Halal for All
The Muslim dietary laws aren't actually all that complicated: no alcohol, no pork products, and cows or lambs have to be slaughtered in the Islamic way, hung to drain out the blood, to make sure the meat is halal – ritually pure and permissible to eat.
But many consumers are still unsure about products, even if they are marked with a halal sticker. They prefer to check carefully, and only shop in supermarkets they trust.
In Germany, Islamic-style slaughtering was banned until recently for animal welfare reasons, and can now only be practiced under special conditions. A recent judgement by the federal constitutional court allowed the authorities to grant special licences. However, the animals must be slaughtered by qualified staff in registered slaughterhouses.
"The laws conform to animal welfare"
Nevertheless, there are still unanswered questions on the details of the slaughtering procedure, according to Ahmet Yazici from the Association of Muslim Communities in North Germany. He is a member of a commission that brings together animal welfare representatives, imams and meat producers. There are no problems with lamb, chicken or turkey, Yazici says, but there are still arguments going on over the permitted stunning methods for cows.
"At the moment, we're talking about the stunbolt method – whether it's Islamic or not," explains Yazici. "This kind of short-term electrical stunning would certainly be Islamic. But it isn't very common here yet." The dietary laws are basically for Muslims, but Yazici considers they also conform to animal welfare requirements.
Halal stamps and hotline
Prompted by Yazici and other religious Muslims, six years ago the Association of Muslim Communities in North Germany developed a halal certificate. Muslims can look out for this in shops and supermarkets.
The European Halal Certification Institute provides halal stamps and runs a telephone hotline, where consumers can find out more details about particular products.
Yusuf Calkara is the Managing Director of the European Halal Certification Institute, which is under the financial and organisational control of the German Islam Council and the Association of Muslim Communities in North Germany. The institute carries out checks for customers free of charge, and has its own assessments carried out by food institutes.
However, the European halal seal is far from the only one. And the more certification authorities there are, the less credible each individual certificate becomes. Especially since several major food companies have designed their own halal stamps.
Traces of pork in foodstuffs
Alongside fairly easy to avoid traps such as alcohol in chocolates, Muslims face the problem of pork traces in the form of gelatine. Since the BSE scandals, gelatine has been made out of pork products in Europe – and is very difficult for Muslims to avoid, as it is used in many different foodstuffs.
Gelatine is often "hidden" in other ingredients such as spice mixes, which is a great concern for religious Muslims. There are also traces of gelatine and even alcohol in cough syrup and tablets. And it's hard to go without medicines.
So the only way to deal with the issue is with a relaxed Islamic approach. If Muslims eat pork unintentionally it is not a sin, imams say.
But many also emphasise that every Muslim has to find out as much about what they eat as possible. For most people, that's too much hard work in the long run, and they find a compromise: everyone eats as halal as they can.
© Qantara.de 2008
Translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire