[OPINION] Listeriosis: The halal gatsby. Take it, or leave it?

There have been a few instances in my life when I have been caught up in conversations regarding halal meat. What is it? Why are Muslims only allowed to eat halal certified products? Why is it more expensive?

Then there have been a bunch of other times that I have faced a few more people who have had fewer questions and more criticisms.

A few examples follow.

I was once at a braai where the host was kind enough to braai my meat first before the pork. A stranger (another guest) walked up to me seething with anger to ask me what my problem was and why my meat had to be grilled first? Obviously before I could answer she lashed out that it didn’t matter: “I don’t want my meat touching your terrorist meat anyway”.

A couple of years before that my brother and I went on a late-night burger run to the 24-hour Steers in Orange Street. It was pretty quiet except for the two, large, red-faced Afrikaans ooms in front of us. In a rare moment of consciousness (they were severely inebriated) and mid-order they realised there was a halal certificate on the wall. First, they shouted into the ether: “Fok dit. Fok die fokken mense en hulle halal kos”. Our arms tensed and folded. Then, when they realised they were still not getting enough attention, they started to harass the lady behind the till. “Why do your meat has to be halal?” [sic]. “We don’t eat halal.” They turned, looked at us and we asked them to order or get the F out the way. The Muslim manager then entered and a fight broke out. As they were about to get violent, they were booted. We enjoyed our burgers with a side of Peace Be Upon Him.

Then, of course, what would Facebook be without an offensive anti-halal group? A sterile place of sanity you say? No. Not this social media website. Facebook is where you can find the Boycott Halal SA page. A group absolutely dedicated to bigotry and naming and shaming all things halal certified. Their About page is quite simple. It reads:

We say NO to halal certified products & services.

If the Followers of Islam want halal certification... they can pay for it - NOT us!

We Non-muslims do not require halal and we certainly don’t want to pay for it.

The comments are a little more… decorated:

A sick god a sick religion a sick society that allows this blood shedding from a sick people that worship death ..it is evil to the core. It has no place amoung us. It is sick to belive they are good to our culture and lifestyle. A god that shead no blood but demands blood is pagan in its structure it is dark wrong and sick. Anyone that stands with and for Muslims stands with all its evil. Something is good or evil it can't be both .shun it shame it expose it ban it .those that follow it must be segregated and reminded by us we do not agree approve or submit to it ..we will never be owned ruled or controlled by Islam.. [sic]

None of this is surprising. It’s just plain ol’ Islamophobia really.

To be completely honest, I myself have long questioned the halal industry, its control measures, and the capitalisation of the certification system. But my god. I will definitely still eat the meat. It’s the best-tasting terrorism I have ever consumed.

However, plot twist… listeriosis. The one true thing that taints all meat. The equal opportunities provider. And the only real, true reason that Islamophobes can really claim when it comes to halal meat. But… can they?

The source of the disease was recently discovered to be Enterprise and Rainbow Chicken plants. A lot of the products are exported, internal testing processes are a sham and also: capitalism, capitalism, capitalism.

As a result, all of these products have been pulled from shelves and have been given their national marching orders. ‘These products’ are obviously processed meats. Including polony and viennas. Top sellers at halal takeaway restaurants and primary ingredients in the famous gatsby. The big feeder. The supplier of sustenance cut in six that feeds a family of that same amount at half the price. So what now?

The gatsby is a thing of culture and religion, I go would so far as to say. Even if I only mean it is worshipped. But from a more conventional perspective, most gatsby outlets in Cape Town are halal. Most halal butcheries in South Africa do not export their meat, by-products or anything else. But what of the national health warning? I called a few places.

A server at Aneesa’s, a popular take away in Wynberg said: “People still buy their polony and vienna parcels. They trust us, they trust our name. Listeria is not found in the halal products and the owner has chatted to supplier.” The floor manager was a little less keen on chatting to me though and requested that I speak to the general manager. Luckily EWN already did that, and, in his view, steak and chicken gatsbies are selling more and people are steering clear of polony and viennas. He confirms that his supplier’s tests for the bacteria were negative.

Another famous Cape Town joint, Wembley Road House, was confident that there have been absolutely no queries or sales impact on the cold meat products. Wembley Road House uses meat supplied from their own butcher (Wembley Meat Market) and manager Rafique Gaibie says, “We use no imported meats. All our products are local and we use in-house manufacturing systems so we are still stocking products”.

Golden Dish in Gatesville, one of the most popular gatsby take-away cafes in Cape Town, has absolutely no worries. They are selling. People are buying and eating. Although manager Begum Parker admits that a lot of customers seem more concerned about polony. About viennas? Not so much. But she also assures me that their supplier Brey’s butcher is a privatised supplier and the owner has assured them of safety.

It’s true, Muslim butcheries do operate somewhat independently of other ones in South Africa. The rules and regulations are stricter because of the halal principle. We can’t use pork jelly imported from Brazil, for example. Abattoirs are also smaller in many instances and more controlled.

Still, the Muslim Judicial Council Halaal Trust (MJCHT) has offered to help Muslim butchers get their products tested. And has urged Muslim meat consumers to heed the advice of Health Department. Steer clear, they say. Responsible.

But after all my research I was swayed. All I wanted was a foot long stuffed with pink meat and chips. I called Yusra’s kitchen and placed an order for myself. “One polony gatsby cut in four please”. I almost expected to be issued a warning, but the only response was: “What sauce would you like on that?” Tomato and mustard with the potential side of life-threatening illness? I chickened out and hung up.

Haji Mohamed Dawjee is a commentator on gender equality, sexuality, culture, race relations and feminism as well as ethics in the South African media environment. Follow her on Twitter.