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Jews and Muslims find common ground in food

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Khalid Mustafa has worked as a halal butcher in Brooklyn, New York for 18 years. (Amanda Rivkin/CNS)

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Hummus does not need to be marked halal because it does not contain any meat products, but often it will have an encircled "U" showing that the product is kosher. (Amanda Rivkin/CNS)

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Khalid Mustafa's store buys Kraft products from an Arabic distributor for his store so his customers will know that the products are clearly halal. (Amanda Rivkin/CNS)

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A movement to mark products with an encircled crescent like this can of beef from Brazil is gaining popularity in the U.S. (Amanda Rivkin/CNS)

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A walk-in refrigerator with halal beef and lamb in Brooklyn, New York. (Amanda Rivkin/CNS)

Determining the exact contents of a meal at a restaurant can be stressful for Jews and Muslims who choose to follow their faiths' dietary restrictions. A dinner at a friend's house is a balancing act between trying to be polite and keeping true to your choices. Travel can test the best of intentions.

Lindsey Blank, who usually observes strict Jewish kosher rules, says she has had her share of those experiences, choosing to be flexible in rare occasions.

Last summer, while visiting Morocco, she was faced with eating an entirely vegetarian dish or consuming halal meat, which conforms to Muslim tradition.

“I ate the meat,” she said, “because I knew it was halal.”

She is not alone in the Jewish and Muslim communities. In strict religious terms, Jewish kosher and Muslim halal foods are different from each other. But they are similar enough to appeal to an interesting mix of consumers.

American Muslims, for example, now make up 16 percent of the market for U.S. kosher food, according to the Mintel Organization, a global supplier of consumer research. The reason: There are 90,000 kosher-certified products and only about 1,000 halal products available in the United States, according to Forbes magazine and Kosher Today, a Web site for food professionals.

Kosher and halal foods are similar: Both prohibit the use of pork, pork products and blood in food. Animals are slaughtered in a similar manner: as painlessly as possible for the animal with one clean cut to the neck. The blood is fully drained from the body and spinal cord matter is cleaned. Animals must be slaughtered in the name of God to be halal, and the premises must be blessed by a rabbi for the food to be considered kosher. Only live, healthy animals can be used.

But there are differences. Alcohol, even in tiny amounts, is forbidden in halal foods, but is not an issue in kosher. Mixing dairy and meat is prohibited in kosher foods, but is not an issue in halal.

In Brooklyn, where Jews, Muslims and a myriad of other religious and ethnic groups live side by side, Khalid Mustafa and his brother have been running a halal butcher shop for 18 years. His customers are mainly Arabs, but he said Jews and other neighbors, like Italians and Hispanics, often visit the store to buy halal meats.

“They buy the meat because it’s halal,” he said. “It’s fresh, never frozen and it tastes good.”

The store is also filled with other products considered halal, from nonalcoholic Dutch beer to canned Brazilian corned beef slaughtered in accordance with Islamic practices. But most products come from Arab distributors.

International companies like Kraft and Nestle also have products on the shelves of New York halal stores, but they are largely imported from Arab countries, Mustafa said.

“They are not Muslim companies, so they have to work harder to prove that the product is halal,” Mustafa said, adding that American products that are certified to be Kosher are generally safe for Muslims to eat.

Many of the products in his halal store, like American hummus and Israeli tea biscuits, also have kosher certification, proven by a tiny OU trademark, which means the product has the approval of the Orthodox Union, the largest American kosher certifier. The organization says it certifies more than 400,000 products in 80 countries around the world.

The Islamic Food and Nutrition Council of America is the largest issuer of the halal certification in North America. The organization says there has been a steep increase in requests for halal certification, and it now certifies products for 2,000 companies worldwide.

“There are over 9 million Muslims in North America,” the organization’s Web site says. “The market for halal-certified products is huge.”

In addition to organizations like OU and IFNCA, government entities check claims of religious compliance. City officials in New York, for example, inspect halal stores regularly to make sure they are complying with religious standards.

In 2000, New Jersey passed the first halal certification law. Other states have since followed suit.

Muslim and Jewish leaders in Virginia successfully lobbied for enactment of a state halal and kosher labeling statute. Virginia law now requires that any food offered for sale as kosher or halal be labeled with the name of the person or organization certifying the item.

Eissa Walim, who works at a Lebanese restaurant in New York, said Muslim and Jewish customers often come in to enjoy the pork-free cuisine.

“We don’t serve pork,” he said. “But if they are really religious, they will go for a vegetarian dish, because our meat is not halal.”

Mintel’s research shows that 55 percent of people who buy kosher food do so not for religious reasons alone but also because they believe the products are healthier and safer.

E-mail: anb2118@columbia.edu