Earls, Halal and the Amygdala Hijack



On April 26, Earls Restaurants announced it had taken its beef business to Creekstone Farms, an operation in the United States, in order to source 100% Certified Humane beef. The announcement was met with extreme criticism, and by May 4 the company apologized for the “mistake,” and committed to working with Canadian farmers.

Response to the second announcement varied. The Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef was “really happy,” the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association believed it to be a good first step, and the Alberta Beef Producers were pleased. Some wrote that the move was a powerful reminder of the importance of producer/retailer interactions, and others remained angry, suggesting the move was too late.

But all of these pale in comparison to the accusation that roared through social media sites in the days and weeks following Earls’ announcement — that the company had moved to Creekstone Farms strictly because their president, Mo Jessa, is Muslim, and Creekstone supplies halal beef.

Many of the accusatory posts went too far, venturing into the realms of fear-marketing and hypocrisy. They overlooked key aspects of what is and isn’t humane in the process of slaughter, generalized about ritual slaughter, and did little to advance the “Canadian beef” brand.

But it’s easy to let emotions trump logic when something triggers the amygdala hijack.

Halal Meat

In Arabic, ‘halal’ means “permissible.” For Muslims, halal food is that which is allowed to be consumed, as guided by the Quran. There are specifications for such food, including, in the case of animal species allowed for consumption, a halal slaughter.

The OIE defines halal slaughter as “slaughter of a religiously acceptable species, by a trained Muslim slaughterman, with or without prior stunning, by cutting the neck in order to sever the jugular veins and carotid arteries, oesophagus and trachea, without severing the spinal cord, while the animal is alive.”

A halal slaughter, or one done in accordance with Islamic law, is called dhabiha/zabiha. Right up to the slaughter, animals must be treated in a humane manner, and allowed access to food and water. The blood must be drained from the animal, and, for some Muslims, it’s important the slaughterer and the animal both face Quibla or Mecca. One animal must not see another animal being slaughtered.

The Hypocrisy

Two weeks ago, many of the now-anti-halal critics cried that sourcing “Certified Humane” was fear-marketing, because it implied all other beef was inhumane. They were adamant that fear is not a fair marketing strategy.

Now, many of those critics are arguing that halal beef is inhumane, that the slaughter process is “barbaric,” and that consumers must boycott places like Earls.

Fear. Marketing.

Sidenote: I agree that fear and negative marketing/campaigning is bad taste, though I’m not entirely sure I agree that certified products promote fear in other products — see “Fairtrade” coffee, “Biologically Appropriate” dogfood, “Rainforest Alliance” toilet paper. Nor do I think that all marketing, or any form of differentiation, takes advantage of fear — see “Built Ford Tough,” and “If It Ain’t Alberta, It Ain’t Beef.”

Where the Confusion Comes From

Critics who suggest all Halal meat is inhumane either believe (1) stunning does not occur at slaughter —ever — or (2) there is a drastic difference between dhabiha and conventional slaughter.

Allow me to address both thoughts.

1) There is no universal criteria for halal beef, because, like many religious guidelines, it’s open to interpretation. There are those in the Islam faith who believe the animal must not be stunned before exsanguination, and there are those who believe stunning prior to exsanguination is completely acceptable, or preferred.

Exsanguination – to drain of blood to a degree sufficient enough to cause death

2) I’ll explain more below, but quite simply, the only “drastic difference” between a ‘conventional’ slaughter and a dhabiha slaughter at Creekstone Farms is that the slaughterer is Muslim, and that there is a prayer spoken at the time of death.

Humane Slaughter

In Canada, all federally inspected slaughter facilities are bound by law to ensure “all animals are handled and slaughtered humanely,” and must be compliant with the Meat Inspection Regulations. And yes, we have halal facilities in this country.

As long as stunning is done properly, and it is followed by an adjunctive method (such as bleeding out), it is an acceptable form of euthanasia as described by both the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and the National Farm Animal Care Council (Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Beef Cattle).

Physical disruption methods are often followed by exsanguination. These methods are inexpensive, humane, and painless if performed properly, and leave no drug residues in the animal’s remains. – American Veterinary Medical Foundation, 2013

 Broaching a Difficult Subject: The Proper Euthanasia of Bovids

Jan Shearer speaking on humane euthanasia of bovids, at the UCVM Beef Cattle Conference in 2015.
Prof Jan Shearer, speaking on humane euthanasia of bovids, at the UCVM Beef Cattle Conference in 2015.

According to the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association, “Animals must be rendered irreversibly unconscious as rapidly as possible with the least possible pain, fear, and anxiety.  The preferred methods used to achieve this are those that affect the brain first, followed quickly by cessation of cardiac and respiratory function.”

The American Veterinary Medical Foundation concurs. In a 2013 document on guidelines for animal euthanasia, the AVMF wrote that “because anxiety is associated with extreme hypovolemia, exsanguination must not be used as a sole means of euthanasia”

In a 2005 publication, the World Health Organization’s ad hoc Group on the Humane Slaughter of Animals had both methods of halal slaughter listed as acceptable.

In all of my reading, and in the interviews I’ve done, it’s been apparent that stunning (mechanical, electrical or gaseous) prior to an adjunctive method of euthanasia (exsanguination or pithing) and confirmation of death is a humane way of euthanizing bovids.

There are, however, disagreements over the welfare of animals slaughtered by straight exsanguination (as is done in some ritual slaughters), with concerns centring around pain mitigation, proper training, and appropriate restraining equipment.

Be warned. No matter which side of the argument you’re on, you’ll likely find documentation that supports your position through a google search. Hello, Confirmation Bias.

Creekstone’s Halal Slaughter Process

Though both methods of euthanasia — stunning, then exsanguination and just exsanguination — are in accordance with Certified Humane requirements, and Tempel Grandin’s recommendations, Creekstone Farms’ animals are all stunned prior to exsanguination.

I reached out to a few other, small, provincially inspected plants in Canada, and their methods are the same. One slaughterer told me that beyond the ritual aspect of dhabiha slaughter, the exsanguination differs in that the cut is made horizontally for halal beef, and vertically otherwise.

Creekstone Farms is certified halal by the Halal Transactions of Omaha certification body that oversees the facility.

Halal in Canada

According to a 2003 statistic from our very own Statistics Canada, households identifying as Muslim spent about $31 per week on halal meat products, which was almost double Canadian household meat expenditures. The halal meat market in our country was valued at $214 million then. Estimates today have it around $1 billion.

With numbers like that, you can see why niche-marketing might take off.

But Earls Wasn’t After Halal Anyway

earls on halal beef But Earls wasn’t chasing that niche-marketing. They’ve said so themselves (see right). And Creekstone Farms has verified that (see below). And, if they were offering halal beef, why wouldn’t they add that to their marketing campaign?

Final Thoughts

In January, I interviewed facilitator and coach, Ginette Gamache, on the topic of brain science and relationship awareness. Gamache told me that certain words (she used the examples of ‘always’ and never’) can stimulate a chemical response similar to that of imminent physical danger. The response, often deemed “fight or flight,” sees emotion hijack logic’s seat at the wheel of our brain, and unless interrupted, leads to an immediate, emotional response.

Relationship Awareness in the Decade of Brain Science

I fear that’s what is happening to the ag industry — consumer buzzwords are becoming our trigger words for what brain scientists now refer to as “the amygdala hijack”. More simply, we are unintentionally overreacting.

Perhaps social media is the catalyst. We can easily “follow,” “like,” and “friend” people of like-minds (a social phenomenon referred to as homophily). Then, when confronted by an alternate opinion, instead of considering it, we go on the defence, and can find and cite sources that back us up (a move driven by our cognitive bias towards confirmation) or prove them wrong in seconds.

Let’s all make a pledge. The next time we’re forwarded an angry vlog, an emotional letter, or one of our “trigger” words, let’s take a deep breath, step back and question our reaction. Let’s support our brand, put logic back in the driver’s seat, and be open to conversation.

No issue is as simple as 140 characters might make it seem.

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