(RNS) When McDonald’s announced it would discontinue the sale of halal chicken nuggets and chicken sandwiches at two restaurants earlier this week, it brought to light a thorny issue riling the Muslim-American community: inconsistent halal standards and fraudulent advertising and marketing of Islamically permitted products.
The United States is now home to thousands of halal-compliant food industry businesses, offering Muslim Americans a choice of offerings and convenience that earlier generations could only have imagined.
But this booming halal market is often accompanied by a lack of consensus about what constitutes halal — and that has caused confusion and controversy among Muslim Americans. In addition, several well-publicized incidents of fraud have left halal consumers vulnerable to unscrupulous merchants and suspicious about the sources of the products they are buying.
These problems surfaced when McDonald’s announced it would discontinue halal nuggets and sandwiches at two restaurants in Dearborn, Mich. The decision follows a 2011 lawsuit alleging McDonald’s falsely advertised non-halal chicken as halal. In January, McDonald’s paid $700,000 to settle the suit, but denied any wrongdoing.
It is not the first such settlement. In 2011, the Orange County, Calif., district attorney obtained a $527,000 settlement against the Super King Market in Anaheim, alleging the store falsely advertised generic and mixed meat as halal. The store denied wrongdoing.
“There is a lot of cheating,” said Syed Rasheeduddin Ahmed, founder of the Muslim Consumer Group, a halal certification and educational group in Huntley, Ill. “I am glad McDonald’s stopped the so-called halal chicken because they are not real halal.”
In part, the problem stems from the explosion of products racing to meet growing market demands.
The number of U.S. grocers with halal products has mushroomed from 10 in 1970 to more than 2,300 in 2012, while the number of restaurants serving halal food now exceeds 6,900, according to the Islamic Food and Nutrition Council of America, a halal certification and education group in Park Ridge, Ill.
U.S. consumers spent $11 billion on halal products in 2011, the nutrition council said.
“It’s a big market share,” said Timothy Abu Mounir Hyatt, managing director of Islamic Services of America, a halal certification group in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. “We have a lot of customers who understand the importance of complying.”
While halal-observant Muslims welcome the plethora of choices, many are also wary that some merchants may try and take advantage of their religiosity to pass off products that aren’t halal.
“So long as there are few legal protections, there are often unscrupulous merchants that get away with it,” said Shahed Amanullah, founder of zabihah.com, a website with listings and customer reviews of halal restaurants and grocers around the world, including several thousand in the United States.
Indeed, the zabihah.com website (the name refers to the term used for the Islamic ritual slaughter of an animal) includes many reviews in which diners call out restaurants they believe are falsely advertising halal.
Halal, which means “lawful” or “permitted” in Arabic, requires that meat such as beef, lamb, goat, and poultry be raised and killed humanely, and that a blessing be said at the time of slaughter. Non-halal foods include carnivorous animals and birds of prey, as well as pork and products derived from pork such as gelatin. Fish, vegetables, fruits, nuts and grains are permitted.
But the halal industry is hampered by another problem, too: division among Muslims. In 2006, a group of scholars dealing in Islamic law, ruled that machine-slaughtered animals are halal so long as they are blessed and butchered properly. Yet many Muslims, including Ahmed of the Muslim Consumer Group, said that only meat that is hand cut is permitted. Others say that a restaurant cannot be considered halal if it also sells forbidden products like pork and alcohol.
There are several organizations in the United States that certify products as halal and send inspectors into slaughterhouses and manufacturing plants to verify that the work is done according to Islamic law. A few states, including California, Illinois, Michigan, New Jersey, and Virginia, have passed laws penalizing businesses for false advertising of halal products.
Some Muslims say certification and guidelines do little to protect halal consumers from false advertising. At the same time, halal certifiers lack the manpower to inspect every individual restaurant and grocer, and instead focus on slaughterhouses and food manufacturers.
Given the pitfalls, what’s a halal eater to do? The best defense against fraud, Amanullah said, is education. He encourages consumers to check zabihah.com for reviews, and to directly ask businesses owners about their halal offerings.
“In the absence of universally accepted and verified halal standards, halal consumers should feel free to ask for verification of sources of halal meat so they can make up their own mind,” said Amanullah. “Businesses committed to serving this market will be happy to oblige.”