Halal food options become common

July 19, 2005

When Shaheda Sayed was growing up in southern California in the 1960s, her father would occasionally drive 100 miles to slaughter animals so his family could have meat. That's because the family, devout Muslims, ate only food that was halal -- permitted for Muslims. And, in those days, it could not be found in U.S. stores.

Halal is an Arabic word meaning "permitted." It's used to describe acceptable behavior under Muslim law. When applied to food, the term refers to dietary laws that require meat to be slaughtered in a prescribed manner.

"We never ate in McDonald's," Sayed said. When she grew up, Sayed decided to address the problem.

In 1998, she and her brother founded Crave Foods, a company that produces halal hamburger patties and frozen prepared dishes, including chicken rolls and spicy wings.

Halal slaughtering must be done by a pious Muslim who says a prayer immediately prior to the act, uses only healthy animals, slaughters each one away from other animals, employs a sharp knife to the neck to ensure a quick death, and lets the blood drain. According to most authorities, slaughtering must be done by hand, not machine.

Crave Foods, which now employs about 100 people, exemplifies the growth of the American halal food industry in recent years. Estimates on the size of the industry are hard to come by, but Muslim-friendly restaurants are easier to find than ever before, and packaged halal foods, once found only in ethnic shops, are increasingly stocked by mainstream supermarkets.

Sayed might even be able to enjoy a Happy Meal today.

Two McDonald's restaurants in Dearborn serve halal Chicken McNuggets and McChicken sandwiches.

"The Muslim consumer population is becoming much more savvy, and the market has grown up around them," said Shahed Amanullah, who runs the Web site zabihah.com, which lists halal restaurants in cities around the world.

When Muslims can't find foods that have been certified as halal, they rely on ingredient lists on labels. Or, they look for symbols marking a product as kosher, since the Jewish dietary laws are similar to Muslim ones.

"Muslims who are serious about halal have been avoiding mainstream food," said Muhammad Munir Chaudry, president of the Islamic Food and Nutrition Council of America, the largest U.S. organization that certifies products as acceptable for Muslims.

"The trend is there," Chaudry said of halal certification by mainstream food producers. "Companies have realized there's a good-sized Muslim market here."

Muslims born and raised in America are more likely than their immigrant parents to call companies and request halal certification, Chaudry said.

Advocates say certification brings benefits beyond helping America's Muslims.

"It's going back to a simpler way of life," Sayed said. "What we eat affects who we are and what we are, and our spirituality."


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