Livestock slaughter and processing is regulated at the federal level by the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) of the USDA. The FSIS guidance regarding definitions of halal labels defers to the Islamic authority. All livestock slaughtered for meat in the United States for interstate commerce must meet USDA standards. There are three classifications of slaughter facilities that Minnesota farmers can utilize: USDA-inspected, Minnesota “equal-to” facilities, and custom exempt.
The Minnesota Department of Agriculture (MDA) provides guidance regarding on-farm slaughter.
Many farmers and consumers are interested in on-farm slaughter for ritual practices. The regulatory framework around on-farm slaughter is complex. The Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture (MISA) includes information about on-farm slaughter in their guide for selling local meat. It is important to understand the regulatory difference between slaughter and processing. Animals can be killed, skinned, and eviscerated on-farm and brought into custom exempt plants for further processing. The processing itself cannot be done on-farm, unless the farm has a slaughter and processing facility approved by the MDA and a custom exempt processing license. Taking the carcass to a custom exempt plant for processing is required from a food safety perspective, but does not assess the welfare of the animal before or during slaughter.
The halal meat supply chain must follow a set of rules and regulations outlined in Islamic law, with particular attention paid to the process of slaughter, known as zabihah. The slaughtering should be done in a humane way, and the animal must be alive and healthy at the time of slaughter. The process involves restraining, stunning (if required, but the stunning should be reversible, i.e. should not kill the animal), and using a sharp knife to sever the trachea, esophagus, and main arteries, without cutting the spinal cord. While there are differences in the criteria of the halal slaughtering process among Muslims, nearly all agree that the slaughtering should be done in the name of Allah, and no other name but the name of Allah should be invoked in order for the meat to become halal for Muslims to consume. The blessing is bismillah, or “in the name of God/Allah.”
The act of slaughtering should take place quickly, with the cut made in one motion. The slaughtering blade should be newly sharpened and not lifted off the animal until the animal is no longer alive. It is also recommended to perform the slaughtering while facing Mecca. In Minnesota this is toward the northeast, as the shortest distance to Mecca is over the Arctic Circle. The animal must be respected, should not see the blade before the time of slaughter, and should not witness the slaughter of other animals.
The other requirement for halal slaughtering is that the blood of the animal must be completely drained before butchering may occur. It is assumed that some blood left in the meat and internal organs will be neutralized during cooking. Brining meat in a salt bath is not traditional practice for halal meats, in contrast with kosher tradition.
There is no complete agreement on whether or not halal slaughtering should be performed only by Muslims. Many Muslims accept meat slaughtered by a Christian slaughterer; others may reject it if they believe the slaughterer consumes pork, is not a person of good integrity, or does not invoke the name of Allah.
Any Minnesota meat processing facility is able to apply for ritual slaughter processes through MDA or USDA. The requirements for MDA are to list the name of the slaughterer, the explanation for the request, and the time period for the exemption. For a USDA-inspected plant, there is a place to select “Religious Slaughter Exemption” on the Grant of Inspection application. USDA also requires the name of the religious authority to be on file.
Halal slaughter needs to be included in a processor’s humane handling plan, which is a required document for USDA inspection. The plan needs to include information on the specific slaughterer, policies, and standard operating procedures. A letter from a religious authority is required only if the meat is to be labeled halal. If the buyer does not require labeled packaging (for example, the buyer is buying a whole carcass), a letter from a religious authority is not required by the USDA.
Similarly, for state-inspected equal-to facilities an application for exemption to utilize ritual slaughter is available from MDA and requires the name of the slaughterer, the type of ritual slaughter being practiced, and the reason for requesting exemption. The form requires only the signatures of the establishment owner/manager and the MDA representative. A signature from a religious authority is not required for the religious exemption in equal-to plants. However, any labeling of the meat may require a letter from a religious authority or certification body.
The most common method of religious processing is for a broker or a buyer to bring a halal slaughterman to the facility, rather than using a facility with a halal-trained slaughterman on staff. Religious slaughter practices tend to slow down line speeds by roughly 30 percent, adding costs and decreasing productivity. Reduced productivity is challenging in an industry with low margins and high fixed costs. Live slaughter takes longer and can increase the risk of injury for workers.
Processors typically charge for slaughter either per head or by weight. Due to the fixed costs associated with the slaughter line and the small size of goats, which means not much meat remains after slaughter and processing, goats are relatively expensive to process. Minnesota’s halal goat consumers tend to prefer smaller animals (less than 30 pounds hanging weight), which are perceived as younger and better tasting. However, there is also a market for older, larger animals because they are less expensive.
Another major issue for processors is the slaughter of hogs in the same facility as halal slaughter. Many consumers expect that halal meat was not processed in the same facility as hogs. However, this practice appears to be somewhat regular, with many halal brokers using facilities that process hogs as well. The issue of hogs on the same line is something that should be discussed in detail with any buyers, particularly with halal, because the market is highly based on trust and verbal affirmation of practices. Ideally, a processing facility that pursues halal slaughter would not also process hogs.