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Where's the beef? Halal meat scandal rocks community

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THE three minute video on YouTube is often out of focus; it pixellates when there is lots of movement. But one thing is clear. Something fishy is afoot in a Cape Town refrigeration plant, where we are shown boxes on an assembly line.

When the cameraman zooms in on a label we can see that it reads “pork”. As the video moves on, workers are seen again – this time using a heat gun to remove labels. Generic halal signs are then pasted on to the boxes, and we see that they now say “veal hearts”.

Amazed, I’ve watched this video several times, and freeze-framed it to make sure what I’ve just seen. Whether this YouTube vignette is proof enough for criminal conviction is another question, but it has certainly caused a major furore.

This is because Orion Cold Storage, a Muizenberg-based refrigeration company, stands accused by two unidentified informants of relabeling imported meat products – including pork – as halal and passing them on to the unsuspecting consumer.

In an urgent High Court interdict it was alleged that Orion had also relabelled expired broiler turkeys from Shoprite Checkers; that it had relabelled animal feed milk powder as being fit for human consumption; that it had sold kangaroo meat as halal chuck-and-blade and that it had marketed water buffalo as beef.

The story was broken by Voice of the Cape and Eye Witness News, immediately raising temperatures in a community still reeling from the Hajj visa scandals.

Orion Cold Storage MD, Patrick Gaertner, replied that he’d been “set-up”, claiming that one of the “informants” (whom he did not name) was an unrehabilitated insolvent and former employee. The other, he claimed, worked for an opposition company (which he also did not name).

He said he valued his Muslim customers and that he intended to prove that he’d been subjected to “blackmail”. Gaertner also claimed that he had been threatened.

An interim interdict was lodged at the High Court against Orion by the South African National Halal Authority (SANHA), the Red Meat Industry Forum, the South African Meat Industry Company and other parties.

The application was supported by the Muslim Judicial Council and its Halal Trust (MJCHT), which had certified 18 containers of chickens imported by Orion. Gaertner had also claimed (before the hearing) that he’d enjoyed a “close” relationship with the MJCHT.

Shaikh Achmat Sedick, Deputy MJC president, had replied on Channel Islam that the MJCHT had not operated inside Orion’s plant. It was not a slaughtering facility, and the MJCHT had only checked the Halal credentials of poultry consignments from Denmark and Brazil.

He said the MJCHT had no responsibility for goods in Orion’s freezers, and had not certified any other Orion products. Maulana Ebrahim Adam, a spokesperson for the MJCHT, said on Voice of the Cape that Gaertner’s claims of a close relationship with the MJC were exaggerated and untrue.

In an affidavit Orion denied that it had altered any labels, claiming that the videotaped incidents were orchestrated without knowledge of management. A haggard-looking Gaertner said that the informants were untrustworthy and undertook to work closely with the MJC.

He told the judge he would welcome the MJCHT being at his premises to assure the public that his procedures were halal-compliant, and pledged that labels would not be changed on imported goods. The judge made this undertaking an order of the court, and that if the company did not comply, it would be in contempt.

Attorney for the applicants, Amish Kita, told the media outside court that the outcome of the interdict would not prevent his clients from ensuring that Orion be criminally investigated for fraud.

Spokesperson for the National Islamic Halal Trust (NIHT), Maulana Abdul Wahab Wookay, said that the Orion saga emphasised the need for uniform Halal standards between countries. He added that his organisation did not accept imports at face value, and that NIHT had been so “stern” that 85 butchers in the Gauteng region no longer imported meat.

He proposed a national Halal meat trader’s summit to iron out the problems, especially with butchers who imported dubious meat products.

However, as the dust begins to settle on the Orion saga, it becomes evident that there is much more to the court application than meets the eye. It has to be asked, for example, why Orion, a Cape Town company under the geographical domain of the MJCHT, had to be taken to court by SANHA, a Gauteng-based body, with no connections to Orion.

SANHA, reportedly the most reluctant of the parties of the National Halal Forum, could indeed claim “public interest” in this case which has certainly evoked much community ire, but it’s not enough to convince those in the know that the upstaging of the MJCHT might just have been on the cards.

Both organisations will vehemently deny this, but they are commercial rivals who’ve been locked in a longstanding multi-million rand turf war that has seen products such as bottled water, toothpicks, coffee, pasta, wet-wipes, sugar, lentils, mixed nuts, spices, breakfast cereal, canned fish and even sago being certified Halal.

The Orion case is also a neat distraction from the real issue, where God-given ibahah (initial permissibility) is turned on its head to prey on the fears of a Halal- ignorant public who don’t know any better.

The other point, made vociferously by the National Consumer Forum, is that the paying public sees no direct benefit whatsoever from the proceeds of the Halal certification, and that a regulation of the regulators is long overdue.

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