QUEBEC - The Parti Quebecois is sounding the alarm bell over an Islamic food ritual, calling slaughter for halal meat an affront not only to the rights of animals but to the values cherished by Quebecers.
The pro-independence party declared its concerns Wednesday about halal animal-rights standards, and is worried that mainstream companies are selling the meat, without any labelling, to unsuspecting Quebecois customers.
Not to be outdone, the fledgling Coalition For Quebec's Future concurred later Wednesday that consumers should have the right to choose which product they buy and halal products must be labelled.
The halal flap is the latest iteration of Quebec's identity debates, which have raged on Montreal's populist talk radio in recent days.
Over the last week one radio show has featured complaints about Hassidic Jewish festivals disrupting traffic; Islamic halal meat being sold without labelling; and a convenience-store owner who got angry when asked to speak French.
The PQ is now demanding a report on the halal situation from the provincial government, by March 23.
The opposition party wants to know how many companies are involved in producing halal meat, and how many animals are being slaughtered per year under Islamic rituals. It says it's concerned about animal rights, in addition to potential food contamination.
"This type of slaughter slams directly against Quebecois values," the PQ said in a statement released Wednesday.
Halal meat is produced by cutting the throat of an animal and letting it bleed to death. The ritual is preceded by an expression of gratitude to God, and includes other stipulations like not scaring the animal before the slaughter.
The word, "halal," means, "permitted" or "lawful" — similar to the word "kosher" in the Jewish tradition.
"In Quebec, we made the choice a long time ago to slaughter our animals for consumption by taking steps to desensitize the animals and to slaughter them while minimizing the suffering," said PQ MNA Andre Simard, a veterinarian by training.
"In their great openness, the Quebecois people also accept that, as an exception to the norm, religious communities can proceed with slaughter under certain rituals. But when the exception becomes the rule, there's a problem."
The company at the centre of the political storm expressed bewilderment over all the fuss.
Olymel, a meat-processing giant with plants in Quebec, Ontario and Alberta, said it obtained a halal certification for one of its poultry plants two years ago after some clients requested it. The clients wanted to label Olymel-produced meat with the certification when they sold it.
But Olymel spokesman Richard Vigneault said his company's products are processed under all required food safety and quality control standards mandated by the federal government.
The certification process consisted of having an iman recite a prayer in the plant and did not affect the slaughtering methods at all, he said.
"In no way we're practicing traditional halal slaughtering — no way," he said in a telephone interview. "In matter of fact, this (halal) certification has changed nothing about our slaughtering."
He dismissed media reports — including one on the talk show of former politician Mario Dumont, who helped get the debate rolling — as "totally wrong."
Vigneault said Olymel's method, which he insisted is humane, is to stun the poultry with an electric shock first and then slaughter it mechanically. While Olymel's St-Damase, Que., plant is halal-certified, it has another poultry plant in Berthierville which is not.
"It's the Canadian Food Inspection Agency that regulates the slaughtering."
Mohammed Ghalem, a spokesman for the halal meat association, described the controversy as a "tempest in a teapot" and said it shows a lack of understanding of the Muslim community.
(With files by Nelson Wyatt)
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