WARNING: This slideshow contains graphic images of animals being slaughtered and butchered. Click with caution.
At Serious Eats we've looked at animal slaughter a couple times before. But recently I had an opportunity to see a side of the process which, to me at least, was totally new: the ritualized practice of halal slaughter and butchering.
Halal isn't just a system of slaughter: it's a whole system of eating, a set of beliefs and practices in Islamic faith that governs what and how a Muslim can eat. It bears a number of similarities to Jewish kosher laws: pork is forbidden and animals must be killed in a specific manner. Differences also abound: alcohol is forbidden to Muslims, and while only specifically certified Jews are allowed to slaughter a kosher animal, any Muslim can make a halal kill.
Halal is a form of respect: to Allah, to tradition, and to ourselves and the animals we eat. At least that's the point of view of Imran Uddin, owner of Madani Halal in Ozone Park, Queens. His ethos of respect for tradition and his animals' well-being is present in every aspect of Madani's facility.
This includes a surprising openness to the public—the entire slaughter process is carried out in full view, with customers encouraged to take part as much as they wish.
Note: only poultry was being slaughtered during my visit, and these comments can't necessarily be applied to all halal animal slaughter, or even Madani's procedures for cows, goats, and sheep. Though the practices and beliefs of halal apply to all animals, there realities differ. For example, while it takes less than a minute for a chicken to bleed out, a cow takes much longer.
Uddin left the advertising industry to join and lead the family business, supplying chicken, turkey, duck, squab, cows, goats, and sheep to restaurants and butchers around New York City, including the celebrated locavore butcher shop Dickson's Farmstand Meats. (His story is well told in the documentary A Son's Sacrifice, which won Best Short Documentary at the TriBeCa Film Festival.) But the heart and soul of Madani's business comes from the local Muslim community, who purchase between 3,000 and 5,000 animals each week. Strictly halal meat is the main draw for these customers, but so is the transparency, freshness, and selection that a slaughter-to-order facility has to offer—at a premium they are happy to pay.
Those tastes come with demands. Customers spend as much as an hour with chickens or goats to pick out the best specimens for their dollar. Some ask to slaughter the animals themselves, which Uddin gladly obliges. While saying a traditional Muslim prayer, he guides customers' hands with a knife to ensure a clean, fast, and low-pain kill.
A halal kill severs the jugular to drain out blood quickly and with little pain. Electric shocks, often used to render animals unconscious before slaughter, aren't allowed for fear of interfering with the bloodletting process. Most of the blood spills out in the first thirty seconds. Spasms continue—violently—for longer, but the kill is over before you know it. It's gruesome and uncomfortable, but for Uddin and his customers, proximity is the whole point. You won't find any pre-wrapped styrofoam trays here.
The service continues with scalding, plucking, and eviscerating the carcass, which can be tailored to the customer's desires. Uddin also offers an option to torch the carcass with a high-powered flamethrower. In some Muslim traditions, birds used to be torched to remove pin feathers. Modern plucking machines has rendered this unnecessary, but for some customers, the bird just doesn't taste the same without the torching. In the slaughter-to-order business, customer service is everything.
Is Halal Poultry Slaughter More Humane?
Some more lax slaughterhouses designate any meat not specifically forbidden by Islam as halal, even if their practices are identical to large-scale secular processors. Uddin, on the other hand, sources his meat from small, nearby farmers (though as this is New York City, "nearby" includes Lancaster County, Pennsylvania) and follows halal strictures as much as he can.
It's clear to an observer that a slaughterhouse isn't any animal's first choice of where to be. The air stank of hot blood, even on a brisk autumn morning. Despite precautions, the birds seemed to develop a sense of what was about to happen to them as they neared the kill room; some put up a fight. And Madani doesn't have any kind of certified humane certificates (though opinion differs on the validity of those labels).
Madani doesn't call itself a humane slaughterhouse. Freshness of meat and tailored service are the order of the day. At many certified humane slaughterhouses, animals are electrically stunned before slaughter, so they aren't conscious during the kill. Halal tradition forbids stunning on the grounds that it interferes with the bloodletting process. So for the thirty to sixty seconds it takes a chicken to die in the cones, it's wide awake. The same is true for larger animals, like goats, except they take much longer to drain out. Many humane slaughterhouses also have strict procedures to ensure minimal stress on animals. While Madani conducts its kills in a separate room, there isn't much in the way of explicit procedure from the bird's perspective to ease stress beforehand.
All that considered, what you see at Madani is what you get. With respect to poultry, I feel far more confident purchasing from them than the large industrial slaughterhouses about which we all hear the horror stories. From a humane perspective, I can't and won't comment on larger animals like sheep and goat, since I didn't get to see those kills first-hand.
The grim truth of any kind of slaughter is simple: animals die so we can eat, and that death is never pleasant. Even under the best of circumstances, slaughter involves pain or stress; places like Madani allow us to see that for all it means, and decide for ourselves what to do with the knowledge. I can't say it's representative of halal slaughterhouses everywhere (Uddin admits as much), but transparent facilities like this are vital to our understanding of just what happens to our food to become food. Death is a complicated, messy process—physically, emotionally, and ethically. At the very least, we owe the animals we eat an obligation to understand just what that means, which should include an endeavor to do better by those animals. And that which isn't perfect can at least do better.