Like a Yellow Star On Our Food
By Steven Philp
Kosher products are a common sight in most American stores; it is an industry that is recognized outside the Jewish community, employing both Jews and non-Jews in its processing and distribution. Americans are less familiar with halal products, even though they are consumed by almost 1.5 billion people. Yet people are starting to pay attention.
This week thousands of businessmen and women will congregate in Kuala Lumpur for the largest annual exhibition of halal products in the world. For seven years the Malaysia International Halal Showcase (MIHAS) has served as a lynchpin for the growing industry as it seeks to meet the demand of Muslims’ dietary laws. A press release from the Malaysia External Trade Development Corporation, which hosts MIHAS, stated that last year’s event attracted “over 32,000 trade visitors from 81 countries.” With Muslim spending power increasing as their constituent nations emerge from the recession, this year’s conference is expected to exceed those numbers.
Yet the reception of halal products in countries with Muslim minorities has been tentative. This past week, Struan Stevenson, a Conservative Minister for the European Parliament, added an amendment to a food bill that would have food labels read: “This product comes from an animal slaughtered by the halal method” or “This product comes from an animal slaughtered by the shechita method.” The main bill, proposed by Jim Paice, the Food and Farming Minister to the European Parliament, seeks to label meat based on whether the animal was stunned before killing. According to an article by the Daily Telegraph, Paice is responding to demands from veterinarians and animal welfare activists who claim that the failure to stun an animal before its throat is slit causes “unacceptable levels of suffering and pain.” Currently, the failure to stun is legal under laws protecting religious freedom; in both halal and shechita, the animal is slaughtered while still conscious.
Although Paice believes that consumers should be informed which foods have been killed using the stun method and which have not, he has expressed resistance to Stevenson’s idea that they carry explicit religious labels. He is joined by the British Jewish interest group Shechita UK in opposition to the amendment. Their representative, Simon Cohen, explained that the proposal is “the 21st century equivalent of the yellow star, but on our food.”
Cohen is right, insofar that the requirement to label food with an explicit reference to their intended consumer is based in latent phobias. Only two months ago, American pastor Mark Biltz of El Shaddai Ministries—a Messianic Christian congregation in Bonney Lake, WA—posted a sermon online advocating for an increased awareness of “backdoor Sharia” vis-à-vis the prevalence of halal products in the United States. He cites the prohibition against eating food sacrificed to idols, explaining, “You could be eating beef, chicken… offered up to Allah and not even know it. I can just imagine at a Passover Seder the caterer unbeknownst to anyone is serving halal meat!” He then outlines methods by which one can ascertain what stores and restaurants to avoid for their provision of halal products. With its genesis in bigotry and misunderstanding, Biltz parallels arguments made almost a decade ago by white supremacist groups that kashrut was the façade for a special “Jewish tax.” Briefly outlined by an article posted by the Southern Poverty Law Center, the conspiracy surmounted that if a food company did not pay the “tax”—and consequently did not receive the heksher—its products would be boycotted.
Halal and kosher products tend to occupy a shared space in a number of American stores intended for the general public, making access to them a mutual concern of the Muslim and Jewish communities. As we see in Europe, their similarities can cause them to be lumped together when considered from an outside perspective. We are fortunate to have access to a wide variety of kosher products in the United States. In response to the high demand from the Jewish community, as well as other groups including Seventh Day Adventists, many non-Jewish stores stock their shelves with kosher goods. Even for many American Muslims, kosher products—subject to more stringent regulations than other foods—are a good alternative for the time being. It is ultimately in our best interest to advocate for the availability of specialty products, and speak out against laws that restrict our freedom to consume food aligned with our religious values. Kashrut and halal are not always the same, but they are not that different either.