One of the largest hospitals in Denmark has admitted to serving only halal beef -- meat that is slaughtered in accordance with strict Islamic guidelines -- to all of its patients regardless of whether or not they are Muslim.
The revelation that Danes are being forced to eat Islamically slaughtered meat at public institutions has triggered a spirited nationwide debate about how far Denmark should go to accommodate the estimated 250,000 Muslim immigrants now living in the country.
The halal food row erupted in July when the Danish tabloid Ekstra Bladet reported that Hvidovre Hospital near Copenhagen has been secretly serving only halal-slaughtered meat for the sake of its Muslim patients, for the past ten years. The hospital serves more than 40,000 patients annually, many (if not most) of whom presumably are non-Muslim.
Halal -- which in Arabic means lawful or legal -- is a term designating any object or action that is permissible according to Islamic Sharia law. In the context of food, halal meat is derived from animals slaughtered by hand according to methods stipulated in Islamic religious texts.
One such halal method, called dhabihah, consists of making a swift, deep incision with a sharp knife on the neck that cuts the jugular vein, leaving the animal to bleed to death. Much of the controversy involving halal stems from the fact that Sharia law bans the practice of stunning the animals before they are slaughtered. Pre-slaughter stunning renders the animals unconscious and is said to lessen their pain.
Amid a surge of public outrage over the decision to serve only halal beef, Hvidovre Hospital's vice president, Torben Mogensen, has been unapologetic. "We have many patients from different ethnic backgrounds, which we must take into account, and it is impossible to have both the one and the other kind of beef," he says.
"First," Mogensen adds, "I do not think that a slaughter method as such has anything to do with faith. Second is, of course, that all chickens in Denmark are halal slaughtered, and it has to my knowledge not caused anyone to stop eating chicken."
Mogensen also says the hospital is not trying to "push the Islamic faith down the throats of non-Muslim patients"
In a press release, Hvidovre Hospital states, "We introduced halal meat both for practical and economic reasons. It would be both more difficult and more expensive to have to make both a halal version and a non-halal version of the dishes. Then we have two production lines. It requires more people, more equipment and more money."
The hospital advises non-Muslims to take it or leave it: "We always have alternatives to halal meat such as pork, fish or vegetarian dishes. It is a question of attitude."
According to the Danish Broadcasting Corporation, there is no comprehensive inventory of the number of hospitals in Denmark have halal meat on the menu. But officials at the University Hospital in Aarhus, the second-largest urban area in Denmark after Copenhagen, say the decision by Hvidovre Hospital to serve only halal is an example of political correctness run amok.
In an interview with the newspaper Jyllands-Posten, Ole Hoffmann, the head chef of Aarhus University Hospital says: "We have never had a patient ask for halal meat, and therefore it is an issue that we have never discussed. I think it is a strange decision. If there was a desire to serve halal meat, then we would of course consider it, but we would never completely eliminate non-halal meat."
Hoffmann also disputes the idea that it is difficult to offer two different kinds of beef. "I do not know why it should be more difficult. After all, our job is to serve patients."
In a separate but related story, Ekstra Bladet reported that at least 30 nurseries, preschools and daycare centers in Denmark have banned the Danish national dish -- pan-fried meatballs known as frikadeller -- because they include pork and are offensive to Muslim children.
Ishøj Municipality -- a town on the island of Zealand in eastern Denmark where most of the population is of African, Arab, Pakistani or Turkish origin -- has introduced, to accommodate Muslim children, a blanket policy of not serving pork, including frikadeller, sausages or liver pâté, at any of its daycares or nurseries.
The newspaper also reports that in parts of Copenhagen, the dietary ban has gone beyond pork and some schools are now serving only halal meat because the schools' leadership say they do not want to offend Muslims.
In Nørrebro, for example, a district in Copenhagen where up to 40% of the children are Muslim, schools have banned not only pork but are serving only halal meat.
According to Danish Sociologist Jon Fuglsang of the Metropolitan University College, banning pork is the wrong way to go. "Pork is an important part of Danish food culture that brings much national pride," he says. "It must be possible to serve differentiated menus for children. We should not banish certain foods in order to show respect. It is not the right way to do it. Children must learn how to think about these issues," he adds.
Danish nutrition expert Professor Arne Astrup sums it up this way: "It's a question of food culture, the banning of traditional Danish food just because it includes pork. I would find it difficult to understand if my child suddenly could not get healthy Danish dishes like pâté and sausage made from pork, just because there are some Muslim children in the same institution."
According to the Danish People's Party (DF), which is pushing for limiting immigration and promoting cultural assimilation of admitted immigrants, the government should intervene in the halal dispute by passing a law that would prohibit public institutions from discriminating against Danish culture.
In an interview with Jyllands-Posten, DF party spokesman Martin Henriksen says, "It is disconcerting that our public institutions are educating Danish children to give exaggerated deference to Muslims. Those practices are illegal because they unceremoniously discriminate against those who value Danish food culture."
Henriksen adds, "The next thing one would imagine could be that Danish nurses are forced to go under cover as Muslim women, in order to please Muslim patients."
The center-right Conservative Party agrees. According to party spokesman Tom Behnke, "The limit is where we as Danes are forced to live in a completely different way than we have done until now. I will not accept this. It is fine to take into account that some people have religious beliefs. But ordering me and my children to follow it, I am opposed to that."
Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt, a Social Democrat who has relaxed restrictions on immigrants and asylum seekers, has sought to defuse the politically inconvenient halal imbroglio by trying to find a middle ground. She says that Danes should be accommodating to all faiths and cultures, while maintaining their own values and traditions and keeping meatballs in hospitals and kindergartens.
In an interview with the Danish Broadcasting Corporation (video here), Thorning-Schmidt said butchers and slaughterhouses should add labels to their packaging to indicate whether or not meat has been slaughtered under halal practices. "I think it is natural that consumers want to know if they are eating halal meat or not. I urge all companies to clearly indicate it on their packaging," she says.
Thorning-Schmidt also says that kindergartens and hospitals should continue to serve pork roasts and meatballs: "They are part of the Danish culinary tradition. We need to remember that in our zeal to welcome new citizens we do not to lose sight of our own culture. We have to stick with the way we eat and what we do in Denmark. There should be room for frikadeller."