Watchdog: US should explain probe of halal company

AP News
Posted: Nov 28, 2012 6:19 PM
Watchdog: US should explain probe of halal company

IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — A national civil rights organization called on U.S. authorities Wednesday to explain their investigation into a leading maker of food for observant Muslims, saying it is troubled by the secrecy surrounding the seizure of the company's bank account and records.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations, the nation's largest Muslim civil liberties group, said it is seeking more information about the Oct. 16 raid of the Midamar Corp. and the related investigation. Spokesman Ibrahim Hooper said it was unacceptable for the Cedar Rapids-based company to be crippled by the seizure of operating funds without being charged with a crime or formally told what the government is investigating.

"This is America. If you are raided by the government, you should know why you are raided," he said. "If they have some evidence of wrongdoing, it should be brought out in open court and there should be a right to reply to whatever evidence is brought out."

The U.S. Attorney's Office in Cedar Rapids, which is overseeing the investigation, declined to respond Wednesday, saying it cannot comment on sealed search warrants.

Little is known about the nature of the investigation, which involves the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Internal Revenue Service. A judge approved a search warrant last month that enabled the government to seize $454,000 from the company's primary bank account. Agents also took books, records and computer files from the company under a second warrant. No criminal or civil charges have been filed.

Investigators have not released the affidavits and testimony used to justify the warrants, or allowed the company or its lawyers to see them. U.S. District Judge Linda Reade determined last week that those materials should remain secret because their release "may compromise an ongoing investigation."

She also rejected the company's request to unfreeze its bank account, saying it could seek other sources of money such as personal loans. But Midamar says the frozen account was its primary line of cash and credit used to buy the food that it packages, labels and sells to customers in the U.S. and overseas. Without it, Midamar says it could be forced to close soon as its suppliers and banks refuse to extend credit.

Midamar sells a range of packaged meats and frozen foods. The investigation caught the attention of CA-IR, in part because the company has long been prominent in Cedar Rapids' Muslim-American community, which is one of the oldest in the country, Hooper said.

In court documents, Midamar said information it obtained suggests the government is looking into allegations that it packaged meat as being halal, or prepared in accordance with Islamic rituals, when it was not. Halal typically requires meat to be butchered in a certain way by or under the supervision of a religious figure.

The USDA has oversight over meatpacking and has inspectors at Midamar at the company's request to ensure it is complying with export regulations. It says products sold with the halal label must be handled according to Islamic law, and its inspectors may verify the label is not false.

But the agency does not have the authority to monitor the rituals used in halal slaughter and leaves it up to religious organizations to determine what is acceptable. Religious scholars have differing interpretations, and there is no agreed-upon definition.

Rasheed Ahmed, president of the Muslim Consumer Group for Food Products, said Midamar has told him that it sells chicken and turkey products that have been slaughtered by machine, rather than hand. Most Islamic scholars would not consider that halal, but some would as long as steps such as prayers were included, he said.

Midamar founder and retired senior director Bill Aossey disputed that claim later Wednesday, saying in an email that all Midamar turkeys and chickens are hand-slaughtered. A company spokeswoman later sent an email saying mechanical slaughter is used in the manufacture of processed chicken items, such as chicken tenders, but all other meat items are hand-slaughtered.

Rabbi Sholem Fishbane, of the Chicago Rabbinical Council, which certifies food as kosher, or prepared according to Jewish laws, said the government could bring fraud charges if a company slapped kosher or halal labels on ordinary meat. But he said that would be different than the government arguing the ritual wasn't sufficient to qualify since there is disagreement within faiths about that. Because of that, he said he was following the case.

"Maybe with politics in the world there hasn't been a strong peace, but certainly with something like this, we're both on the same side and looking at it very closely together," he said.