Some Fear News Will Impact Local Halal Meat Stores
By Amalia Rehman
Muslim Link Contributing Writer
Recently, there have been many emails concerning Costco, Safeway and Giant apparently selling halal, or Islamically lawful, meat.
Before getting too excited, one should know that some meat managers and store managers in the D.C. area did not even know they had halal meat in the stores. Many do not know what halal meat is and in some chains they often open up the packaging, cut and repackage the halal meat.
This meat, which is Australian-certified, is halal when it is sent to the stores.
But the meat manager at a Woodbridge, Va., Safeway said he was unaware that the Australian and New Zealand lamb was halal.
“The cryovac packages are not the best quality. We have found them to be dark and unattractive. So, often we open the packages and cut it up for repackaging,” he said.
This is sometimes done with machines that handle pork products, he said.
Ray, the store manager did not even want to discuss the matter and deferred to the Public Affairs Department of Safeway.
“As an individual store manager [I cannot] comment and make an official statement on a company policy,” Ray said.
At the Lake Ridge, Va., Giant, the meat manager, Rob, said he didn’t know the Australian meat was halal.
“I come from New York, so I know what kosher is,” he said. “But we open and cut the product that comes in whole and package it for our store. By doing that, it is no longer kosher…The legs come in whole and we cut them up and the shoulders are cut into chops.”
Rob said it didn’t really matter if there was a label on the meat that indicated it was certified halal.
“Even if we were getting this halal meat, the whole Giant chain is switching over to American pre-packed lamb and veal,” he said.
“We don’t buy much of that product at all,” Jim Lambkins, the Operations Officer for meat purchasing for Giant, said. “Down South it is about at zero. If we do buy any lamb, it is only saddles and legs. Saddles would be cut up by us to make into chops and legs would also be cut up to make into roasts.”
Lambkins also confirmed that there is no effort on the part of Giant to provide halal meat and to draw in the Muslim market. He said there wasn’t much interest in the nationwide policy to start to purchase American packaged lamb and veal.
“There really isn’t much of that product even being purchased to warrant any attention,” Lambkins said.
Well then, what about Costco?
Like the Safeway and Giant managers, Erin, the membership manager in the Woodbridge store, said he did not know the meat was halal.
In examining the packages, there was no indication that the meat was halal certified. The packages do say “Australia Inspected” and includes an inspection number. That may indicate that it is halal meat, but you would have to know that and look for it. There are two basic cuts that are halal, leg of lamb and rack of lamb.
A meat department employee indicated that they are sealed by the Australian company and shipped, via the warehouses, directly to the stores. They do not open the packages or cut the meat. Erin, reluctant to speak on the subject, suggested contacting the wholesale center in Sterling, Va., who suggested contacting the corporate offices in Washington State.
At the corporate offices, Rob Plefkoff stated that Costco is aware that they are buying halal meat, but it was not a conscious choice initially.
“First, it is an issue of quality and it builds up. The membership is so big and diverse that this issue just builds on itself,” Plefkoff said. “The Australian meat industry recognizes the needs of the people to which they export and they have developed a stringent halal certification system. Costco purchases from them. And we have been getting so many inquiries about it.”
Costco purchases both loins and cryovacked legs and racks of lamb. Loins are further processed by Costco. These saddles are not cryovacked. They are sold by the case & cut up. They are not halal. But the legs and racks of lamb are halal.
Although Costco is not making a specific effort to attract the Muslim market, as long as they can, they will accommodate the desires of their customers, Plefkoff said.
“Within 6 to 8 weeks each cell unit of meat will have the halal certification seal on it so customers will know they are buying halal meat,” he said.
Owners of small ethnic grocery stores in the area are not as worried as you might think.
“Yes, I have some concern that [ultimately] it might affect my business,” Brother Tahir, the owner of Ali Grocery said. “There are some stores like Restaurant Depot, that sells frozen halal meat and some people do go there for meat. They drive all the way, about 20 to 25 miles to get cheaper meat…Restaurant Depot sells lamb and goat cheaper, but that meat is frozen. People who buy fresh meat regularly will not buy the frozen. It is not as fresh and they are used to fresh.”
The owner of Desi Bazaar had similar comments.
“I think, in general people will not want it for a few reasons,” he said. “Of course this is my opinion and you may find the opinion of others different, but people do not trust these companies to be really halal. Desi people like to buy from a Desi store. They can trust it and they know what they are getting…Even Restaurant Depot. There are some people who do not trust it… I have people come as far as Fredericksburg and Stafford to buy fresh meat from me.”
Brother Ibrahim, owner of two Medina Market stores, did not know about the halal meat being sold by Costco, Safeway or Giant.
“Giant tried to sell halal meat before, but it did not work for them,” he recalled. “They need a higher mark up than a small grocery because of all their employees etc. They used to sell lamb shanks for $3.99 per pound while Medina Market was able to sell theirs for $2.99 per pound.”
In general, owners of small groceries that cater to the Muslim community feel some apprehension about a large competitor in their midst possibly competing for a share of their market. But so far, these pitches have been unsuccessful.
The certified halal meat from Australia is clearly halal. But, most managers of meat departments and even store managers are unaware of this. Some large grocery chains may buy the halal meat, but then they need to cut it up and package it for the U.S. market.
This explains, in part, people’s hesitancy to purchase halal products from large non-Muslim chains. If the majority of the people who are handling a halal product are unaware of it and its regulations, there is the possibility that it has been treated in a way that would nullify its ‘halalness’. It is not that people do not trust the Australian company; it is the players involved in getting to and displaying it in our local markets.
For those that are interested, according to a Costco meat department employee, the lamb at Costco that is in cryovac and is from Australia is packaged by the slaughtering companies and is halal all the way to your house. They are packaged in Kirkland packaging and have not been repacked by Costco.
Is Australian-certified meat halal?
One email copied a statement from the website www.Australian-beef.com.
“The Muslim consumer market is very important to the Australian meat industry. Australia has a Government Supervised Muslim Slaughter System (AGSMS) which ensures high quality product that is strictly Halal (“lawful” in Arabic). Australia is recognized as a world leader in Halal meat production. For its success, the AGSMS relies heavily upon the involvement and expertise of various Islamic organizations. These organizations are licensed to supervise, inspect and certify all Halal meat and meat products by the Australian Quarantine Inspection Service (AQIS). Halal meat must have a program which complies 100 percent with AGSMS guidelines. All Halal meat processing facilities must submit to regular AGSMS inspections: Processors may only employ registered Muslim slaughter men. Haram (“unlawful”) meat may not be processed in the same area as Halal product Halal and non-Halal product must be adequately separated and identified at all times. Equipment must be thoroughly cleaned and washed if non-Halal meat has been in contact. Only genuine Halal products may be issued a Halal certificate and only by recognized Islamic organizations.”
Therefore, one may feel confident in buying Australian Halal Certified Meat. The difficulty is that until the individual packages are labeled as halal certified, the individual consumer has no way of knowing if they are buying halal meat.
At present, only cases of meat have the halal certification label.
“The master cases that are sent to Costco do carry a MS (Muslim Slaughter) legend,” Marybeth Laleman, a representative of the Australian Lamb Company wrote in an email to a DC area community member. “The individual packages do not, but they will in the future.”