When Halal becomes Haram, more Taqwa is needed
By: Ahmed Kilani & Ali Cabban
MuslimVillage.com has spent the past week investigating the Halal chicken controversy that has left many from Sydney’s Muslim community in a state of confusion, some even no longer eating chicken.
After numerous meetings and interviews with representatives from Fresh Poultry, Taqwa Halal Certification (Taqwa), Australian Federation of Islamic Councils (AFIC) Halal Certification and Red Lea Chickens, we present what we have discovered to be the facts.
We pray that our findings will end the confusion and restore some certainty for the entire community. We believe that Taqwa, Fresh Poultry and AFIC Halal are all sincere in their endeavours. However, due to a lack of foresight, some errors of judgment, issues of trust and a lack of professional expertise, unnecessary doubt has been cast upon the status of Halal chicken produced both by Fresh Poultry and Red Lea.
As MuslimVillage.com reported last week in the article “Claims of supplying non Halal chicken denied“, the current controversy was started when Taqwa Halal Certification made a public announcement on May 4 2013 via social media, sms and email asking the community to avoid eating any products from Fresh Poultry, the only Muslim owned Halal hand slaughtered chicken slaughterhouse and wholesaler/retailer in Australia.
Taqwa’s announcement, which was authorized by Sheikh Omar El Banna and Sheikh Abo Adnan, was that Fresh Poultry management had broken a commitment to stop buying in machine slaughtered chicken by April 7 2013. It read in part:
“We advise our brothers and sisters to completely avoid eating fresh poultry chicken and warn others from eating their products. Our families and children deserve to be eating 100% halal food. This will never be achieved unless Australian Muslims become strict about their food and refuse to be disadvantaged and deceived”.
The announcement and a follow up one on May 6 2013 were both very clear in portraying that Fresh Poultry was not Halal and that their management was acting dishonestly. This spread like wildfire in the community resulting in Fresh Poultry and many of the businesses they supply finding themselves subject to a boycott by Muslim customers.
From our investigation, it would appear that Fresh Poultry and Taqwa were in the process of having Taqwa Halal certify Fresh Poultry, although it is unclear whether Fresh Poultry actually ever invited Taqwa to perform this service for them. Fresh Poultry never received any proposal letters or contracts from Taqwa, which is a surprising oversight given the consensus of Muslim scholars to always put in writing commercial contracts.
Furthermore, Fresh Poultry never received any written Halal standard, guides, manuals, or audit results from Taqwa during their certification process. It is also reported that in the numerous random visits to Fresh Poultry, none of Taqwa’s staff ever carried clipboards or worked through a written checklist when assessing the hand slaughtering process at the Padstow factory.
One of the key verbal requirements for Halal certification by Taqwa was for Fresh Poultry to cease re-selling any Red Lea products. Despite the fact that Red Lea chickens are Halal certified, and that Fresh Poultry only use small sized Red Lea chickens to supply their non-Muslim clients, Fresh Poultry representatives accepted this condition and agreed to stop supplying Red Lea products by April 7 2013.
Fresh Poultry initially agreed to this verbal demand on the basis of good intentions but could not deliver on its promise because of the unrealistic time frame imposed on it by Taqwa. In order to be able to stop using Red Lea chickens, Fresh Poultry continues to need more time and money to expand its hand slaughtering processes and to buy more refrigerated storage facilities for its Padstow factory.
Furthermore, if Fresh Poultry stops using Red Lea chickens to help fill orders to their non-Muslim clients, this could lead them to lose more than half of their existing business. This in turn would force Fresh Poultry to lay off more than half of it’s 70 workers. Given that Taqwa representatives were made aware by Fresh Poultry that Red Lea chickens were only supplying small chickens requested to non-Muslim clients, and that it was critical to Fresh Poultry’s business survival, it appears Taqwas demands were both unrealistic and unsympathetic to the time necessary to increase the supply of hand slaughtered chickens to all their non-muslim clients.
The error that Fresh Poultry made, and have acknowledged to MuslimVillage, was to fail to inform Taqwa that they would no longer be able to meet the agreed requirements. This resulted in Taqwa believing that Fresh Poultry management was acting dishonestly and lead to them publicly declaring them to be untrustworthy and in effect not Halal.
What was however not mentioned by Taqwa in any of their public statements – and which MuslimVillage believe that they had full knowledge of for some time – was that the Red Lea machine slaughtered chickens being supplied by Fresh Poultry are in fact Halal certified by AFIC.
For whatever reason, Taqwa does not accept the Halal certification of AFIC, despite the fact that the Head of AFIC’s Halal certification is the reputable and trusted Dr Mohammad Anas who is globally respected and recognized as a Halal certifier. According to Dr Anas, nobody from Taqwa has ever approached them to discuss their Halal certification standards and specifically the Halal certification of Red Lea. This was also confirmed in our discussion with a senior representative from Taqwa, Mohamed ElBishbeshy.
With regards to the Halal certification of Red Lea, Dr Anas informed us that Red Lea maintains a strict compliance with the rules of Halal machine slaughter permissible in the Shafi school of Islamic jurisprudence. Red Lea complies by having at least six Muslim slaughter men on the production line at any one time. The first slaughter man physically touches each chicken and recites the Tasmiyah [“Bismillah AllahuAkbar”] just as the mechanical blade slaughters each chicken. Another two slaughter men are positioned after the mechanical blade to hand slaughter any chicken missed by the mechanical process. Another Muslim is on standby in the slaughter room to fill in for any man that may leave the line during the kill. Of the two remaining Muslims, one is on a rotating break whilst the other manages the sleeping gas [CO2] given to the chickens before they are slaughtered.
AFIC have the right to inspect unannounced at Red Lea and conducts audits every 2-3 months to ensure Halal compliance is being maintained. This was confirmed to us in interviews with Red Lea management and the Halal slaughter men working for Red Lea. A document supplied by AFIC outlining their Halal machine slaughter standards can be found here.
Besides the AFIC Halal certification, in May 2011 AFIC took four auditors from JAKIM, the Malaysian government agency that oversees Halal certification, who inspected the Red Lea facility and gave it their approval. A copy of the audit report can be read here.
JAKIM is considered a global world leader in Halal certification. They certify tens of thousands of products annually via a department of specialists and experts in Islamic jurisprudence and modern day production and veterinary science. They have an internationally recognised Halal Certification system “Halal Food: Production, Preparation, Handling and Storage – General Guide” (MS 1500:2009), that covers the Halal process from the farm to the fork.
As part of our investigation, MuslimVillage.com was last week granted exclusive access to tour the Red Lea processing facility and hold interviews with management and staff. Under the supervision of the Quality Assurance Manager, we were personally escorted around the Red Lea plant. We were given the opportunity to inspect the entire production process from beginning to end, one that sees 90,000 chickens Halal machine slaughtered a day, five times a week. We can testify via what we personally witnessed that the Halal slaughtering was conducted exactly as stipulated by the AFIC Halal requirements.
Our interviews with Red Lea management revealed that there is no official record of any representative from Taqwq Halal Certification having ever formally inspected the Red Lea site. Of significance, Red Lea management informed MuslimVillage that a representative from Taqwa had made contact with them via a third party on May 9 2013 to try and get access to their processing site to ascertain if it was Halal compliant or not. This was a full 5 days after Taqwa had made their first public announcement accusing Fresh Poultry of using non-Halal machine slaughtered chickens from Red Lea.
Giglio’s Fresh Chickens
As an alternative to Fresh Poultry, representatives from Masjid Al Noor and in fact Taqwa’s Head certifier Mohamed Elbishbeshy have been advising the community that the only alternative to Halal hand slaughtered chicken from Fresh Poultry is a company called Giglio’s Fresh Chickens – see a screen shot from Masjid Al Noor’s Facebook page below:
There is some confusion however as Taqwa released a statement on May 6 2013 on behalf of Sheikh Omar El Banna and Sheikh Abo Adnan advising that they have not Halal certified Giglios (see below).
When MuslimVillage contacted Giglio’s last week to enquire about their Halal status, they informed us that they Halal hand slaughter two days a week and were approved by Green Valley Mosque for over 10 years. When we enquired if they were Halal certified by Taqwa, they said that they had been “approved by Taqwa for about 4 months, after some Sheikhs came and visited us”. They also confirmed that they sell pork products in their factory outlet that adjoins their processing plant. When asked where we could buy their Halal chicken, we were advised that we could buy directly from them or from Kassem Butchery in Granville.
Kassem Butchery is now 50% owned by Masjid Al Noor. Importantly one of the directors of Taqwa Halal Certification is also the Imam of Masjid Al Noor . A statement on the Masjid Al Noor Facebook page from March 31 2013 confirms this:
Inspite of this, MuslimVillage completely rejects any slanderous allegations that Masjid Al Noor, Taqwa or either of Sheikh Omar El Banna or Sheikh Abo Adnan are acting in any way for personal financial gain. However, it is clear that a serious conflict of interest arises when you control an organization that is a Halal certifying authority and then that body publicly calls for a boycott of a direct competitor of a company you have a 50% share in.
When this was put to a representative of Taqwa, they responded that Kassem Butchery is not a direct competitor of Fresh Poultry as it is only a wholesaler and not a processor of Halal chicken. It is very difficult to accept such an argument because Fresh Poultry is not just a processor, but also a wholesale and retail supplier and thus is a direct competitor to Kassem Butchery. The evidence of this is the fact that Giglio’s recommends Kassem Butchery and that Kassem Butchery does not supply Fresh Poultry chicken.
Of growing concern are reports that the issue is now moving beyond chicken with questions now being raised regarding red meat. This raises the question of who will be targeted next. Companies like Abu Ahmad Butchery/Fettayleh, who are currently approved by Taqwa as a red meat supplier, must be having sleepless nights. In the interests of full transparency, it should be noted that Abu Ahmed Butchery/Fettalyleh only currently supply Halal machine slaughtered chicken.
The other major unanswered question is why would Taqwa want to see the collapse of the only Muslim owned and controlled Halal hand slaughterhouse in Australia that employs over 70 people, mostly Muslims, and has the capacity to supply the whole Muslim community? This may not have been their intention, but it is a potential consequence from a public call to boycott Fresh Poultry.
Taqwa should have taken this into account before making such an announcement. This is not only for Islamic reasons, but the enormous potential legal liability that the Directors of Taqwa could personally face from Fresh Poultry, Red Lea and all effected businesses, if their call to boycott due to products being not 100% Halal could not be legally substantiated.
If Fresh Poultry were to collapse due to a boycott, the only party to benefit from such a move is Giglio’s, a non Muslim owned competitor that openly sells pork products. To take away such an asset from the control of the Muslim community would be an enormous loss to us all.
When this was put to a representative from Taqwa the response was that they would rather trust and deal with a non Muslim company than a dishonest Muslim owned one. Leaving aside all the factual evidence shown thus far that raises serious questions about the competence of Taqwa as Halal certifiers, the complete lack of foresight in such thinking is as disappointing as it is destructive.
This is further compounded by the fact that if Fresh Poultry where to shut down, Giglios can only currently supply about 5000 chickens a week or about 16% of the current production of Fresh Poultry (30,000 a week) – with no guarantee that it can increase production. The response from Taqwa to this was that people should simply stop eating chicken.
Despite the obvious impracticality of such advice, this provides no commercial solution to the dozens of restaurant owners and butchers who rely on and have full confidence in Fresh Poultry. Companies such as Ahmad Chami Butchery, Darwiche Butchery, Dougies Grill and many more. In some instances, such as is the case with Dougies and their purchase of chicken burger patties, there is no alternative Halal hand slaughtered supplier to Fresh Poultry for certain products. This will prove an interesting dilemma for the soon to open Dougies Flame Grill Auburn store which is reportedly going to be part owned by parties alleged to be closely associated with Masjid Al Noor.
For the record all the above-mentioned businesses have indicated that they had full confidence in Fresh Poultry and would continue to be supplied by them. This is sadly not the case with many other businesses. MuslimVillage have received numerous reports of take away food outlets and restaurants being threatened with boycott unless they change over supply to Giglio’s/Kassem Butchery. Many of these business owners have reported that they did not want to leave Fresh Poultry, but are in fear of losing business if they don’t.
This at the end of the day is the central issue at the heart of this Halal controversy.
This is not just about Halal standards, which is an issue – among a host of many – that requires strong leadership from a reputable body like the Australian National Imams Council to give guidance on and resolve. This is about the forceful imposition of the personal interpretation of Islam by a small number of vocal and intimidating people upon the majority of Muslims in our community.
This “my group is the only one on the Haq (truth)” mentality needs to be brought to an end. Whether it is about moon sighting for Ramadan or what food is Halal or how long your beard should be, what ever happened to the notion of Islamically valid differences of opinion being accepted.
It is also a sad reflection that so many people have warned MuslimVillage.com to be careful with what we write for our own personal safety. What sort of a community have we become when people are too frightened to express an opinion for fear of physical violence, let alone Muslim businesses who are now being bullied and intimidated into buying meat from only one or two sources on the threat that they will be boycotted and sent broke. This is not only completely unacceptable but it also haram.
The other important issue is that even if you believed that a person – Muslim or Non-Muslim – was in complete error, be it an individual or a company, the correct way to remedy this is via helping them overcome their errors. The Prophetic method is to correct, improve and build with patience and wisdom. It is not to abandon, condemn and to seek to harm.
On a positive note, MuslimVillage.com believes that much good will come from this incident. We are already aware that Fresh Poultry has started the process of obtaining independent Halal Certification from a reputable, respected, professional and Australian Government export approved (AQIS) certification body. Hopefully other companies that have been self-certifying will take heed and also obtain independent Halal certification.
Fresh Poultry is also exploring commercial offers put forward by reputable third parties to enable them to completely phase out the use of Halal machine slaughtered chicken. MuslimVillage also believes that repackaging Halal machine slaughtered chicken as being from Fresh Poultry, and as such presumed to be hand slaughtered, whilst still completely Halal and only for a small percentage of their Non-Muslim clients, is a practice that Fresh Poultry should look at changing in the interests of full transparency with consumers.
For these initiatives to be successful they will need greater support from the community to realise the benefits of buying hand slaughtered Halal chicken from a Muslim owned business. With a potential capacity in excess of 100,000 chickens a week, they are ready and willing to meet the community demand.
This controversy has also provided an opportunity to examine the Halal certification standards of AFIC. This has been of benefit and gives greater confidence and transparency to Halal standards in Australia. Despite the well documented governance issues that AFIC has, it would appear that their Halal Certification service under the leadership of Dr Mohammad Anas can be trusted.
MuslimVillage.com has also been informed that the Australian National Imams Council will be making the establishment of a national Halal standard a priority and will begin to pursue this with a meeting planned for this weekend. InshAllah this is the beginning of the establishment of other policy positions to provide guidance to the Australian Muslim community on a whole host of day to day issues they face in areas such as car and health insurance, credit cards, Islamic home finance, medical issues, foster care, HECS fees, the start of Ramadan, etc. Unfortunately to date there has been no leadership or guidance on the issues that Australian Muslims face on a daily basis.
Despite the turmoil and confusion that has ensued, the fact that many positive changes appear to be transpiring from this controversy is an indication of Sheikh Omar’s, Sheikh Abo Adnan’s and Fresh Poultry’s sincere and good intentions in trying to improve the status of Halal in Australia. It is hoped that all parties concerned will have learnt some important lessons from a professional and Islamic perspective that will see them all be a future source of benefit to the entire Muslim community in Australia and beyond InshAllah.
Who is Fresh Poultry?
Fresh Poultry is a Muslim owned Hand slaughtered Halal chicken slaughterhouse located in Sydney, Australia. It was purchased by the late Hassan Elkout at the age of 20 in 1986 and is currently still being run by his family after Hassan passed away in 2009.
Hassan Elkout started working at Fresh Poultry at that age of 14 in 1980, doing odd jobs for the Jewish owner Mr Grosman.The owner was impressed by Hassan’s honesty and hard work and at the age of 18 appointed him as a foreman. At the age of 19 he gave 10% of the company to Hassan, and shortly after gave him a further 20% of the ownership.
In 1986, Mr Grosman decided to retire and asked Hassan Elkout to buy out his 80% share. Hassan at the age of 20, could not afford to raise the funds to buy a multi million dollar business. Mr Grosman then agreed to act as guarantor to Hassan and borrowed the funds to enable him to purchase the company outright. Up to then Fresh Poultry was only producing machine slaughtered chicken.
In 1990 Hassan married Douha Sattout. It was shortly afterwards that Douha’s brother Abdel Hamid suggested that they introduce Halal hand slaughtered chicken and to trial it two days a week. What started as Halal hand slaughtered chicken on Monday’s and Thursdays, reached a peak of over 70,000 birds being slaughtered a week. Hassan Elkout was famous in the community for his enormous generosity and support of many community organisations.
Today Fresh Poultry slaughters 30,000 chickens a week and relies on 60% of its business coming from non-Muslim clients. They buy in 10% of products they cannot produce internally from Red Lea, a AFIC Halal certified (Halal machine slaughtered) processor. Although these products are repackaged as being from Fresh Poultry for commercial reasons, they are strictly controlled and only supplied to their non-Muslim clients.
With greater community support, Fresh Poultry can eliminate the need to buy in products from Red Lea and can grow the business to be able to supply the entire Muslim community with Halal hand slaughtered chicken products.
Disclaimer: Fresh Poultry is a commercial advertising client of MuslimVillage.com. We report without fear or favour, but make this disclosure in the interests of full transparency.