Washington — Eating goat meat hasn’t really caught on with most Americans, but raising goats for meat has certainly caught on with U.S. farmers.
That’s because U.S. farmers are recognizing that there is a growing market among an ever-increasing population of immigrants from Muslim countries, where goat meat is popular.
There are an estimated 2.75 million Muslims living in the United States as of 2011, according to the Pew Research Center, an American think tank. But Muslim immigrants have been rising both in absolute numbers and as a share of all immigrants receiving permanent U.S. residency, the Pew study says.
“By 2020, Muslims are projected to comprise 10.5 percent of more than 1 million new permanent U.S. residents per year, or about 109,000 people annually,” says the Pew study The Global Muslim Population: Projections for 2010–2030.
Pew’s research has found that most Muslim immigrants assimilate smoothly into mainstream American life. But, like all immigrants, they often yearn for the familiar foods they knew back home, and American farmers are happy to satisfy those cravings.
According to the most recent figures available from the National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, there are an estimated 128,000 goat meat operations in the United States. Goats raised for meat make up 82 percent of all goats in the United States, and between 2005 and 2008, the number of goats expanded by 3–5 percent per year, NAAS says.
Under U.S. federal law, all goats must be slaughtered under federal or state regulations, and any carcasses slaughtered for sale must be inspected. The numbers of inspections reported show the growing popularity of goat meat. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 779,000 goat carcasses were inspected in 2010 compared to 107,299 in 1984.
A NASS report released in 2011 says the expansion in the goat industry is partly due to government buyout programs offered to tobacco farmers, which encouraged them to move into other areas of production agriculture. The Southeast, where the majority of tobacco is grown, initially saw the largest growth in goat numbers.
But immigrants are the primary reason for increased goat production in the United States, according to NASS. “With the United States population becoming more diverse each year, the outlook for continued growth in the goat industry is favorable and will be needed to meet domestic demand,” NASS says.
Among Muslim Americans, goat meat is especially in demand around Islamic holidays. For observant Muslims, the goat meat must be certified halal.
Halal is an Arabic term meaning “lawful” or “permissible.” According to the Islamic Services of America, the oldest halal certification agency in the United States, halal, as applied to animals slaughtered for consumption, means that the animals must be fed properly and treated humanely. Slaughter of the animals must be merciful and quick. The slaughtering process must be conducted by a practicing Muslim who recites the prayer: “In the name of Allah [God] and Allah is great.”
Although some observant Muslims prefer to slaughter their goats themselves, there are many commercial operations available. For example, Halal Farms USA, located in Shannon, Illinois, serves Muslim communities in Illinois, Wisconsin, Indiana, Iowa and Minnesota. It buys its goats from independent farmers and slaughters the animals in the manner approved by Islam. According to its website, Halal Farms USA bought more than 50,000 animals in 2011 and is seeking 100,000 more for 2012, 80 percent being goats.
Some immigrants are abandoning city life to start goat farms of their own. Mukit Hossain, who immigrated to the United States from Bangladesh in the 1970s, built a successful career as a telecommunications executive. But he felt financial success and city life were making his two young daughters dangerously materialistic. So in 2008, he left Washington and moved his family to a 6-hectare farm in Virginia, where he now raises several hundred goats for the halal market. With some 300,000 American Muslims living in Northern Virginia alone, there is more demand than he can keep up with right now.
“My big problem is not finding the customers,” Hossain told the Voice of America in an interview. “My big problem is building up my capacity.”