For more than two decades, Habib Ghanim held the esteemed role of certifying halal beef liver for Egypt without a single hiccup. Egypt, the world’s largest importer of beef liver and home to one of its most cherished dishes, relies heavily on this delicacy, much of which is sourced from the United States. Ghanim’s company, the USA Halal Chamber of Commerce, stood at the forefront of certifying American beef liver as halal before it embarked on its journey to Egyptian plates.
The term “halal” originates from Arabic and translates to “lawful” or “permitted.” In the context of food, it signifies the adherence to specific Islamic guidelines in the preparation, processing, and storage of meat. While a universally accepted definition of halal remains elusive among certification bodies, the certification of halal food predominantly involves the oversight of Muslim religious figures or authorities, mirroring the process employed for kosher food.
Halal certification agencies come in various shapes and sizes, each focusing on particular industries, be it meat, cosmetics, restaurants, or pharmaceuticals. These agencies meticulously collect documentation from their clients, scrutinize ingredients, ensure facility cleanliness to prevent cross-contamination, and confirm that every aspect, from registration to product creation, aligns with Islamic principles.
In the case of meat, this rigorous process ensures that animals are treated, slaughtered, and processed in strict accordance with Islamic tenets, invoking the name of God and conducting the slaughter in seclusion. Only after meeting these stringent criteria can clients secure a coveted halal certification for their products.
However, Ghanim’s flourishing business hit an abrupt roadblock in 2019 when he received a disheartening letter from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The letter conveyed that the Egyptian government had suspended his halal certification work, permitting only one company in the country, IS EG Halal, to certify halal meat for Cairo. Overnight, an organization with no prior halal expertise became the sole entity authorized by the Egyptian government to certify halal exports worldwide.
The consequences were dire. Several American Muslim entrepreneurs running halal certification companies lost their clients, while Ghanim suffered substantial financial losses. Efforts to overturn this decision, or at least gain an explanation, proved futile, both for Ghanim and the USDA.
Behind the scenes, prosecutors alleged a more sinister plot was at play, implicating the head of IS EG Halal, Wael Hana, an Egyptian American from New Jersey, and a prominent U.S. senator, Bob Menendez, who was purportedly in cahoots with him.
In a 39-page indictment filed in federal court, Hana, Sen. Menendez, and others were charged with bribery. Despite vehemently denying any wrongdoing, the allegations cast a shadow over their actions. Hana’s spokesperson maintained his innocence, emphasizing his cooperation with the government’s investigation.
According to the indictment, the USDA had initially contacted the Egyptian government to reconsider IS EG Halal’s exclusive rights. However, when Bob Menendez intervened, things took a different turn. Allegedly, he called a USDA official to demand an end to their interference, receiving bribes in cash and gold from Hana in return.
This newfound deal between IS EG Halal and the Egyptian government led to a stark increase in prices, causing harm to consumers. Certifiers who once charged $10-$20 for a 2,000-pound container were now charging $220 for the same weight, leaving the Egyptian people shortchanged.
American halal certifiers were not spared either. Similar to Ghanim, Mahmoud, another halal certifier in the U.S., had his company audited by Egyptian veterinarians in 2019, sharing sensitive documents and information during the process. Both Ghanim and Mahmoud suspect that their information found its way to Hana and IS EG Halal.
Their pleas for help, directed at various government agencies, yielded no results. The USDA deferred comment to the Department of Justice, which remained silent.
The case underscores the need for transparency and accountability in the halal food industry. Mansoor Rafiq Umar, president of Halal Watch World, emphasizes the importance of trust when it comes to halal food. He believes the Hana case exposes inherent corruption in the system and calls for stronger regulation.
Hamzah Maqbul, founder of the Halal Food Standards Alliance of America, agrees, highlighting the need for vigilant consumers and emphasizing the power of their choices. Transparency and accountability, he asserts, are essential to ensure the integrity of halal products.
While strides have been made in the halal food industry, there is a consensus that more needs to be done. Munir Chaudry, founder of the Islamic Food and Nutrition Council of America, stresses the importance of government involvement in safeguarding the faith-based dietary requirements of consumers.
In conclusion, the Hana case serves as a stark reminder of the need for robust oversight and regulation in the halal food industry. It underscores the importance of preserving trust in halal products and the commitment to adhering to Islamic principles in their preparation and certification.