman said.

Add to the mix concerns that government regulation of halal and kosher violates the U.S. Constitution prohibiting Congress from making laws establishing religion.

But halal is a growing market, with 1.5 billion Muslims eating halal daily. Revenue from halal sheep export in New Zealand in fiscal 2011 was $2.9 million, Soliman reported in an Oct. 26 opinion article in Food Safety News.Soliman would like to see the United States develop standards for halal that are similar to rules for organic food.