Q: What is “halal”—and is halal-certified meat and poultry healthier in any way or produced more humanely than non-halal?
A: “Halal” is an Arabic word meaning “permissible” and signifies conformity with Islamic law. There is certainly a perception among many people that meat and other products carrying a halal mark are of higher quality all around—but halal certification is really about meeting specific religious decrees rather than about quality, nutrition, or safety of the food. It’s similar in several ways to kosher foods, which are compliant with traditional Jewish law. Halal-certified foods are marked by a “Crescent-M” (which stands for “Good for Mankind") or other symbols.
Halal foods cannot contain pork or pork products (including pork enzymes and gelatin derived from pigs) or alcohol. A plant where halal food is processed and certified is even supposed to have alcohol-free hand washes for workers.
In addition, animals intended for food must be healthy at the time of slaughter and killed in a particular way, with a single cut to the jugular vein, carotid artery, and windpipe using a very sharp blade, under the belief that this causes the least pain possible to the animal. Typically, the name of Allah is invoked in a blessing before slaughter.
But there do not appear to be universal standards for halal certification, which is carried out by different certifying bodies around the world. Thus, several aspects of the practice can vary, depending on interpretation of Islamic law and practicalities in the Muslim community. For instance, some sources say the slaughter must be performed by a Muslim, while others say it can be done by any person “of the book,” meaning a Muslim, Jew, or Christian.
Halal scholars all agree that the animals should be treated well and that slaughtering should inflict the least suffering possible. But another area of contention is whether the animals can be stunned—that is, rendered unconscious—before slaughtering. Traditional halal slaughter does not involve stunning, because that is thought to cause additional pain for the animal.
In contrast, stunning is standard practice in conventional slaughterhouses in the U.S. and Europe, with proponents asserting that no-stun slaughter is crueler and more stressful for the animals. The USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service includes stunning as a requirement for “humane methods of slaughter,” and European Union rules generally ban no-stun slaughter (with some religious exemptions). Still, some halal certifying bodies approve certain types of stunning under certain conditions, such as if the animal shows stress, and as long as the stunning does not kill the animal.
After the animals are slaughtered, they must be completely drained of blood, which some people mistakenly claim makes the meat safer. A 2016 study in the International Journal of Food Microbiology showed no significant difference in bacterial contamination in meat that came from conventional slaughter techniques compared to meat from animals slaughtered according to halal practices.
As with kosher foods, halal certification is not certification of food safety or quality, and there are no studies showing halal foods are more nutritious than non-halal foods or that people who eat halal food are healthier because of the food. And debate continues about the most humane method of slaughter. All meat, whether halal or not, must be handled properly to keep it safe. That includes storing it in the refrigerator or freezer and cooking it thoroughly to destroy any illness-causing organisms that might be present.
This article first appeared in the UC Berkeley Wellness Letter.
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