A federal investigation by the USDA of the oldest halal meat slaughtering and product company in the United States raises grave concerns for Muslims about the infringement of first amendment rights.
The raid of Midamar Corporation in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on October 16, was lead by US Department of Agriculture enforcement officers.
In a joint federal operation, agents seized documents, books, records and computer files, freezing $454,000 of assets.
Midamar has sought an injunction to access the funds, but was turned down by the US District Judge Linda Reade.
A family-owned business run by Bill Aoessey, Jr., and pioneering the halal meat product market in 1974, Midamar is the first halal company to seek USDA approval for its products.
It conducts the slaughtering of livestock at their facility, creating various halal products that are distributed worldwide.
Currently, Midamar does 70 percent of its business internationally, selling products throughout the Middle East and Southeast Asia. Their hot dogs are popular on ethnic grocery stores across the United States.
Sara Sayed, the spokeswoman for Midamar says, “While the USDA investigation is ongoing and we are cooperating, there has been no explanation as to why this is happening and no means of getting to a resolution.”
According to Salon.com, court documents suggests the government is looking into allegations that Midamar packaged meat as being halal when it was not.
“The USDA does not have oversight of religious observations like the ritual slaughter of meat, but can investigate mislabeling of products as kosher or halal,” says Rabbi Sholem Fishbane of the Chicago Rabbinical Council.
“The concern here is that the government alleges we mislabeled products,” explains Sayed. “We perform the halal ritual and then make the products, so is the government saying that our process of halal is not acceptable? Is the government now regulating the religious practice?”
The USDA regulates commercial sales of meat products in the United States, however, the Humane Slaughter Act passed in 1958 exempts Jewish and Muslim slaughtering practices by defining ritual slaughter.
Criminal investigations of mislabeled meat products are rare.
According to the USDA, only 10 such criminal actions were filed against people or corporations since 2011.
The most recent case with the mislabeling of halal meat products was in 2010 involving Super King Market in Anaheim, California.
The Orange County District Attorney’s office found that the company was selling meat from various sources as being halal, when it was ordinary meat.
Super King Market agreed to pay $527,000 to settle the case.
The investigation of King Market began when the Orange County Health Department discovered meat was being delivered to the store without clear labeling, but once on display, it was “co-mingled with generic meats” and falsely labeled as being halal.
That investigation did not involve the USDA and was carried out under the California Halal legislation AB 1828 that was passed in 2002.
California is the fifth state in the country to pass such legislation. New Jersey, Minnesota, Virginia, Illinois and Michigan have similar legislation.
Sayed believes the USDA’s actions against Midamar arose out of its import inspection obligations, which they voluntary submit to.
The only documented case of USDA prosecution of halal mislabeling involved the Washington Lamb Company of Springfield, Virginia in 1997.
According to the USDA, Washington Lamb was investigated after compliance officers discovered that in 1993 and 1994, the company had placed false halal stamps on meat and lamb products, used false halal certificates, and made false oral representations to its customers claiming that ordinary meat met halal requirements.
The raised prices cost consumers about $9,000.
According to Washington Lamb’s website, they sold halal meat purchased by outside vendors as well as ordinary meat, unlike Midamar which slaughters and markets its products for the halal meat industry.
In fact, Washington Lamb currently lists Midamar as its source for specialty halal meat products.
When asked about why Sayed thinks this occurred, she responds that it would be useless to assume the reason for the investigation given the lack of information available.
“If the USDA was going after us for halal, which doesn’t fall into their mandate, the question is why would they go after a purely halal company that specializes in this product and not a mainstream company trying to dabble in halal?” Sayed says.
Attempts to contact the USDA for a response went unanswered.
According to The Gazette in Iowa, seizure of financial assets is often connected to investigations of tax evasion, money laundering or fraud.
Bob Teig, a retired assistant U.S. attorney in Iowa’s Northern District, says, “It appears to involve more than meat inspection requirements and regulations.”
That perception has community leaders and civil rights advocates worried that this is selective and discriminatory investigation that infringes religious freedom.
“Midamar can come out and conclusively show that their process is halal, get a consensus from Muslims on this process, case is closed. But the fact is the government has zero business in defining what is halal and not, that is up to the community. We do that,” says Shakeel Syed, the executive director of Shura Council, which is an umbrella organization representing Islamic Centers and organizations in Southern California.
There is an ongoing debate on what constitutes halal slaughtering as was recently exhibited in al-Safa foods labeling of food in 2011 when it changed from hand slaughtering to mechanical process.
Syed argues that the government doesn’t step in to dictate between Reform and Ultra Orthodox Jewish community by defining what kosher is.
He expresses that Midamar might be a case of the “government running after Muslim charity’s at one time, except, now they are running after halal chickens.”
Under the counter terrorism developments that were heralded in the aftermath of September 11, 2001, one systematic change called the Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF) has had a far reaching affect on the American Muslim community giving weight to Syed’s concern of government investigations of Muslim charities and businesses.
JTTF is a cooperative effort to address the criminal and intelligence gathering short falls of law enforcement agencies at all levels of government after the 9/11 attacks.
This cooperative model is managed by the FBI, which aims to utilize the JTTF to protect the homeland from terrorist attacks. Among the agencies that actively take part in the taskforce is the USDA.
An early example of this work first appeared in 2003, when Phyllis Fong, then Inspector General regulating the USDA, testified to the US House of Representatives Committee on Agriculture on the cooperation with the JTTF over food stamp trafficking cases involving the transfer of monies overseas.
Operation Green Quest was a national project to identify mechanisms used to transfer funds overseas to terrorist groups and USDA representatives were active with these investigations.
In this working group, the USDA would report to the FBI information on a person of interest from Pakistan, being an Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) recipient, and actively engaging in the transferring of funds to Pakistan, without any clear criminal behavior criteria prompting the investigation.
“We regularly encounter officers from various agencies working on the JTTF’s to further FBI’s counterterrorism goals,” says Ameena Mirza Qazi, Staff Attorney for CAIR-LA. “Sometimes when they do not have enough for a terrorism-related prosecution, they pursue charges related to white-collar crimes against Muslims. This raises serious questions of whether these prosecutions are selective and discriminatory.”
In 2002, regulations put into place by the Church Commission hearing of FBI domestic investigations of Civil Rights leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr., were eliminated.
The Church Commission had concluded that the FBI, under COINTELPRO, had been spying on Americans based on politically motivated and flagrantly violating first amendment rights.
Documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act by the ACLU indicate that the JTTF units are similarly investigating Americans given the removal of safeguards.
Given the seriousness of the allegations against Midamar, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) is calling on US authorities to explain their investigation and Midamar has retained an attorney.