Quebec's Muslim community is perplexed after the Parti Québécois called into question the slaughtering of animals for halal meat.
The PQ claims the traditional religious ritual used to kill the animals flies in the face of Quebec values because it is inhumane, and could even violate public-health standards.
Under strict Islamic law, an animal is blessed by a religious figure before a sharp knife is used to swiftly cut the throat, severing the jugular veins and carotid arteries so the animal bleeds to death.
Halal, which in Arabic means "permissible" or "lawful," is similar to Jewish Kosher tradition. The religiously sanctioned slaughter is legal and regulated under provincial laws and federal food-inspection standards.
Members of the Muslim community, however, say the PQ has mischaracterized the issue and is being unduly alarmist. The only difference between halal meat and the meat sold for general consumption, they say, is that the animals are first blessed before being slaughtered – in the same manner that other animals are slaughtered in the province.
Nonetheless, PQ agriculture critic André Simard insists that what was once an exception has now become common practice in Quebec abattoirs. He argued that consumers were unknowingly being sold halal meat – killed in the traditional Islamic manner – that was not being properly labelled. If they knew how the animals were being slaughtered, many Quebeckers would refuse to buy the meat, said Mr. Simard, a veterinarian.
"I certainly wouldn't buy it because it doesn't correspond … to my values and my convictions," Mr. Simard said. "Consumers need to be informed."
He said that the humane method used in slaughterhouses was to stun the animal first and render it unconscious before proceeding with the slaughter.
The PQ is demanding to know how many companies produce halal meat and how many animals are being slaughtered under the strict Islamic ritual.
The Muslim community is pushing back. "All of this is a tempest in a teapot," said Mohamed Ghalen, in charge of conducting the religious ritual at a slaughterhouse in St-Damase, near Montreal.
Three or four times a week, Mr. Ghalen is invited by the Olymel meat company to bless the chickens before they are slaughtered and sold to stores that offer halal meat to their customers.
"There is total disinformation about what takes place. We don't ask that methods for slaughtering the animals be changed. The same methods are used as those required by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. The only difference is that I conduct a prayer before the slaughter begins," Mr. Ghalen said in an interview.
"Nothing is changed in the way we slaughter the animals," said Olymel spokesman Richard Vigneault.
In other abattoirs such as in Ontario, the practice may be slightly different. An employee of Islamic faith or a practising Muslim man will perform the prayer and conduct the bleeding out of the animal in accordance with supervised practices that may include stunning.
"This entire controversy is based on false assumptions and ignorance," Mr. Ghalen argued.
Montreal store owners who sell halal meat fear that the controversy may get out of hand to the point where the Muslim community may be unjustly targeted.
Ali Deis, who works at the Almizan meat store in Montreal, said that general consumers may grow angry if they are being asked to carry the extra cost of producing halal meat.
"If people try to make money out of this, that's not right," Mr. Deis said in expressing concern over a potential backlash against the Muslim community.
The current controversy over halal meat originated in France last month and was picked up by some media personalities, including Mario Dumont, the former leader of the now defunct Action Démocratique du Québec. Mr. Dumont now hosts a daily commentary television show.
In France, Marine Le Pen, the leader of the right-wing National Front, launched a series of attacks against halal meat saying that it was being widely sold to unsuspecting Parisians. She said consumers were being "cheated" into buying halal meat, which she described as being "unsafe" for consumption.
While making similar arguments, the PQ insisted it wasn't targeting the Muslim community by defending Quebec's cultural identity. "I don't condemn the practice but I strongly suspect that a great number of animals slaughtered as halal meat isn't being sold on the religious market," Mr. Simard said. "I am speaking about consumer rights … and of the risk factor in animal cruelty."
Pierre Corbeil, Quebec's food and agriculture minister, said the PQ was being "alarmist" and denied that animals were being cruelly slaughtered and that meat was unsafe.
The PQ has called for a debate on the issue next week when the National Assembly reconvenes.
Editor's note: A previous version of this story misspelled the name of Marine Le Pen, the leader of the right-wing National Front. It has been corrected.