Muslim, Jewish Communities Secure Halal-Kosher Labeling Law

By Michael Jay Friedman
Washington File Staff Writer

Washington - Muslim and Jewish communities in the state of Virginia successfully have lobbied for enactment of a halal/kosher labeling statute. The new Virginia law requires that any food offered for sale as kosher or halal be labeled with the name of the person or organization certifying the item kosher or halal. Violations are punishable by a $500 fine.

Observant Muslims and Jews observe similar, but not identical, dietary restrictions. These practices - halal for Muslims and kashrut (kosher) for Jews - forbid consumption of certain foods and regulate how animals may be slaughtered. Trained individuals and organizations ensure compliance with these standards and permit vendors to affix their symbol of compliance on the product packaging.

In the United States, the "Crescent M" is a leading halal certification symbol. There are a number of common kosher symbols, or hekhshers.

Legal issues arise when state governments' legitimate desire to protect their citizens from fraud bumps up against the constitutional prohibition against laws "respecting an establishment of religion."

In recent years, the courts have invalidated laws that use religious standards to categorize food products. The New Jersey Supreme Court, for example, in 1996 declared unconstitutional regulations that defined kosher as complying with "Orthodox Jewish law." That definition, the court held, "impose[s] substantive religious standards … and authorize[s] civil enforcement of those religious standards with the assistance of clergy, directly and substantially entangling government in religious matters."

After that decision, several states enacted laws that focus not on whether food meets religious standards but instead on fraudulent labeling. These laws typically require those who represent their food as kosher or halal to make public names and other information about the certifying authority. These measures allow consumers to decide for themselves whether a particular item comports with their dietary code.

The growing Muslim community in Virginia "had little recourse if food labeled halal turned out not to be genuine," civic leader Imad Damaj told the Richmond Times-Dispatch. The onus fell on the consumer, Muneer A. Baig, vice president of the nonprofit Muslim Association of America, told to the Washington File.

Several Muslim leaders suggested to their local legislator that Virginia join the growing number of states enacted a halal-labeling law. Virginia already had a kosher law, but that law was believed susceptible to the type of court challenge that had prevailed in New Jersey and elsewhere.

The two communities decided to work together toward the nation's first joint kosher and halal statute. With a coalition of Muslim, Jewish and interfaith organizations supporting it, the new law passed the Republican-majority Virginia legislature by a unanimous Senate vote and by 96–2 in the General Assembly. It then was signed into law by Governor Tim Kaine, a Democrat, in the presence of Muslim and Jewish community leaders.

With the new law in place, the onus for selling mislabeled food now falls on the vendor, says Baig.

Rabbi Leibel Fajnland of Chabad Lubavitch of Northern Virginia agrees that the statute fills a real need. He told the Washington File that government should empower citizens to ensure that neither suppliers nor merchants take advantage of their efforts to fulfill a "cornerstone" spiritual practice.

Fajnland believes a disclosure statute like Virginia's is appropriate. "You have the right to know what you are eating, but government should not be able to say what is kosher."

Partnership between communities to advocate common goals is the essence of the American political system. "When people work together as partners to humanity" they can achieve success, Baig says. When they work against each other, "we all lose."