Questions raised over labelling of halal meat

Halal food is available in some shops in Switzerland Keystone

Muslims have to respect strict dietary regulations, meaning that they should only eat halal food – including meat from animals slaughtered under Islamic practice.

This content was published on March 22, 2010 - 16:23

Swiss Muslims can choose between many products bearing the halal label, but a single certification does not exist, which can lead to confusion and abuse.

Those following Islam make up an estimated around 20 per cent of the world’s population or more than 1.3 billion people.

This makes the halal food market an attractive one in economic terms. For example, Swiss food giant Nestlé had a turnover of SFr5.3 billion ($5 billion) in the halal food sector in 2008.

Switzerland’s 400,000 Muslims can buy the products in several stores. Among the larger ones supermarket chain Coop has been offering halal-labelled items since August 2009. Only Manor has been selling halal food longer.

Added to this are the independent butchers, seemingly giving a broad choice to Muslim consumers.

But in reality, shopping for Islamic food products can often be difficult because there is no single halal label. In fact, there are around one hundred different ones in circulation, from various issuing centres, like the Islamic Food Council of Europe.

Meat problem

Halal is an Arabic word which means lawful or permitted and in Islam covers behaviour, the way of speaking, clothing and food.

Mohammed Kaba, director of the Islamic Centre in Lausanne, explains: “The problem arises especially over meat. It is very important to know about its provenance – pork is in fact banned by the Koran – and the way of slaughtering, whether the animal has had its throat cut according to Islamic ritual, through the cutting of the two carotid arteries without it being stunned beforehand.”

But the issue is more complex than that, he added. “There are other types of meat which are also prohibited, for example everything which is linked to pork, such as wild boar,” said Kaba.

Alcohol is banned, as are animal fats, which also affects sweets.

Ritual slaughter

In Switzerland the practice of ritual slaughter - without stunning the animal before it bleeds to death - has been outlawed since 1978, under animal protection legislation.

However, as the freedom of religion and faith of both the Islamic and Jewish communities is set out in the Swiss Constitution, the import of ritual slaughter meat from other countries is permitted.

This is an issue that has been addressed by Coop. It pointed out in a statement when it launched its range of halal-labelled products that, “the animals are stunned before being slaughtered”.

In this way no Swiss laws are broken, the supermarket chain said. The only difference to the normal process is, “the presence of a person of the Muslim faith at the moment of slaughtering”.

This is a decision which has caused puzzlement among some Muslims, who find it difficult to consider the products truly halal. There are also others who cannot conceive of buying such items in stores which also sell pork and alcohol.

In addition, there are other issues. “There are people for whom any kind of meat which is not pork is allowed,” Kaba said.

This also applies to many butchers and restaurants which say they offer halal food when in reality they do not, he added.

Halal labelling

The Lausanne Mosque has therefore drawn up a list of butchers offering halal meat as set out in the Koran. This is established through inspections and by offering training courses for workers in the shops concerned.

In Ticino, the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland, meat is often bought from neighbouring Italy, where ritual slaughter is allowed.

Some Muslims would like to see a better labelling system. “The fact that Muslims can find halal food quite easily in big shops is certainly positive and necessary on condition that the labelling respects reality,” said Jelassi Radouan Samir, an Imam active in Ticino.

“Every true practising Muslim should observe the dictates of the Koran, it’s a life principle,” he added.

“As a consequence, it is very important to install a control mechanism on the halal market, which is too often subject to being abused for commercial ends. A Muslim should be able to buy a real halal product, not just a word. It’s a question of transparency and responsibility.”

Andrea Clementi, (Translated from Italian by Isobel Leybold-Johnson)

Muslims in Switzerland

The Muslim community in Switzerland accounts for about 4.5% of the population.

Most Muslim immigrants came from the former Yugoslavia and Turkey. The community includes up to 100 nationalities.

The number of Muslims doubled between the censuses of 1990 and 2000, largely boosted by an influx of refugees and asylum seekers, including from the war in the former Yugoslavia.

There are about 200 mosques and prayer houses in Switzerland, but only four have a minaret.

On November 29, 57 per cent of voters supported a people’s initiative to ban the construction of new minarets in Switzerland. This was in the wake of heated debates and legal battles at a local level about requests by mosques to build more minarets.

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Ritual slaughter in Switzerland

The ban on ritual slaughtering, as used by Jews and Muslims, in which the animal bleeds to death without first being stunned, has been banned in Switzerland since 1893.

This came about after a national vote on the issue following a people’s initiative launched by an animal protection society. It was accepted by 60 per cent of voters.

The animal protection law of 1978 enshrined the ban. But the import of halal and kosher meat to respond to the needs of the Muslim and Jewish communities is allowed.

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