AN agent in the meat processing industry recently remarked, ‘The listeriosis outbreak is the death of the penny polony.’
Any scandal involving food on this scale invariably has political and economic consequences.
Among the concerns is the plummeting share price of the corporation that owns the errant brand.
And then there is the impact on the informal trader and in townships relying on processed meat as filling for their fast foods. These traders serve the vast market of particularly working class and low-income consumers, directly at local level.
The seriousness with which the health department, the private sector and the general public have taken this matter is clearly focused on the first priority, namely, the threat of the outbreak to public health and safety.
And herein lies the big lesson for Muslims. Halaal certification is no guarantee of the quality of food. Contamination occurs irrespective of Halaal certification. Therefore, any sense of security that Halaal standards shield any consumer from the risk of exposure to food poisoning is false.
Health, safety, wholesomeness, ethics and the general goodness associated with food consumption in Islam, throughout the supply chain, are provided for in the profound and divinely ordained concept of ‘tayyib’.
The word ‘tayyib’ occurs nine times in the Quran in relation to consuming what is good in the broadest sense of the word. In four of these instances, the word ‘tayyib’ is complemented by the word ‘halaal’, the latter denoting what is lawful and righteous.
Linguistically, ‘halaal’ and ‘tayyib’ are distinct concepts. However, in essence, they are deeply connected and complementary.
It is due to a generally parochial and superficial understanding of the Islamic approach, specifically to food and nutrition, that the complementary meaning of the two concepts escapes us.
Thus, in one example, Surah Baqara (2:168), all of humankind is admonished to ‘partake of what is lawful and good on earth’ and to turn away from following Satan. This dual application of what is lawful and what is good forms the foundation of the holistic concept of tayyib in Islam.
It is possible, therefore, that something may be lawful but not necessarily good. Alternatively, something may be good but not necessarily lawful. For the Muslim, this integration of the lawful and the good necessarily involves balance.
Processed meats generally may be certified halaal but they are certainly not wholesome to consume, and therefore not tayyib.
However, the obligation to consume what is tayyib extends beyond the health and safety of the consumer. It embraces the ethical obligation to avoid harm to others.
We should avoid consuming what is produced by companies that are actively engaged in destructive environmental practices, exploitative labour practices and a disregard for the rights of animals.
In a tayyib-based framework, all companies have wide-ranging obligations beyond relevant
legislation, health standards and industry standards. In terms of a tayyib-based ethos they are obliged to ensure that, over and above consumer health and safety, they also prioritise poverty eradication, sustainable land use, fair trade practices and the dignity of their workers. The industrialised agricultural and food production system is not transparent to the ordinary consumer. This scandal is but a glimpse of what falls foul of tayyib.