Saturday, January 12, 2013

Why McDonald's is not halal: Part 1

During my recent interactions with Singaporeans encouraging them to boycott some of the world's largest global corporations linked to the Israeli occupation of Palestine, some protested with the argument that these fast food joints have been given the sticker of halal approval by the MUIS, the Islamic Religious Authority of Singapore. So what right did I have to say that people shouldn't eat food that is state-endorsed halal?

Hard to argue with this.

Most of what I knew about fast food corporations such as McDonald's, I learnt in a sociology class in undergrad. After that class, I was convinced that nothing about their food (and fast food in general) could possibly be halal! I previously wrote about the ethics of eating halal, and in this post I will include two general Quranic guidelines on eating well and halal.

On food consumption in general, this article beautifully summarises the importance of quantity and quality. We should not be extravagant when nourishing ourselves (7:31), even when eating healthy foods (6:141). The root of extravagance or excess (s-r-f) appears 23 times in the Quran, referring almost equally to transgression. Eating or drinking too much connotes the idea of transgressing the limits of your God-given body, or disobeying physical laws. Hence, we come across our first Food Rule:

#1: Halal is moderation

As for the quality of food, we should be eating foods which are tayyibat, or good, clean, and pure (2:172, 20:81). 

Tayyibat foods can be unlawful, as mentioned for Jews (4:160). But for us, whatever that is tayyibat is halal (5:5) and we should not prohibit ourselves from good and pure food (5:87). I therefore argue that whatever that is not good for our bodies and minds is not lawful: halal = tayyibat, the second Food Rule!

#2: Halal is good, clean, and pure food

Eating and drinking is also mentioned together with a warning to not commit abuse on earth (2:60), alluding to the source of our food. Eating good food is mentioned together with not oppressing others (20:81) but instead, doing good works (23:51). This means that we must pay attention to the source of our food. It should not be causing abuse on earth (e.g. air/land/water pollution, rainforest destruction) or the oppression of others (e.g. exploited farmers, underpaid workers).

Organic fruits, vegetables and other products, means that they are grown without the use of synthetic fertilizers (read some of its environmental effects here) or chemical pesticides (here). Organic fertilizers (e.g. compost) and pesticides (e.g. vinegar, lemon juice) could still be used, as they achieve the intended effect without 'abusing' the earth.

Locally-grown means that less fuel is used to fly in products from other countries. I've never eaten a juicy, ripe, sweet, tomato in Singapore. (I recently learnt that many Singaporeans, about to travel, were forewarned of the gastronomic awesomeness of tomatoes grown in temperate climates.) I've also never eaten a juicy, ripe, sweet lychee in Holland. Local organic tastes best and is much cheaper. A quick survey of Cold Storage and other local supermarkets proved to be scarily expensive non-Asian vegetables imported from far away.

Singaporeans, check out Bollywood Veggies and Green Circle for organic, local, Asian vegetables! Look for key words like kampung (lit. village, refers to free-range) chicken or eggs. Better still if you have a banana or guava tree in your garden, or in your relatives' gardens in Malaysia!

Source: Green Circle Eco-Farm online store

Okay, now what about not exploiting humans or animals when trying to find something to eat? There are certain brands (e.g. Dole), products (e.g. tiger prawns, coffee), and provenances (e.g. Israel) that you could look out for. Recently I discovered that a brand of vegetarian products was in fact an Israeli settlement company (hence produced on stolen land and water and all that nasty stuff), and I promptly gave it up.

Here is some information about the conditions in halal farms in Australia (where most of Singapore's beef comes from). Surprisingly, not many people know that stunning is used regularly as part of ritual slaughter -- not every halal farm can do things the way this Texan ranch does. Recently there was a focus on the paltry conditions of live-export sheep to Singapore for Eid ul Adha slaughter. Is the meat from scared, cramped, stressed sheep halal?

Here's a resource about fair trade in Singapore, and fair trade and Islam in general. If you go to Malaysia often, pasar tani or farmer's markets are also good places to start.

Now that you know how to find what is considered respect for nature and other people, we arrive at the third Food Rule! (You can't always find something that fits all 3 criteria, but please always try!)

#3: Halal is local, organic, and/or fair trade

As for the kinds of food, fruit is explicitly stated as provision sent from God (2:22, 14:32, 28:57)! There's a hint if I ever saw one. The colours and growth cycles of fruits are signs of God (6:99, 35:27, 41:47). Aspiring traditionalists can also take a hint and start eating grains, grapes, palmfruit, pomegranates, figs, dates, olives, quails, and seafood. (Rather than conveniently giving a lecture on how we should dress and then heading out for burgers and Coca-cola). Just kidding.

What else is good, pure, and clean? If you have some time, watch this documentary and ponder that question.

And then read Part 2.

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