What Is Halal Food? Can Grocery Store Chains Carry It?

Jun 13, 2017

Owner of Bab El Salam in Portage, Mazen, points at pre-packaged, halal meat he sells at his store.
Credit Rebecca Thiele, WMUK

For the past few months, we’ve been taking your questions on Islam and the cultural practices of Muslims. Listener Julie Kelemen used to work for Meijer in the clothing department. She also hosted a Pakistani exchange student for a year. That prompted Kelemen to ask: What would it take for a chain of grocery stores to carry halal meat? 

Halal is a way of preparing food prescribed by Islamic law - kind of like the Muslim version of kosher. (Just a warning, we are going to talk about how animals are killed for food.) 

What Is Halal?

Abe Rababeh co-owns Barry & Sons Islamic Slaughterhouse in Detroit’s Eastern Market. He says halal meat is mostly about killing an animal quickly and humanely.

“The knife must be sharpened and it must be slaughtered by one cut. They cut it from ear to ear and they say in the name of God, God is great,” says Rababeh.

Rababeh says you don’t have to be an imam - a Muslim religious leader - to slaughter animals for food in the halal way. However, the person does have to be a Muslim and must be “cleansed” - both physically and spiritually. Rababeh says the person slaughtering the animal might wash their hands as well as do a prayer. 

Rababeh says the animal has to be healthy before it’s killed: 

“We make sure it’s not pushed and not shoved. It walks to our facility like it’s walking outside - you know, it goes from building to building. Then before it’s slaughtered, we feed it. We make sure it drinks. Everything’s provided for it.”

After it’s slaughtered, the animal is hung upside down so all of the blood - and any bacteria that comes with it - can drain out.

Rababeh says for the most part, halal slaughtering pretty much the same in every country. Though some cultures prefer to leave out certain organ meats like the bladder or the stomach.

There’s also the question of whether to stun the animal - or render it unconscious - before killing it. That’s been pretty controversial. Generally stunning is prohibited in interpretations of Islamic law, but some countries won’t allow you to slaughter an animal without stunning it first. Animal rights organizations like PETA have even called the practice cruel, but Rababeh disagrees. He says even if an animal can’t move, it can still suffer.

“He might be out of it and unconscious and not know what’s going on, but he’s still alive. He’s suffering from inside,” says Rababeh.

It’s not always easy to tell if a food is halal. A surprising number of foods contain pork gelatin - and pork is forbidden. You’ll find gelatin in things like gummy worms, Skittles, frosted cereals, and marshmallows. However, some halal brand foods use beef gelatin instead.

Do Kalamazoo Area Grocery Stores Carry Halal Food?

Not many stores in the Kalamazoo area carry halal meat. Meijer has halal lamb, but no other meats. SpartanNash - which distributes food to stores like D&W and Family Fare - carries a handful of halal brands, but no meat.

One of the few places that definitely does carry halal meat is Bab El Salam in Portage. It’s a Middle Eastern restaurant and grocery store that opened a little less than a year ago. Amo Mazen - which means Uncle Mazen - owns the establishment. 

Before Bab El Salam, Mazen started the Shawarma King on Drake Road with his brother. Shawarma King bills itself as Lebanese cuisine, but Mazen is actually Palestinian. He says the restaurant uses the term because the food is similar and people know what to expect.

“Everywhere you go in the world you found a Lebanese restaurant,” he says.

At first, Bab El Salam had a deli, but Mazen says it wasn’t very popular. Now they sell pre-packaged halal meat. Maybe big grocery stores could carry halal food, but Mazen says there’d have to be more demand. But it is possible - especially if they purchase pre-packaged meats.

“I would think that grocers here to some extent - without having to hire a Muslim butcher - would be able to do it,” says WMUK listener Julie Kelemen.