NEWARK, N.J. -- In July 2000, New Jersey became the first state to passa law to protect consumers of halal food, but three years later the rulesstill have not been implemented, to the dismay of the Muslim community.

The law established guidelines that sellers and distributors must followwhen labeling food halal, the Islamic equivalent of kosher.

Many Muslims viewed the passage of the Halal Food Consumer ProtectionAct as a major step toward helping place Islamic practices on equal civicfooting with those in the Christian and Jewish faiths.

"It was the first (halal) legislation to pass ... so it was a landmark,"said Nihad Awad, executive director of the Washington-based Council ofIslamic-American Relations. "We have to protect the landmark by implementingit."

Others say the delay is an insult to the state's Muslim community,estimated at 250,000 to 300,000.

"I don't know why it would take ... three years to even come up with aplan to enforce the law," said Sohail Mohammed, a Clifton attorney whoworked with legislators on the bill. "Is the government saying to us this isnot a priority to them?"

Genene Morris, spokeswoman for the Division of Consumer Affairs, whichis responsible for enforcing the law, said a draft version of procedures toimplement it is being reviewed by the state Attorney General's office.

Language in the bill, signed by then-Gov. Christie Whitman on July 12,2000, called for its implementation within 180 days.

"I don't have any explanations ... on why it's taking so long," Morrissaid, adding that government analysts have questions about disclosurerequirements for sellers. "This is new territory. It's not something that wecould do overnight. It's something that has taken time."

Once the procedures are approved, they will go into the New JerseyRegister where people will be able to comment on them before adoption, shesaid.

The halal statute is modeled after New Jersey's kosher food law. Much ofthe statute simply restates the kosher food guidelines, substituting "halal"for "kosher."

Dietary rules for Muslims and Jews are similar. Both forbid pork andregulate the slaughter of animals for meat. In both traditions, the animalsto be killed must be free of disease and contamination.

Halal regulations are taken from the Quran, which bases them on thedietary laws set out in the Hebrew Bible. The word "halal" is Arabic for"permitted."

Not all Muslims follow strict halal rules. Many interpret the dietarylaw differently, relying on part of the Quran that says Muslims can also eatmeat prepared by "people of the book," meaning Christians and Jews.

Since New Jersey passed its law, similar versions have been passed inCalifornia, Illinois and Minnesota. The law applies to distributors andrestaurants as well as grocery stores.

Scott Carlson, a spokesman for Sen. John Girgenti, D-Passaic, whosponsored the bill, said he was surprised to hear the rules have not goneinto effect.

"That's news to me," Carlson said. "You're telling me the regulationshaven't been (implemented)? That doesn't make sense."

Muhammad Chaudry, head of the Chicago-based Islamic Food and NutritionCouncil of America, said the delay does not surprise him.

"There are a lot of details," said Chaudry, who has followed the processmore closely in Illinois. "When the bureaucrats start writing something,one-page documents become a thousand pages, and several committees have toapprove it."

The delay has not slowed the rapid expansion of halal food options inthe state.

"When I first came here, there was no halal food place easy to find,"said Magdy Hagig, who moved to New Jersey from Egypt 14 years ago and now ispresident of the Islamic Society of Central New Jersey. "You had to go atleast an hour from central New Jersey to find one, in Paterson. Now they'reall over the place."