Locally raised halal meat presents new opportunities for Minnesota producers

MINNESOTA: Minnesotans spend more than $20 million on halal goat meat every year, but nearly all of that is spent on frozen meat imported from Australia and New Zealand.

What if that money stayed in the hands of local farmers and processors, and consumers were given more fresh options?

Abdiaziz Odiriye is on a mission to make that happen.

“We want to make this dream into a reality, and build a local halal meat supply in this area,” said Odiriye, a Somali community leader in St. Cloud. “The idea is growing right now — a lot of consumers and stores are interested.”

Farmers are interested, too. Kandi Acres in Hawick, Minn., recently became the state’s first halal-certified farm and is supplying halal shops in Willmar and St. Cloud.

“It’s very encouraging we will be in a place with better supply and demand,” said Tiffany Farrier, owner of Kandi Acres. “Raising goats is a challenge — there are a lot of pieces to the puzzle.”

Halal, the Arabic word for “permissible,” applies to anything allowed under Islam and is a dietary requirement for many of the estimated 150,000 Muslims in Minnesota. Raising animals to be halal requires humane practices on the farm, and the slaughter has specific rules, too.

While there are now more than 150 halal markets, grocery stores and restaurants in the state, Somali cultural staples like goat meat are still hard to find in fresh supply.

“The biggest missing piece is processing,” Farrier said. “There are minimal processors who want to work with goats or sheep or are truly halal, where there has never been a swine run through.”

Odiriye said the pandemic caused shortages of imported halal meat, exposing more than ever the need for a local supply.

“We are looking for partners and others to join us and make this happen,” he said. “If we can plant that processing plant and build a logistical network, we can be independent from outside imports.”

Tough timing

Nationwide, halal meat is a $1.9 billion industry that is expected to continue growing as the number of American Muslims and people who eat halal for environmental reasons rises.

The Agricultural Utilization Research Institute (AURI) — which aims to help Minnesota farmers develop new end markets for their products — led a study that found there is unmet demand for fresh, high-quality and affordable halal meat, and ranchers and processors are interested in meeting that demand.

“No single barrier stands in the way … instead, a lack of information about requirements and a lack of relationships among farmers, brokers, processors and retailers have kept these markets fragmented,” the study said.

AURI released the report just before the first pandemic lockdown in March 2020. Since then, supply chain challenges have further strained limited capacities at meat processors and slowed progress toward building the supply chain.

“I don’t think those challenges are extreme barriers,” said Michael Sparby, commercialization director at AURI. “It’s just a matter of coordination.”

Still, the price of fresh halal meat is often substantially more than frozen imports, giving producers pause.

“It’s a price-sensitive market to get into,” Sparby said. “And the Australians are able to enter the export market at a ridiculously low price.”

Even with shipping costs factored in, halal goat meat from Australia and New Zealand is less expensive because goats are harvested in the wild, requiring little to no input costs to raise them.

Meanwhile, input costs like hay, corn and oats have risen dramatically for farmers in the U.S., nearly tripling the live-weight sale price for Farrier’s goats to $6-$8 a pound.

“We export at a higher price than we import,” Farrier said. “It makes the market very challenging to get into, because there’s not a lot of understanding around costs.”

Odiriye said building that understanding of what it takes to raise and market halal goats can help bridge the gap — the demand is there.

“In the long run the need is to find a sustainable low price,” he said. “Many consumers are low-income families. If they cannot buy, then what we do is not working.”

Building bridges

Despite the challenges, Serdar Mamedov, a University of Minnesota Extension educator, is optimistic for the future of halal meat in Minnesota.

“Halal isn’t an obstacle, it’s a tremendous opportunity,” said Mamedov, who has been working for years on building central Minnesota’s halal market. “Consumers prefer local and fresh, and there is very robust support from the community.”

To bring more farmers and processors on board, Extension recently put together a comprehensive guide to all things halal meat that outlines consumer expectations and producer requirements.

To win over customers — especially at a higher price compared to frozen imports — producers need to build relationships and not just check the right boxes, however.

“Working closely with store owners, I’ve found it’s really relationship-based,” Farrier said.

Still, Mamedov said that halal certification can be “critical” for breaking into the market, because building that trust takes a great deal of time and effort and certification can show the producer “made efforts to satisfy our needs,” he said.

“It’s about trust and the need to create a transparent food system,” he said. “That’s why it’s important to build a local supply.”

Halal 101

Muslims and others adhering to a halal diet are allowed to eat all land animals except pigs, dogs, donkey and mules. But in order to be considered halal, animals must be raised humanely, in as natural an environment as possible, and fed only plants or halal animal byproducts. Blood meal of any origin is prohibited.

Halal slaughter requires “an act of killing a healthy, rested, and halal animal through severance of trachea, esophagus and both the carotid arteries and jugular veins of the animal using a sharp knife without cutting the spinal cord,” according to the University of Minnesota Extension’s halal meat guide. Islamic law holds that “Blessing must be invoked immediately before slaughtering and should continue throughout the process,” according to the Extension guide. “It is not acceptable to label a meat product as halal if there is no on-site Muslim participation.”

Religious practices can slow down production line speeds by 30%, according to a report from the Agricultural Utilization Research Institute, which is one reason it’s difficult for farmers to find processors and bring more halal meat to market.

“The mismatch between some of the higher efficiency processing facilities and halal requirements provides an opportunity for smaller, lower-volume processors,” said Jennifer Wagner-Lahr, senior director of commercialization at AURI.

As with kosher foods, third-party certifiers are often employed to reassure consumers shopping for halal foods. The largest halal certifier in North America is the Chicago‐based Islamic Food and Nutrition Council of America, which has approved more than 11,400 products.

Minnesota is one of several states that require documentation, though not third-party certification, to back up halal claims and labelling.

© Star Tribune

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