Muslim holy month of Ramadan, is set by a lunar calendar and is expected to begin Friday, Dec. 6.

Posted: Friday, December 06, 2002

NEW YORK (AP) -- Shaida Khan once had to carry an entire raw lamb, chopped up and wrapped, on a long subway ride from Manhattan to Queens.

''I was so exhausted,'' Khan recalled. ''I said, 'I'm never doing that again.'''

That was nearly two decades ago, when Khan could find only one store in New York that sold food for observant Muslims.

This year, when Khan makes her traditional biryani -- meat, rice and yogurt -- for the Muslim feast of Eid al-Fitr starting Friday, she won't have to travel far for the ingredients.

As the U.S. Muslim population has grown in recent years, so too have the number of North American businesses that produce and sell foods that meet Muslim dietary requirements called halal.

Halal beef patties and fast-food style chicken nuggets can now be found on the shelves of Pathmark and other grocery chains, and the attention American Muslims received after Sept. 11 only raised awareness of the industry's sales potential, drawing newcomers to the field.

Halal producers reported brisk sales of fresh chicken and meat just before the Eid, which marks the end of the holy month of Ramadan.

''People who are aggressive in the food industry are saying, 'We never knew we were skipping over this consumer group. How can we get product to them?''' said Bill Aossey, founder of Iowa-based Midamar Corp. He says his business was the only major U.S. halal producer when it started in 1974.

Like Jews who keep kosher, devout Muslims cannot eat pork and can only eat meat killed in ritual slaughter. Foods processed with alcohol, and non-halal animal products such as lard can also be haram, or forbidden.

The exact size of the halal market in North America is not known.

The Islamic Food and Nutrition Council of America, among the few U.S. groups that certify halal producers, has authorized more than 200 North American businesses, ranging from small producers to corporations whose product lines include goods for export to Muslim countries.

''There's a tremendous demand,'' said Mohamed Sadek, the international program director for the council, which allows certified producers to use its symbol -- a crescent and letter ''M'' -- on packaging.

International sales remain the largest source of profits for many, but that could change. David Muller, president of Al Safa Halal, a Canadian producer that mainly supplies U.S. supermarkets, expects his annual sales to hit $10 million in U.S. currency this year and $100 million within six years.

''Just like the kosher industry is so large, there will be a very large halal industry,'' said Muller, whose 3-year-old company makes beef sausage pizza, deli meats and other items.

Kosher companies have about $6 billion in annual U.S. sales, according to Integrated Marketing Communications Inc., which specializes in kosher markets. Many producers think the halal market could be as lucrative, since the number of Muslims is expected eventually to exceed the number of Jews in the United States. Estimates of the American Muslim population now vary from 2 million to 6 million.

The halal industry, however, poses some special challenges.

Islamic dietary laws are complex, especially when applied to mass food production. Religious scholars have different interpretations of the rules, as do many rank-and-file Muslims who accept various practices depending on the traditions of their native country.

Some will only eat animals slaughtered by hand by a Muslim who recites a blessing in the name of Allah as he kills the animal. All the blood must then be drained from the carcass before it is processed.

However, other Muslims will accept mechanical slaughter in poultry processing, for example, as long as the blessing is said while the animals are killed. Another group prefers that the plant where the food is produced faces Mecca, Islam's holiest site. And some believe the blessing for the animal need only be said just before eating.

Whatever rules the companies follow, the result is almost always higher production costs. Muller said he is still able to make a profit even though his chickens are killed by hand.

''We have six Muslim slaughtermen lined up in a row and each one does every sixth chicken,'' he said. ''We can do it very rapidly.''

There is also a potential for fraud, with groups collecting fees for certifying halal businesses without conducting the proper inspections, and food producers falsely claiming their products meet Muslim dietary requirements, halal businessmen say.

The industry has little outside oversight in the United States. Only five states -- California, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota and New Jersey -- have laws regulating halal.

The federal government does not enforce religious dietary laws, but can file charges of misbranding if companies misrepresent their products, said Matthew Baun, a spokesman for the inspection office of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Baun said such prosecutions are infrequent. Among the most recent is the 1997 case against Washington Lamb Inc. of Springfield, Va., which was fined about $15,000 for falsely claiming its products were halal.

Khan said she doesn't fret over whether the food she buys from Muslim grocers is authentic halal. She has confidence in the businesses in the Long Island area where she now lives, and is grateful that she no longer has to buy a two-month supply of groceries every time she shops.

''There are quite a few stores,'' she said. ''We don't have to worry about it.''


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