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 Wednesday, October 17, 2012. (Christy Aumer/The Gazette)
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 that’s had $454,000 seized by federal agents believes the government might be concerned its halal products aren’t processed according to religious laws.

But what constitutes certification by Islamic law isn’t clear, some agricultural and food law experts said.

Some suggest Midamar Corp.’s 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 “be handled according to Islamic law and under Islamic authority.”

Foods labeled kosher or halal also must be certified by a “third-party authority.”

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.

“I see the labels when I go to the butcher, but I’m not 100 percent sure it’s halal,” Soliman said.

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

“It’s definitely a conflict of interest,” Soliman said.

Midamar officials disagree.

“The 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,” Jalel Aossey said in a statement.

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

“While it is always ideal for certifying entities to be completely separate and removed from those they certify, I don’t know that there is a requirement that it be so,” she said. “It also may raise the appearance of a conflict, but there may not be one.”

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 group’s 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 animal’s throat.
  • The animal’s 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.

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