KEEPING the government’s nose out of anything with a religious whiff is one of America’s founding principles. With this in mind on January 31st a federal district judge in Minnesota dismissed a lawsuit contending that Hebrew National, a big American meat-products brand, fraudulently labelled its hot dogs “100% kosher”. Critics had claimed that the meat used did not meet kosher requirements. The judge, however, ruled that since kosher is a standard “intrinsically religious in nature”, under the first amendment it was none of the court’s business. Triangle K, the certifying body that gave the wieners the kosher seal of approval, and its Orthodox rabbis, would have to rebut the critics themselves. Unhappy customers could always shop elsewhere.
Few Western countries have laws explicitly regulating kosher or halal products—chiefly meat produced by the ritual slaughter of animals, subject to particular standards of health or hygiene. Governments prefer to rely on private companies and market forces to do the job. If people find out certified items are not as pure as they claim to be, they stop buying them. When governments do get involved it is usually under the auspices of consumer protection or food safety. They have been wary of wading in on specifically religious grounds. But with Muslim populations swelling throughout Europe and the business of religiously approved goods booming, the question of how to regulate such products is becoming more urgent.
America has been battling with this issue for decades. Of its 50 states, 22 have introduced kosher-fraud laws over the past century. Anxious about the industry’s rampant corruption (half of all “kosher” food was not), price-fixing and bitter rivalries (including drive-by shootings in poultry markets), New York started the trend in 1915 with a bill saying that food labelled fit for Jews must comply with “orthodox Hebrew religious requirements”. But in the past 20 years courts in Georgia, Maryland, New Jersey and New York have deemed such laws unconstitutional. New Jersey firms must merely produce documentary proof that their products are kosher.
Private certifiers have stepped into the breach. Five regulatory heavyweights (not including Triangle K) dominate the market, certifying products the world over. All the main kosher meat producers in America today adhere to the same stringent standard, “glatt kosher”, which includes especially careful examination of animals’ organs for any signs of illness that would render the meat unacceptable.
The only notable exception to this is Hebrew National, says Timothy Lytton of Albany Law School, who has written a book about kosher regulation (Hebrew National says it has “always stood by its kosher distinction and status” and a Triangle K rabbi says it made “kosher meat available to the greater American public, and not just the glatt consumer”.) The certifying bodies do a much better job than the government did, says Mr Lytton. They pounce on mistakes and are swift to admit their own. America’s kosher food industry generates $12 billion in sales a year so no one wants to lose customers because of sloppiness.
In Israel, by contrast, the state is closely involved, promoting the Chief Rabbinate’s kosher label as the only acceptable one. But those standards are the lowest common denominator, says Mr Lytton, and many religious Jews find them too lax. They insist on stricter checks from private companies which costs extra.
Still, Jews are more united than Muslims about the exact nature of their religion’s dietary rules. Jewish law leaves no doubt that stunning animals before slaughter is prohibited. Muslims disagree about that. Hundreds of halal-certification bodies operate, with varying standards and logos. They differ in their methods of slaughter. Some countries allow products containing a small percentage of non-halal ingredients to be classed as halal. Others do not. “Halal” pies and pasties recently served to Muslim prisoners in British jails turned out to contain traces of pork—but came from a supplier approved by the Halal Food Authority, one of two main British guarantors (it has now delisted the firm).
Tayyabs, a popular Punjabi curry house in the London borough of Tower Hamlets, Britain’s most Muslim area, does not even bother with certificates. The manager says that he knows and trusts his suppliers and his customers know and trust him.
That may work for a small, local restaurant but multinational firms cannot be so nonchalant. Last month McDonald’s and one of its franchises in Dearborn in south-east Michigan, which has the country’s highest concentration of Arab-Americans, paid $700,000 to settle allegations (which it denies) that it had falsely advertised its food as meeting Islamic dietary laws.
A worldwide standard for the $700 billion halal food market is one idea. Muslim countries, where governments see ruling on religious matters as part of their job, are keen to help. JAKIM, Malaysia’s department for Islamic development, takes responsibility for upholding halal standards. Misuse of the halal label can mean jail. The Sultanate of Brunei is proud of its mark, the Brunei Halal Brand. It wants to certify products around the world. That would help non-Muslim producers, such as Brazil, already one of the world’s largest exporters of halal meat, which are keen to expand in Muslim markets.
The importance of the halal label spreads well beyond food. Many of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims want reassurances that medicines and make-up, for example, are free from animal products or alcohol. Websites are abuzz with the news of a halal nail varnish produced in Poland. Just don’t test it on animals.