The processing of halal and kosher foods is a faith-based practice. Both traditionally define what foods certain religious communities consider permissible to eat. Those of the Muslim faith traditionally practice halal while those of the Jewish faith practice kosher. These practices involve a range of standards that include the restriction of certain foods such as pork and shellfish as well as following specific slaughtering practices. While there are similarities across both practices, halal and kosher standards also maintain unique guidelines and regulations that need to be meet by aspiring producers.
The new Halal + Kosher Minnesota Meat Market Assessment report offers a landscape view of the current halal and kosher meat markets in Minnesota. Published in January 2020, this report was a joint effort by the Minnesota Department of Agriculture (MDA), the University of Minnesota Extension (Extension) and the Agricultural Utilization Research Institute (AURI).
The report explores the opportunities currently available in Minnesota’s halal and kosher meat markets with the intention of better serving both Minnesota’s producers and consumers. According to the report, halal and kosher consumers are currently underserved, leaving “thousands of people with an unmet preference for fresh, high quality, and affordable meats processed using halal and kosher methods.”
“It really puts a spotlight on some of the bottlenecks on access to healthy, local meat for all Minnesotans as well as specific cultural communities,” says Dr. Kathryn Draeger, lead researcher for the project and Statewide Director of U of M Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships. “A lot of the recommendations in that report can serve us well just in terms of building resilience into the meat market and supply chain for healthy, local meat.”
To better serve this community, there needs to be an understanding across the entire supply chain of the requirements for halal and kosher production. While there is no single barrier to producers entering either market, there is a general lack of information on each practice’s requirements as well as a lack of relationships across the entire supply chain—from the farmers to the retailers.
The Halal + Kosher report project team worked hard to dive deep into the subject matter. With over 25 members, the team brought a diverse range of experience and expertise. The team included researchers, farmers, Extension educators and staff, as well as community leaders and educators from various religious and non-religious affiliations, including Islam and Judaism.
It was especially important to the project team that attention was given to subject matter accuracy and sensitivity, with numerous community groups reviewing the report prior to publication. Understanding the need for halal and kosher meats in Minnesota is a complex subject according to Minnesota Department of Agriculture’s Strategy and Innovation Specialist Ariel Kagan.
“I think if you read the report and come away feeling like you totally get it you didn’t read it very well,” says Kagan. “And even in our research team we have differences of opinions about what the takeaways are and how people should view this market. But I think if it were easy it would be done already.”
The report works to create a starting point for producers interested in breaking into the halal and kosher markets. Due to the complexity of the subject matter, it aims to foster understanding about specific consumer needs and not serve as a business plan for entrepreneurs. The report breaks the market assessment down into five topics: the overview, kosher practices and markets, halal practices and markets, goats in Minnesota and recommendations.
The Crossover Between Halal and Kosher
The report covers topics that are relevant to both the halal and kosher markets before breaking down the differences between the two markets. While halal and kosher standards are not interchangeable, there are certain areas where there is a crossover between the two practices. These areas include seasonality, meat processing availability, regulatory oversights and animal welfare rules.
As with all communities, halal and kosher consumers have patterns in demand based around seasonal events and holidays. Both faiths follow a lunar calendar. This results in a shift in dates each year for both Muslim and Jewish holidays. Understanding and tracking these holidays can help meat producers, processors, brokers and retailers to better prepare for demand.
The Halal + Kosher report notes that there is a slowdown in processing speeds by roughly 30 percent when it comes to religious slaughter practices. This slowdown can result in additional costs and decreased productivity, making preparation and understanding of seasonality essential to meeting demand.
Because both halal and kosher practices are faith based, the government does not regulate them. In fact, courts deemed laws pertaining to the definition of halal and kosher foods unconstitutional and incompatible with the guarantees of the freedom of religion outlined in the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. Therefore, third-party certification bodies are responsible for defining and auditing halal and kosher standards.
While federal laws do not currently define halal and kosher standards, there are regulations and policies in place that impact the marketplace and protect consumers. For example, the regulatory authority over the kosher labeling of products is the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA). This means that the FDA can prevent the use of terms like “Kosher” and “Kosher Style” as well as adjacent iconography such as the Star of David or menorah on products not certified as kosher by religious authorities.
Minnesota law currently protects halal and kosher labeling under two separate statutes: MN Statute 31.651 covers kosher labels and MN Statute 31.658 covers halal labels. These laws protect consumers by validating the standards of each label. Each law prohibits the mislabeling of halal and kosher products that do not meet practice standards as defined by religious authorities. The key difference between the two statutes is that the kosher label must be in writing while the halal label can be an oral or written statement.
A key aspect of both halal and kosher meat processing is the consideration of animal welfare and the respectful treatment of animals. According to the Halal + Kosher report, these religious perspectives are understood through the Quran and Torah that “the practice of ritual slaughter is intended to enhance, not degrade, animal welfare.” For example, animals must be alive and healthy at the point of slaughter to meet halal standards.
The main difference between conventional and religious slaughter comes the moment of killing. Because halal practices require a healthy animal for slaughter there is debate among certification authorities regarding the conventional use of stunning at the point of slaughter. The question is whether stunning an animal changes their condition from healthy to “unhealthy.”
While the respectful treatment of animals guides halal and kosher practices, they are still required to meet all animal welfare standards as enforced by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the MDA. additional work by animal welfare experts Temple Grandin and Dr. Joe Regenstein of Cornell University developed restraint designs that meet halal and kosher slaughter standards.
To be able to perform ritual slaughter, Minnesota meat processors can apply for a religious slaughter exemption through the USDA or MDA. Applications generally require the name of the slaughterer and an explanation of the request. Depending on the scale of the facility as well as the labeling requirements, letters from a religious authority may be required at certain stages of the process. Some consider the process to be overly complex and a barrier to their entry into the halal and kosher meat markets.
A major concern for processors handling halal and kosher meats is the slaughter of hogs. While consumer interviews confirm that the preference is for no hogs to be slaughtered at a facility handling halal or kosher meat, this is not always the reality. Certain procedures may prevent contact, such as processing all halal animals first thing Monday mornings before processing non-halal animals.
Goats in Minnesota
One specific regional need highlighted in the Halal + Kosher report is for halal goat meat. During the period of the research project it became clear that Minnesota’s Somali community was experiencing a near universal lack of fresh halal goat meat.
Interest in raising goats has been on the rise in Minnesota for the last two decades. This is attributable to both the increase in goat hobbyists as well as new immigrant communities with a preference for goat meat. Goats serve as a versatile option for producers as they can supply meat, milk, cheese and mohair fibers.
The main challenges to raising goats in Minnesota include the lack of available veterinary services and accessible markets as well as the cost of production and processing. Despite the recent census of agriculture reporting 25,000 meat goats in Minnesota, a number of these goats are show goats or are used to help control the spread invasive species.
A large barrier to increasing the access to goat meat in Minnesota is the market. Currently, producers are only able to sell goats through auctions or direct-to-consumer sales. This situation combined with the inconsistency in market demand results in pricing to be highly volatile year-round. Producers can take their goats to one of the three main goat auctions located in Jackson, Zumbrota, or Pipestone, Minnesota.
Ultimately, goats are not the only opportunity for Minnesota’s farmers and meat processors looking to enter the halal and kosher markets. The general overview of these two meat markets in the Halal + Kosher report provides interested parties a place to start. In order to succeed in these markets, attention needs to be paid to the nuance of each religious practice when related to the sourcing and handling of meats. Even more important is the need for relationship-building across the entire supply chain and with Minnesota’s Muslim and Jewish communities. The project team recommends that future efforts in supporting Minnesota’s halal and kosher markets include the clarification of standards, supporting small- and mid-sized meat markets and building understanding around halal-friendly financial tools.