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

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

Many Muslims viewed the passage of the Halal Food Consumer Protection Act as a major step toward helping place Islamic practices on equal civic footing 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 of Islamic-American Relations. "We have to protect the landmark by implementing it."

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 a plan to enforce the law," said Sohail Mohammed, a Clifton attorney who worked with legislators on the bill. "Is the government saying to us this is not a priority to them?"

Genene Morris, spokeswoman for the Division of Consumer Affairs, which is responsible for enforcing the law, said a draft version of procedures to implement 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," Morris said, adding that government analysts have questions about disclosure requirements for sellers. "This is new territory. It's not something that we could do overnight. It's something that has taken time."

Once the procedures are approved, they will go into the New Jersey Register where people will be able to comment on them before adoption, she said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The delay has not slowed the rapid expansion of halal food options in the 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 is president of the Islamic Society of Central New Jersey. "You had to go at least an hour from central New Jersey to find one, in Paterson. Now they're all over the place."

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