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April 6, 2012

Where's the beef? And…how is it killed?

Scott Stockdale

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While millions of people the world over don't have enough to eat, the three main parties in the Quebec National Assembly are alarmed that Quebecers may be unwittingly consuming halal meat.

The pro-independence, opposition party, The Parti Quebecois (PQ) recently declared its concerns about halal animal-rights standards, and is worried that mainstream companies are selling the meat, without any labelling, to unsuspecting Quebecois customers.

"This type of slaughter slams directly against Quebecois values," the PQ said in a recent statement.

The next day, Liberal Premier Jean Charest joined the chorus of complainers, demanding that halal products be labelled as such so consumers know exactly what they're buying.

Halal means lawful or permitted. Halal meat involves slitting the animal's throat with a sharp knife after it has been blessed with a Muslim prayer. This is similar to the kosher slaughter in the Jewish faith.

Olymel, a meat-processing giant with plants in Quebec, Ontario and Alberta, found itself at the centre of the controversy, not because of a sudden concern about  animal slaughter practices, a public health-scare or a consumer outcry, but a TV report informing Quebecers that a major Quebec poultry processing plant has been certified so that all its meat qualifies as halal, even though only a small percentage of it, aimed at Muslim customers is labelled halal.

In a statement that smacks of demagoguery,  TV program host Mario Dumount asked: “Does it bother you to buy halal meat without knowing it?”

PQ agricultural critic Andre Simard, a veterinarian, said the ritual slaughter was less humane than standard industry practices. However, Canadian law requires food animals to be stunned or killed before slaughter. The Islamic Society of North America has a halal certification process that not only provides for but also regulates the practice of stunning to unconsciousness, along with the required blessing and bloodletting. Butchery is never pleasant, but the PQ has presented no evidence that regulations are being disregarded.

Olymel spokesman Richard Vigneault said the company's killing methods are perfectly humane and approved by the Canadian Food Agency (CFA). He said the company's slaughtering method, in which chickens are stunned with an electric shock before being bled, hasn't changed at all since certification. The only difference is that an Imam visits the plant twice a day to say the necessary prayers.  Olymel sells the fresh chicken to distributors, some of which label the meat as halal, some of which do not, Mr. Vigneault explained.

One can't help but wonder why halal meat should offend Quebec “values” in a day and age when people queue up for kebabs, shawarma, kibbeh, saltah and all manner of ethnic cookery. How many customers grill the cooks about their cuisine’s religious pedigree? Moreover, where is the outrage against hot cross buns being on sale for Easter?

Salam Elmenyawi, president of the Muslim Council of Montreal, said the PQ is “fanning the flames of intolerance, ignorance and division.”

The National Post wrote: “It's hysterical reactions to non-issues like this that make Quebec look like the xenophobic society its leaders keep insisting it isn't.”

Telling Muslims their dietary practices are inhumane, as the PQ has done, goes against the concept of Canada as an ideal place for immigrants to settle, because it's a multicultural and tolerant society. 

Because of its low birth rate, Quebec has become increasingly dependent on immigration to maintain its population. It has recently focused on North African countries, where the vast majority of people are  French-speaking. But Quebec officials can't ignore the fact that the majority of these immigrants are also Muslim.

Do we want Canada to follow France's example – with all its inherent problems - where President Nicolas Sarkozy hopes to boost his re-election chances by vowing to protect consumers from unknowingly eating halal meat?

According to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), there are 17 federally registered meat establishments in Quebec that practice ritual halal slaughter. Another 17 are in Ontario.

The federal government has no intention of forcing meat processors to label their products halal. “Given that all the slaughtered animals in the federally-registered establishments are done so according to the regulations, the government does not plan to impose new and costly red tape in managing the slaughterhouses and processors,” the CFIA said in an emailed response.

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