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Merciful Meat

For the owner of a Solano County slaughterhouse that's both humane and halal, the dictates of religion don't go nearly far enough.

Ahmad Karaouni grips a slaughtering knife in his right hand, maimed in a car accident more than 40 years ago in Lebanon.
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Ahmad Karaouni supplies a largely immigrant clientele with something that most are unaccustomed to: fresh, cheap, pasture-raised halal meat.
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Karaouni walks the grazing fields horseshoeing Nature’s Bounty.
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Tending to customers inside the kill room.
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Ahmad Karaouni kills sentient creatures—goats, lambs, and calves mostly, but also chickens—almost every day. He slaughters each beast with his own hands, using a knife sharp enough to slice cleanly through a paper towel, which is harder than it sounds. His proximity to the animals that he kills gives him insights into his trade that most meatpackers do not possess—like the fact that it adds at least a half hour of work when a customer asks that a carcass be torched rather than skinned. (The technique imparts a smoky succulence to the meat that is especially popular with customers from Nepal, the Philippines, Nigeria, and Ethiopia—any customer, really, that is partial to goat.)

Karaouni and his wife, Lourdes, are the sole proprietors of Nature’s Bounty Meats, a small-scale slaughterhouse just outside Vacaville in an unincorporated area of Solano County. Despite being frequented more by first-generation immigrants than by Michael Pollan–quoting butchers, Karaouni’s tiny halal slaughterhouse is doing its own small part to advance the cause of sustainable meat production. At Nature’s Bounty, Karaouni juggles what often seem like competing expectations. He’s committed to knowing the history of each animal that he kills. His customers, though, generally just want fresh, cheap meat. (Ram Khatiwoda, a Bhutan native and Nature’s Bounty regular, tells me that he’ll take his business to a grocery store if Karaouni ever charges more than $5 a pound.) Karaouni manages to thread this needle by selling whole animals instead of costlier individual cuts and by pruning his overhead. The animals that he slaughters are only one or two weeks removed from pasture and never see a feedlot.

On an afternoon this past winter during one of my first visits to Nature’s Bounty, I find Karaouni inside the kill room helping his skinners, Eddie and Armando, ready a goat for torching. Eddie drags a freshly killed carcass onto a waiting trolley and rolls it—hooves splayed at awkward angles and a trail of fresh blood in its wake—to a patio at the back of the shop that overlooks a fenced grazing pasture. There, Karaouni ignites a propane blowtorch (he wears no safety goggles), takes aim, and blasts the goat, first making its coat glow a bright orange, then charring it black, and finally scraping it clean with a wire brush. About 20 minutes later, the goat looks like a newly fleeced, caramel-colored sheep.

Much, but not all, of Nature’s Bounty’s kill is, like the torched goat, custom meat, regulated by the state and available by law only to those who buy directly from the slaughterhouse. Karaouni’s animals are meant for personal consumption, not resale, and must be lugged home by customers in their entirety—whether butchered or as an intact carcass. The slaughterhouse is also USDA-inspected, which allows Karaouni to offer his meat at a handful of farmers’ markets and natural grocery stores. He’s proud of this regulatory approval, but points out scornfully that he doesn’t look to the USDA to define his grass-fed, hormone- and antibiotic-free animals. “For the USDA, veal doesn’t drink its mother’s milk, it doesn’t see the sun, and it’s jailed in a four-by-four- foot cell,” he says. “For us, veal is a young animal.”

Karaouni’s desire to treat each animal as an individual and to raise (and kill) it with utmost humanity places his operation at the forefront of a movement within the American Muslim community. He tells me more than once that if Muslims learned about the origins of their halal meat (which the USDA often doesn’t grade), many wouldn’t eat it. Not that he judges those who shop for price over quality: “In our countries,” he says, “you know how we were treated. You don’t blame [an immigrant] for not paying $5 or $6 a pound when he can get it for $3 or $4 a pound at the halal market.” Still, he’s troubled that observant Muslims, like many kosher-keeping Jews, rely on only the most basic requirements for ritualized slaughter.

It’s not enough, Karaouni insists, to rubber-stamp all halal meat as good meat without considering where that meat comes from. “Halal” is a term in Islamic law that merely means “permissible.” The standard dictates what kind of animal Muslims can eat—pigs are out, but so, for example, are carnivores with fangs and any animal that has been beaten, strangled, or killed by a fall. It also regulates the slaughter itself, mandating in most schools of Islamic law, for instance, that the animals must be slaughtered manually by a devout person who invokes the name of God before the kill. In one sense, halal for Karaouni is akin to USDA approval: a standard that provides merely a starting point for the proper treatment of the animals we eat. Both, he believes, fall distressingly short of the ideal.

Karaouni grew up watching his father, a farmer, cull animals that roamed free in South Lebanon, and he has slaughtered nearly every animal that he’s eaten for the past three decades in the United States. In the early years, sorting through the insides of American livestock that he didn’t raise, he saw, in the finger-thick deposits of yellow-tinged fat hiding the flesh, the presumed effects of feedlot finishing. “I only found out what kind of animal I had after I killed it and looked inside,” he says. “But it’s too late after you kill it.” Those animals mostly went to his dogs.

With his slaughterhouse, Karaouni joins an increasing number of Muslims who suggest that halal may be too tolerant a benchmark in this age of industrial food systems. “Islamic law is concerned with how the animal is killed,” says Nuri Friedlander, who, with his wife, Krystina, founded the website Beyond Halal, where they list a handful of options for sustainably sourced halal meat across the country, including Nature’s Bounty. The couple argue that Muslims err by screeching to a halt at a legal baseline—one that has generally been interpreted to permit industrially sourced food—without making an ethical evaluation of how the food arrives on their plates. 

The Friedlanders’ message—bolstered by the fact that the Prophet Muhammad equated cruelty, even mental cruelty, to animals with cruelty to humans—carries special resonance in the Bay Area, home to some 250,000 Muslims. In these parts, even nonreligious grocery shoppers are apt to prefer a sustainably raised cut of halal or kosher meat over an industrially sourced alternative. Jessica Prentice, a chef, entrepreneur (she’s credited with coining the term “locavore”), and cofounder of Berkeley’s Three Stone Hearth community-supported kitchen, says that she has encountered many Jews—and some Muslims—who are seeking alternatives to faith-sanctioned but industrially processed meats. “I know a lot of people who had to make what to them was a hard decision to eat either humanely and local or in accordance with their religious beliefs,” she says. “A lot of people decide, well, the soul of [ritually slaughtered meat] has to do with connecting religion and humaneness, so I’m actually going to choose to do what’s local and pastured.” With Nature’s Bounty, Karaouni aims to make that compromise moot.

Page two: An unlikely activist