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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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Karaouni doesn’t neatly fit the profile of a food activist. He is in his early 60s, sturdy and built low to the ground, like a bull rider. It’s not hard to imagine him running a livestock rustler off his property, something that he has had to do on occasion. (One day, I arrived shortly after he had spotted a visitor tucking a live pheasant under his jacket.) Karaouni’s most distinctive feature, more than the American Spirits that he jams between his lips between kills, is his right hand, which lacks a thumb and has only a nub for a forefinger. Naturally, people think that he mangled it butchering meat, but the injury actually occurred in Lebanon. He was 18 when a car he was riding in overturned, rolling several times and pinning his hand in an axle. The accident prompted his immigration to the United States. After recovering, rather than stay a year behind in high school in Lebanon, he applied to American colleges and enrolled at the University of San Francisco, where he earned a degree in international business. To this day, he hasn’t made his left hand dominant—he writes right handed and, more impressively, grips his slaughtering knife with his right hand, using his ring finger and pinkie to pinch the handle tightly against his palm.

Before Karaouni decided that he would slaughter goats and sheep for a living, he ran a profitable floral farm for 15 years on the same 10 acres where Nature’s Bounty now stands. Serendipitously, the market for dried floral arrangements boomed in the mid-1990s, and he did just fine, selling enough flowers to live comfortably. “If I walked outside without $500 cash in my pocket, it wouldn’t feel right,” he says. When he saw a way to make even more, he went all out, planting more flowers and hiring more employees. Business skyrocketed: millions of dollars a year in revenues, 20 to 25 employees—but then he began losing control. Often, all his money was consumed by his expanding operation. “A lot of times,” he continues, “I would put my hand in my pocket, and I didn’t have $20.”

Karaouni was big enough to fail, worrying constantly about falling into debt and attending distant trade shows stuffed into a suit and fenced in by the walls of hotel rooms. Then, a favor to his brother, who had slaughtered animals in Lebanon, put him on the road to Nature’s Bounty. Karaouni had the land and the cash, about $174,000 after he sold property in Lebanon and Honduras, his wife’s homeland, and he told his brother to supply the animals. In August 2008, he obtained a license to sell whole carcasses out of his shop as a custom slaughterhouse. By November, his brother, who didn’t have the temperament to haggle with customers, had left. Karaouni says that his brother had been buying bargain-basement lambs and goats at livestock auctions, where the sick ones, he suspected, were often pumped full of antibiotics to perk them up for sale. “The animals weren’t making it past the third day,” Karaouni says. “Every day, we’d have two or three animals dead. I wasn’t trying to open a cemetery.”

Today, Karaouni estimates his yearly kill— mainly lambs, goats, and calves—at 2,500 animals, a number that’s grown steadily over the past five years. Typically, he cycles through about 100 animals every few weeks. The unacceptable ones, too old or too unhealthy to slaughter, are picked up, at a loss to Karaouni, by men trolling farms and ranches for animals to turn into cheap halal meat. The remaining animals graze on a series of fields that horseshoe the perimeter of his property until they are herded into pens inside the corral, where they stay until they’re sold.

The kill floor at Nature’s Bounty is in a simple, rectangular building that sits near the back of Karaouni’s 10 acres, about 50 yards behind his house. A wood-railed outdoor chute connects this building to the roughly constructed corral a few yards to the east, where his goats and sheep spend their final days. It’s from this corral that customers select their animal for purchase, after which Karaouni or one of his skinners enters the pen and chases down the chosen one. Then the worker walks the animal, using a maneuver that looks like a loose headlock, toward the chute. Once inside the chute, the animal ordinarily progresses unaided toward the kill floor. If he must, Karaouni will swat larger animals, usually calves, with a plastic oar, but he never deploys an electric prod, believing that stunning an animal impacts the way it bleeds.

The chute ends at a door that prevents each animal from witnessing the previous kill, as is recommended in halal slaughter. Once through the door, the animal is guided into a hard right turn that ends at a hinged steel contraption painted grass green and resembling a giant waffle maker. Ten years ago, Karaouni spotted ranchers using a similar restraint while trimming the hair of show goats. Called a squeeze box, it is positioned upright on its hinges as the animal enters. After the animal’s head pokes through the other side, the device is shut and flipped 90 degrees so that the animal is suspended on its side about three feet above the ground and facing the qiblah, the direction of Muslim prayer. Unlike conventional operations, which rarely allow outsiders, including journalists, to view the actual slaughter, Karaouni—who performs each kill stroke himself— hides nothing. It’s not unusual to see small children ogling as the animals are bled, skinned, and eviscerated.

Page three: Its very existence is an outlier