CHRIS KUTSCHERA 40 YEARS of JOURNALISM (Texts and Photos)

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FRANCE: Murky Business behind the Halal Label.

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A Muslim butcher shop in ParisNobody knows exactly how many Muslims live in France, but according to various estimates, they number about four million -- out of a total population of 60 million. If all are good Muslims, and eat only “halal” meat -- the meat of animals that have been ritually slaughtered -- it means that halal meat could account for at least 10% to 15% of the French national market.

In the north eastern districts of Paris where immigrants are concentrated, such as boulevards Belleville, Menilmontant, Villette, almost all the butcher shops carry signs such as “Halal Butchery” and “Muslim Butchery”. Abandoned by their traditional customers who now buy 80 per cent of their meat in large department-stores, French butchers are selling their shops to Muslim immigrants.

Not 10% of the “halal” meat in France is really “halal”

Most muslim religious leaders and French experts agree that not more than 5% to 10% of the meat sold as “halal” in France is really “halal”. “Between 90 and 95 per cent of the meat sold in “Muslim” butcher shops is not “halal”, said a spokesman from the Ministry of Agriculture. “A butcher buys one sheep that has been slaughtered ritually by a Muslim clerk, and displays it prominently in the window, with its blue and green stamps. But all the other meat that is sold in the shop comes from the wholesale market at Rungis, near Paris and is definitely not “halal”.

Slaugthering sheep for the AidLarbi Kechat, the rector of the “Ad Dawa mosque”, known as the Stalingrad mosque, one of the biggest in Paris, agrees that a “very large percentage of shops sell meat that is not really “halal”. “Because everybody knows now that Islam brings money. These people want to grow rich at any cost”.

Paradoxically, the problem of the false halal meat in a country which is both secular and christian by an outstanding majority, has become a national issue. First, because like all labels, “halal” falls under French law, which prohibits the cheating of the consumer and the selling of a product that is not what it claims to be. Secondly, because huge amounts of money are involved. And thirdly,  because this problem touches the sensitive issue of the organisation of the muslim community in France.

How to kill “halal”

Killing halalTo be qualified as “halal”, the meat must come from an animal that is not “haram” -- or forbidden -- for example, pig. It must also come from an animal slaughtered by a Muslim, who cuts the throat of the animal so that it bleeds  to death, faced towards Mecca. The slaughterer must also offer the prayer “Bismilla Rahim wa Allah Akbar” (In the name of Allah, Allah is great). In all European countries and in France in particular, the killing of animals for meat consumption is regulated by many laws and decrees that aim at protecting the consumer -- and his health -- and the animal from suffering. Normally, animals are killed by a mechanical or an electric shock. But special dispensations are granted to slaughterhouses that cater for the Jewish and Muslim communities.

This raises technical problems: since the animal dies by bleeding, it slows down the production of the slaughterhouse -- 25 cattle are killed each hour, for example, instead of 30. When it comes to chickens, two men can slaughter ritually between 1.000 and 2.000 chicken each hour, instead of 6.000 when it is done automatically. In 1980 a decree was passed ruling that animals can be ritually slaughtered only by people “qualified by registered religious organisations”, and that such organisations must be “registered by the Ministry of Agriculture”.

Who controls the “controllers”?

To keep checks on the slaughterers and the meat a new profession was born -- that of “controller”. These controllers ensure that the animal is killed ritually, and  authentification stamps are placed on various parts of the carcass, as a guarantee. All these organisations have one thing in common: they charge the slaughterhouse for this control. It can be a yearly fee of up to 36.000 F, or a daily tax of around 800 F, a tax per animal or per kilo. In turn, the slaughterhouse passes the charge on to the butcher, who charges the consumer.

In just a few years, numerous organisations of “controllers” have been set up and competition between them is stiff: AVS, linked to the FNMF (National Federation of the Muslims of France); BARAKA, close to the UOIF (Union of Islamic Organisations in France); AL TAKWA; GUII (Grouping of Islamic International Unions); CIAM (Islamic Center of Alpes Maritimes, a department in south-eastern France); LICOM, GISCOM (Islamic Grouping of Muslim Slaughterers and Controllers), BCAAR (Office of Alimentation Control and Religious Authentification) etc...  The list of these self-proclaimed associations without legal status is endless.

Besides the French internal market, there is another market, halal meat for export to North Africa and the Middle East, which amounts to about 200.000 tons of meat and 200.000 tons of chicken, according to estimates made by the ministry of Agriculture. Again various organisations of “controllers” check the meat is ritually slaughtered and get paid for doing so. Due to the fact that huge tonnages are involved, the tax is “only” a few cents (0,02 to 0,05 FF) for each kilo.

French officials and muslim leaders agree that most of these organisations are working more for the money than for the welfare of the muslim community. One in particular has been the subject of controversy. According to most observers, the organisation is doing serious work, inspecting the slaughterhouses as well as the butcher shops, to make sure that they sell only “halal” meat. But there are also a number of rumours. According to various sources, the organisation also takes money,  under the table, both from the slaughterhouses and from the butchers shops.

Khalil Merroun, the Moroccan-born rector of the Islamic Centre of Evry, does not hesitate to condemn “controllers” who threaten the butchers, saying: “if you do not take our meat, we will tell the people your meat is not “halal”. In less diplomatic words, French Interior Ministry officials speak of a “racket”!

These organisations of controllers are also actively trying to get into the export market. SOCOPA, the leading French exporter, is exporting 110.000 tons of meat a year, and about half of it is “halal”. BIRET International is exporting a little less than 15.000 tons of meat per year, and ARCADIE about 7.500. France is also exporting large amounts of chicken to North Africa and the Middle East, some 200.000 tons a year, of which 100.000 tons are exported by a single company, DOUX, from Brittany. Obviously, it is a juicy market for “commissioners”.

Non content with French assurances, Iran imposes its own strict guidelines on French meat exports. Contracts for the Islamic republic are negotiated directly with the French government, which directs Iranian importers to recommended meat exporters. Iran then sends a large team to France  including a veterinarian, several officials working for IMO (Iran Meat organisation) and an Imam. The Imam visits the slaughterhouse, tests the slaughterers, and checks the whole process at every stage. The end “halal” certificates carry three different signatures.

At the other end of the spectrum, Algeria, Egypt and Tunisia are satisfied with importing meat provided it carries the stamp “halal”. According to persistent rumours, clever Algerian businessmen based in Marseille import boat loads of meat from Argentina, and re-export it straight to North Africa after a local Imam puts the stamp “halal” on the documents in return for a generous stipend...

The “monopoly” of the Big Mosque of Paris

It was to clarify this unhealthy situation that the French government issued on 15 December 1994 a decree, known as the “Decree Pasqua”, acknowledging the Big Mosque of Paris as the only organisation qualified to nominate slaughterers and to control their work.

All the other Muslim organisations in France were furious and, denouncing the Big Mosque’s “hegemony”, announced they would boycott the product. The uproar was such that Jean-Louis Debré, the new French Minister of Interior, postponed  the implementation of the decree, which has never been heard of since.

More than 1.300 muslim associations are registered in France, with not less than 48 in the city of Marseille. All have their own opinion on the matter, all are aware that ultimately it is the man in the street who is being forced to pay the price of the bribery and corruption.

“The only way is to force all those who are fighting -- the three main groups, the Big Mosque of Paris, the FNMF and the UOIF, to sit around a table and talk”, says Larbi Kechat, rector of the Ad Dawa mosque of Paris. “It is high time to establish priorities and to allocate tasks, to solve the problem of the halal meat and to organize an authentic islamic teaching”. But many believe the war has only begun.

(The Middle East magazine, July 1996; Le Courrier International, Juillet 1996)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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