Thursday, June 22, 2006

US Could Lose Muslim Beef Markets Over Kill Procedures

KANSAS CITY (Dow Jones)--U.S. beef markets in some Muslim countries could be in jeopardy if those countries ever decide to get serious about Halal, or permitted, slaughter procedures because many U.S. plants don't measure up, some Muslim kill certifiers contend.

"If the U.S. continues to promote U.S. beef in the Middle East and continues to turn a blind eye to the method of the blessing and (continues) doing it incorrectly, the Middle East could stop buying," said Sam Rayes, co-founder of Tex-Med Beef Co., a Houston firm offering Halal-certified meats in mainstream supermarkets.

According to Rayes' estimates, more than 50% of U.S. beef exports to Islamic countries are affected by inadequate procedures.

The questions about the procedures come at a time when the U.S. meat market is trying actively to build more market share in the region.

The U.S. Meat Export Federation, the group responsible for pushing U.S. meat exports, said in a release that it had recently extolled the virtues of U.S. beef at a food show in Beirut. USMEF staffers touted U.S. beef's safety, quality and availability to new buyers and helped current buyers find new product sources, the release said.

In 2003, the U.S. exported 39,881 metric tons of beef and beef variety meats worth $79.754 million to Middle Eastern countries, according to U.S. Census Bureau statistics posted by the USMEF on its Web site. This was the last nearly full year of beef exports for the U.S. since bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad-cow disease, was discovered in an imported Washington State cow. Since then, two more indigenous cases were discovered.

U.S. beef and beef variety meat exports to the Middle East through March 2006 totaled 15,493 metric tons valued at $25.2 million, the USMEF release said. - The allegedly lax Halal kill situation at some U.S. packing plants grew out of a tug-of-war between the plants, which are most efficient when running at full speed, variations in Halal demands by purchasing countries and the ever-present fudging of the rules by everyone involved for whatever reason, the sources said.

Mazhar Hussaini, director of the Halal Certification Program for the Islamic Society of North America, said "the problem is there is a range of standards (among Islamic countries) and different interpretations of the standards (by Halal certifiers)." But importing countries are beginning to scrutinize the process more closely because it's important to them.

Hussaini said this "is not really the U.S. Department of Agriculture's fault. It's a matter of truth in labeling. It's also why his group is working on a standardization process that will make the process at each plant more transparent and allow a more informed buying choice.

How It's Supposed To Work

When a buyer in an Islamic country wants to purchase U.S. beef, it will designate an Islamic center in the U.S. as the certifying agent to ensure the cattle were slaughtered according to an acceptable procedure, said Paul Clayton, vice president of export services for the USMEF. Each country has a list of accepted certifying agents that it works through.

A Web-posted report by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada says Halal is an Arabic term meaning "lawful" or "permitted," the opposite being Haram, which is "forbidden" or "prohibited." Agriculture Canada researched the issue as a way of opening more markets for its beef.

Beef is a product that can fall into both categories depending on the method of slaughter. Muslims must make every effort to ensure the meat they consume is Halal, meaning the animal was slaughtered according to the Islamic ritual of Zabiha.

According to Agriculture Canada and other sources, that ritual calls for the animal to be slaughtered by a practicing Muslim who blesses it with a short verse from the Qur'an as he uses a razor-sharp knife to make a single cut across the neck. He described the cut as being "from ear to ear," severing, at the very least, both jugular veins and the trachea in one swift motion.

Agriculture Canada said there was some difference of opinion about whether the cut should also sever the esophagus, but said doing so would make the meat acceptable to even the more strict Islamic markets.

There also is debate about whether stunning is allowed, the sources said. Some certifiying agencies accept stunning as long as it does not kill the animal, while others will not.

All certifying bodies contacted by Agriculture Canada agreed that Halal and non-Halal products need to be kept separate, but Amin Attia, Halal slaughterer at Harris Ranch, said this is not as big a problem as it would seem at first glance. An impermeable curtain can separate the cooler, and once in labeled boxes, the product can be handled just like any other.

Problems With The Process

Attia and others said because the process slows the operations at modern beef-packing plants, there is the temptation to get by with doing as little as possible. As a result, either too many people are cheating, or too many people are turning their backs on a less-than-adequate procedure.

Attia charged that some plants were using Halal procedures on a given number of cattle but were selling more meat and meat products than this number of cattle should produce.

Rayes said he thinks some firms have a Muslim on hand to watch the kill but not actually do it. Others will just play a tape recording of the blessing while a normal U.S.-style kill is being conducted.

Rayes said he also suspects that plants will show auditors a true Halal kill but revert to domestic slaughter practices as soon as the auditors leave.

In some cases, the one doing the slaughtering will not be trained, and the cut will be inadequate to meet Halal specifications, but the meat will be passed anyway, Rayes and others said.

Those packers who are doing it right need to charge more for their product because it slows down the line, Rayes said. Those who can blur the rules are able to charge a little bit less and possibly get a sale over their competitors who are being more diligent.

Rayes said Middle Eastern countries need to be more demanding about getting true Halal beef. Either or both of two things will need to happen: Either the U.S. state or federal governments will need to audit the labeling claims more carefully or consumers in Islamic countries will have to demand that their governments audit the certifying agents in the U.S. more carefully to ensure a truely Halal product.

Rayes said USDA inspectors could play an important role in this issue. When product is sent overseas, a USDA inspectors have to sign off on it that it is what it says it is. Inspectors are signing off on Halal product, and they could be more careful about Halal procedures, he said.

However, Steve Cohen, senior press officer for the USDA's Food Safety & Inspection Service, said: "We're not a certifying body for ritual slaughter," although if there is midbranding, it might be an area the USDA would

Rayes said if the USDA and the U.S. beef industry doesn't address this issue, foreign buyers who become disenchanted with the diligence paid to Halal practices could go to other countries where it is done universally.

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