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How safe is your food? Let's take the meat industry. Kosher and Halal meat packers are thought to have higher standards when it comes to slaughtering animals, but a recent raid at an Iowa Kosher slaughter house has raised some questions about that. And so now some Muslims in Chicago think they have a solution. Monique Parsons reports.
MONIQUE PARSONS: A hundred miles due west of Chicago, 20 fat minutes from the interstate and the nearest Wal-Mart, Scott Hasselmann is standing on his family farm. With his plaid shirt and trucker cap, he fits right into this rural scene. But the young woman beside him is a long way from home.
Mr. HASSELMANN (Farmer, Iowa): You being a mushroom grower there.
Unidentified Male: You are from where?
Ms. ZAINAB KHAN (Director, Taqwa Eco- Halal): Chicago.
Mr. HASSELMANN: Chicago?
PARSONS: Hasselmann's guest is Zainab Khan. She wears a long denim tunic and a dark grey head scarf. No one would bat an eye at her traditional Islamic style back home. She lives a block from one of the Chicago area's largest mosques. But it is a rare site in these parts. She surveys Hasselmann's ducks, geese, sheep, and cows, all roaming together in a spring green pasture.
Ms. KHAN: Can I ask you how long you have been doing this?
Mr. HASSELMANN: Two years.
Ms. KHAN: Oh, really?
Mr. HASSELMANN: Two years.
Ms KHAN: Have you ever - did you ever farm before that?
Mr. HASSELMANN: My grandpa and grandfather were mushroom growers.
PARSONS: Khan is here on business. She's the director of Taqwa Eco-Halal, a cooperative that distributes sustainably raised, ritually slaughtered, Halal meat. Taqwa, the Arabic term for God consciousness, brought in about 14 thousand dollars from some 90 families last year. That's a tiny fraction of a multi-million dollar market. Sort of like Jewish Kosher law, Muslim tradition treats every animal as a sacrifice. A prayer is recited for each. They must be clean, calm, and facing Mecca before they are hand killed with a single pass of a sharp, clean blade.
(Soundbite of turkey gobbling)
PARSONS: Like small sustainable farming, ritual slaughter is time consuming, costly and in an age of mechanized high volume meat production, it's tempting for producers to cut corners. Taqwa hires slaughters to do it right. Khan says Islam isn't just concerned with how the animal died, but also how animals and their caretakers lived. Strolling around Hasselmann's farm, Khan wants to see that he tends his own flock, and that his animals are grass fed and free range.
Mr. HASSELMANN: Next year you'd probably want 20 lambs.
PARSONS: Here, in corn country, his roaming menagerie raises some eyebrows, but this Lutheran farmer says that he is here to stay, and working with Taqwa would be more than good business, it would build sorely needed bridges.
Mr. HASSELMANN: There's a big, big divide between rural people - rural people think city people don't know where their food comes from which is true.
Ms. KHAN: So we have these trays. We've got these freezers, and we have these little white trays and we've got tags here, so when we get an order...
PARSONS: Back on the west side of Chicago, Khan opens a six foot long Kenmore deep freezer to reveal the fruits of last year's farm visit, neat bundles of frozen lamb steak and rump roast tightly wrapped in white butcher paper. Each one is marked with a Taqwa stamp. Because Taqwa is small, co-op members pay a premium, a big one.
Mr. MUHAMMAD YUSA KHAN (PH) (Owner, Halal Meat Distributor): Like beef, he has it for seven dollars. You can buy it from Halal for 3.49. Sirloin steaks you can go for like 4.40 a pound instead of 14 dollars.
PARSONS: Muhammad Yusa Khan is a slaughter man who owns one of the Midwest's largest Halal meat distributers. When he looks over Taqwa's price list, he can barely suppress a smile. Khan says most people simple can't afford Taqwa meat, but he agrees Muslims should demand higher Halal standards. He's seen so called Halal inspectors arrived at the job late or not at all.
Mr. MOHAMMAD MAZHAR HUSSAINI (Executive Director, Islamic Society of North America Halal Certification Program): We were really struggling with the standards.
PARSONS: Mohammad Mazhar Hussaini is the Executive Director of the Islamic Society of North America's Halal certification program. The umbrella group reached an agreement recently after arguing for years over a national standard. He says Taqwa's commitment to local farms is nice, but in a world of multinational corporations, it is not always practical.
Mr. HUSSAINI: Islam and Muslims is not a monolithic group of people, there are all differences of people and we respect that.
PARSONS: In the coming months and years, Hussaini hopes the ISNA seal of approval will be as ubiquitous as the Kosher stamps in American supermarkets.
At a recent Taqwa dinner, second grade teacher, Huba Abasi (ph) gets ready to try some seasoned lamb, with rice. She said her father's cancer diagnosis last year led her to organic food and Taqwa's hormone free meat.
Ms. HUBA ABASI (Second Grade Teacher): I purchased parts of the lamb. My husband and I don't cook a lot with meat anyway, but when we do, it's this and it's great. It feels good.
Ms. PARSONS: At its heart, the Taqwa co-op is about the kinship of all creation. Director Zainab Khan says she simply wants Muslims to think about what is on their plate. To know how it lived, how it died, and how it got there. For NPR News, I'm Monique Parsons in Chicago.
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