Accommodations for Muslims with handling alcohol-based ingredients?
July 14, 2009 9:06 AM   Subscribe

Muslim employees + handling an alcohol-extract flavoring ingredient... what should a company do?

Hello all, this is complicated but I'll try to keep it short...

I work for a large manufacturer of food products in the US. We have about a dozen Muslim employees, recent refugees from Africa.

Having them with us has been a great experience. In the beginning, we had much to learn about their religious requirements in the workplace... but the company is committed to treating them with respect, and has made all accommodations with regards to prayers, washing, fasting, holidays, etc. They appreciate this and seem to enjoy working here.

The problem? A new customer wants a particular product made a particular way. It requires the use of a flavor ingredient which is an extract of an alcohol product.

We anticipate that our Muslim employees will object to this, strongly.

Let me emphasize- this isn't a couple shots of rum or something. It's not anything that we would recognize as booze. It is a powdered substance containing residual ethanol of only 17,800 parts per million. The ethanol "burns off' in the baking process and in fact appears on the label of the finished product only as "natural flavors".

Consuming this powdered ingredient in this form would *not* intoxicate you. You could get sick (it's not tasty or appealing stuff) but not drunk. Also the amount of flavoring used in a 600 pound batch is very very small.

We are worried, however, that this will not matter to the Muslim employees. We understand that the prohibition against the consumption of alcohol is so strong that many feel it is wrong for them to even touch it or be around it. (We had an incident where one employee thought yeast was alcohol and he refused to perform any work in any department while the product was being made. We had to let him go home for the day until we could produce a spec sheet verifying for him that yeast is not alcoholic.)

We plan to be honest and to tell them in advance that this ingredient will be in some products. But what we do after that to accommodate them is unclear. Some details:

1) All employees wear gloves, smocks, and aprons. No Muslim employee would have to touch the product that contains this flavoring ingredient with their bare hands or have direct skin contact with it. Would this be enough?

2) Letting them transfer to a different department for the day when this product is being made is an option- but not a good one. Different departments have different work schedules, and work may not always be available.

3) We also cannot let this interfere with promotions. High paying lead positions would require the handling of this ingredient-- and we do not want any Muslim employee to miss out on advancement opportunities.

We have done a lot of research, trying to gather information and find the best, most respectful way to talk to them about this.

Islam.net has a lot to say on the subject of alcohol. Their scholars seem to feel that while the consumption of alcohol is *haram*, touching alcohol-based disinfectants, skin lotions, perfumes, etc. is fine. But I was unable to find anything about touching an ethanol-extract food flavor.

I am also worried that we might be insulting if we tell them that we have done research and we feel that handling a product containing this ingredient while wearing gloves is not forbidden. Will they find that insulting, coming from a non-Muslim?

This is a key flavoring agent and there is NO WAY to substitute anything else- believe me, I've asked.

Advice from any Muslim out there... or an employer who has dealt with a similar situation... or any suggestions on where to get more information would be greatly appreciated. Again, our goal is to treat these employees with respect, accommodate their religious requirements, while still getting the required job done. Thanks!
posted by GuffProof to Work & Money (29 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
 
Response by poster: Oops, sorry, that was Islamonline.net that we consulted. thanks!
posted by GuffProof at 9:11 AM on July 14, 2009


You've clearly done your research. If you can present to them what you've written here, that handling a non-intoxicating, non-consumable alcohol-based additive is not haram, then you've met the "reasonable accommodation" standard in US employment law. At that point, it just becomes a disciplinary issue.
posted by Oktober at 9:12 AM on July 14, 2009 [2 favorites]


Perhaps you could contact a few scholars and procure several fatwas, or rulings, on this particular subject? It might be helpful if the scholars were local, perhaps even affiliated with the same mosques your employees attend. The religious leaders may know more about technicalities, and they may be able to answer your questions about whether gloves would suffice according to Islamic law. They may also have some suggestions that you wouldn't find here.
posted by brina at 9:16 AM on July 14, 2009 [5 favorites]


Could you find a muslim religious authority who agrees with you, and then have that person come in to talk to them?
posted by amtho at 9:18 AM on July 14, 2009 [3 favorites]


Is there a local Imam who could give you a ruling on the matter? That would make it pretty straightforward I would expect. Presumably the employees go to a Mosque somewhere.
posted by GuyZero at 9:23 AM on July 14, 2009 [1 favorite]


Kudos to you for acknowledging and respecting the diversity of your workforce. As other posters have suggested, Islamic law is based on a jurisprudential tradition called "fiqh," similar to Judaism's tradition of rabbinical interpretation. Your employees may only feel comfortable following the interpretations of their local imam, but it might be worth it to contact the Fiqh Council of North America, a group of respected Islamic scholars who work with different communities and organizations regarding the application of Islamic law in situations like yours. They even have an online "Fatwa Bank" linked from their home page so you can see what kinds of rulings have already been made on similar issues.
posted by foxy_hedgehog at 9:26 AM on July 14, 2009 [1 favorite]


Sorry! The Fiqh Council Fatwa Bank only has two listings. I'd contact them directly for more info.
posted by foxy_hedgehog at 9:27 AM on July 14, 2009


I would have a meeting with them first and present what you've already done. Some or all of them may feel like what you've already done is just fine. If you're just assuming that they're going to object, bringing in an outsider to talk to them might turn out to be unnecessary, at worst kind of pandering. If they do object, then maybe a local Imam or something like that would be an exceptionally considerate thing to do.
posted by amethysts at 9:30 AM on July 14, 2009 [1 favorite]


Seconding finding their local mosque and talking to their Imam.
posted by asras at 9:35 AM on July 14, 2009


Response by poster: Thank you all, I am so grateful for your assistance and advice!

Consulting with a local authority would be a good way to go- only I'm not sure there is one... This is a rather small midwestern town with a VERY small Muslim population. I guess I could ask our employees if there is someone they know here... thanks again though!
posted by GuffProof at 9:37 AM on July 14, 2009


(IAAL, BNYL, this is not legal advice, etc.)

I do not know U.S. law, but in Canada, I believe that you cannot present extrinsic evidence of what constitutes a religious belief. Even if a dozen religious leaders of your professed faith say you can wear blue on Tuesdays, if you have a genuine faith-based belief that you cannot wear blue on Tuesdays, then that belief must be accommodated by the employer to the point of undue hardship. Religious belief is subjective. There is no prescriptive or objective element. It is only required to be genuine. There is good reason for this. First, the variance in beliefs and customs among adherents to the same religion is vast. Second, to hold otherwise would mean that you would only be protecting the religious freedoms of those who belong to an organized religion with leaders who can be consulted and enough members to demonstrate some kind of pattern.

So while well-intentioned, in Canada at least, consulting other muslims would not help you.

Rather, you need a human rights / employment lawyer to let you know what the limits of your obligation to accommodate are. Is it too much to ask that you completely change the schedules and departments of a number of employees, for example?
posted by girlpublisher at 9:41 AM on July 14, 2009 [2 favorites]


I have nothing to add and agree with what everyone has said above... but...

I found your level of consideration and interest in making allowance for diversity extremely moving.
posted by sundri at 9:46 AM on July 14, 2009 [7 favorites]


Have you asked your employees whom they would turn to for a religious ruling? Contact that person or those people.

Islam is not monolithic. You need to find out who your employees find authoritative. A random Pakistani imam from California is not going to be useful.
posted by QIbHom at 9:49 AM on July 14, 2009


Response by poster: Thank you for your thoughts on the legal aspect of it, girlpublisher.

We did run this question by an employment lawyer. There have been many high-profile lawsuits in the US in recent years over similar issues- employees who were made to handle pork or pork products in meat packing plants, supermarkets, etc.

The attorney stated that there is no law requiring us to disclose the presence of this ingredient to the employees... but he advised us to do so anyhow, given the trends in litigation.

He also stated that once we know there is a bona fide conflict with a sincerely-held religious belief, we have a duty to accommodate. Which we are happy to do, once we figure out HOW. The attorney could not advise us on possible accommodations, saying that was an internal business decision.
posted by GuffProof at 9:53 AM on July 14, 2009


Have you tried having an informal chat with a couple of them about it to feel out what the possible response might be? If you're going to tell them anyway then it doesn't alter anything, and it might be as straightforward as "no problem, fine by us".

You sound like a very thoughtful and considerate person and I'm sure this would come across if you spoke to them informally. Even if the answer from them is no, it's only a preliminary chat, and you can let them know you're working on a solution that suits everyone.

In my experience with muslim friends (and of course there is wide variation in practice, as already stated), these kind of things are often not as big of a deal as you've imagined, and people will be often only too happy to try and come to a compromise if they feel as though their beliefs are being genuinely taken into account and respected.
posted by cryptozoology at 10:05 AM on July 14, 2009


Response by poster: Thanks, sundri and hedgehog... even without the legal aspects, it is just very important to us that all of our employees feel welcome and respected in the workplace.

As I said, this is a rather small town in the center of the US. Very, very un-diverse. When I started with the company 17 years ago, "diversity" was unheard of. There was simply no one to accommodate- in our workforce or in the general local population.

Now, almost half of our employees were born outside of the US. This has been challenging, but also a great experience. I have met people from so many countries, and I really enjoy getting to know about their languages, cultures, and traditions. It's one of the best parts of my job!
posted by GuffProof at 10:10 AM on July 14, 2009


Contact your local Islamic authority, ideally one that oversees whatever congregation the employees participate in. Maybe even meet with him together with your attorney to hammer out something that both can be comfortable with.
posted by charlesv at 10:33 AM on July 14, 2009


It sounds like you are doing everything possible to accommodate them. The first step is sitting down and having a discussion about the ingredient and if they have a problem with it.

If they do, state your willingness to help but also be firm about what is a reasonable accommodation. Sounds like you need to talk to your attorney more to find out if you are legally required to go as far as changing schedules and work areas, even if that negatively impacts your business. What happens when they decide that breathing in a tiny amount of the ingredient in the air is sinful? (surely there are parts-per-billion in the air in the facility of most ingredients)

They need to be willing to compromise to make your workplace productive at the point where your profits would be hurt, or they need to move on to a company structured around their beliefs.
posted by slow graffiti at 11:04 AM on July 14, 2009


Islam.net has a lot to say on the subject of alcohol. Their scholars seem to feel that while the consumption of alcohol is *haram*, touching alcohol-based disinfectants, skin lotions, perfumes, etc. is fine. But I was unable to find anything about touching an ethanol-extract food flavor.

I am also worried that we might be insulting if we tell them that we have done research and we feel that handling a product containing this ingredient while wearing gloves is not forbidden. Will they find that insulting, coming from a non-Muslim?


Just a quick follow up because I wasn't clear. Sorry.

Your question seemed to be asking whether there is some way to know if this job requirement will offend your employees' beliefs -- but there is no outside authority who can put the official seal on a belief and say "this is okay for this muslim to do" in a way that would be enforceable by you, so you could say -- "well, we checked with an imam and he said it was not a problem for you to do this, so it is okay for us to make you."

In other words, the only way to know if something is a "sincerely-held religious belief" is to ask the individual, and then deciding if you believe them or not.

If you provide full disclosure to your employees, they might want to seek appropriate religious counsel and then let you know if they subjectively conclude they can handle the stuff, but that's up to them. Whether they do talk to a religious leader or not, if they decide they cannot handle it and you don't think they are making up this religous belief, you must make all reasonable accommodation.

We have done a lot of research, trying to gather information and find the best, most respectful way to talk to them about this.

Like my fellow posters, I totally admire and applaud your desire to do this right (and by "right" I don't mean "by the book" but rather, with a genuine care for your employees). The way to talk to them about this is respectfully is not to presume anything about their religious beliefs, IMHO.

If you use your research, be sure to communicate that you gathered it so that you would be able to figure out if this was a potential problem, not because you think that their beliefs should conform to the particular beliefs posted on general Islamic sites.

if you do contact "a local Islamic authority", try respect the privacy of your employees, and be very alive to the possibility that whatever that authority says may not have anything to do with the actual beliefs of your employees, and that your employees may not want any specific information about their personal religious choices discussed with "a local Islamic authority". I would find it disrespectful if my employer called up someone it thought was in charge of my church and told them what I said about a particular religious prohibition.
posted by girlpublisher at 11:13 AM on July 14, 2009 [1 favorite]


So while well-intentioned, in Canada at least, consulting other muslims would not help you.

Rather, you need a human rights / employment lawyer to let you know what the limits of your obligation to accommodate are. Is it too much to ask that you completely change the schedules and departments of a number of employees, for example?


What? The idea is to find a local imam or religious leader the workers trust and respect to convince the workers that handling the material is not haram (if that is indeed the case), not to go to court to force the workers to handle the substance. You also do not need a human rights lawyers in the slightest, I have no idea what a human rights lawyer could possibly do for you in this situation, but seeking an employment lawyer, as you've already done, is good advice.
posted by Falconetti at 11:21 AM on July 14, 2009


I would have a meeting with them first and present what you've already done. Some or all of them may feel like what you've already done is just fine. If you're just assuming that they're going to object, bringing in an outsider to talk to them might turn out to be unnecessary, at worst kind of pandering.

I agree. It's admirably conscientious of you to go to such lengths, but what happens if you bring this matter to them and are prepared for a full-on employment law matter, but your employees just shrug and say, "okay, cool, we'll just wear long-sleeve shirts and face masks, no big deal"?

I would include them in the decision process. Some of your Muslim employees may be less particular about this than others, and if that's the case, and only one or two people have an issue about this but the rest of them are just fine, then maybe all you need to do is put those two guys in the mailroom for a couple weeks and you're done. Or, they may each prefer to consult their own individual religious leaders personally on this, and then come to you with the response and you all take it from there.

It's good that you're thinking ahead about your options, but until you speak with your employees, it'd be good to see these options as strictly just that. Once you get a better sense of what your employees actually want to do, then you can all decide together. Maybe sit down with them and say that these are the particulars of this ingredient, but you've heard that there are limitations on alcohol, and you're wanting to know how you can all work with that? Maybe be prepared to offer masks and gloves to people who request them if that's all they want to do. If someone has a bigger objection, then they come to you and you can work with them about whether they go to a different department, etc. But let them each tell you whether they have a problem, and that way with the people who don't, you can just let them go their merry way.

In a sense, what you're doing now is the equivalent of striking all meat from the company cafeteria every Friday because you have Catholic employees, and making them all wonder, "uh....does the boss know that Vatican II said we don't have to do that any more?....well, Stan still does that, but Stan's hardcore, WE'RE not, and we want our burgers."
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:27 AM on July 14, 2009 [1 favorite]


girlpublisher, I hate to contradict you but it seems like your experience is in Canadian law and might not be applicable to someone in the US.
posted by kathrineg at 11:31 AM on July 14, 2009


Interesting bit of info here (from foxy_hedgehog's link):

In the food industry, alcohol is the second common solvent after water. Some of the flavors like vanilla can not be made without alcohol. One can not imagine foods and drinks like, ice cream, cakes and cookies, soft drinks. Etc. without the use of alcohol. IFANCA (The Islamic Food and Nutrition Council of America) considers alcohol as an unavoidable impurity in the food systems. Muslim countries, which import food products, accept foods containing small quantities of alcohol.

We have established two levels of control points for alcohol in foods and ingredients:

Less than 0.1 per cent in the food items.

Less than 0.5 per cent in food ingredients.

At the above levels, one can not detect the presence of alcohol by taste, smell or sight.


Now -- the above is specific to what makes a certain food halal, but given your description of the substance, it fits all the guidelines above, which I would think would make it OK to handle. Perhaps you could approach The Islamic Food and Nutrition Council of America with your specific questions on this issue, particularly how it pertains to wanting to respect the observances of your employees.
posted by contessa at 11:41 AM on July 14, 2009 [3 favorites]


One more thing to consider: there are likely going to be alcohol traces in everything. It might be in parts per billion ... parts per trillion ... parts per quintillion... Some of it too small to measure.
posted by aroberge at 1:59 PM on July 14, 2009


Here's an answer from an Islamic forum as to why bread (in this case, sourdough) is halal despite the presence of alcohol:
Yes, sourdough bread is halal, because the incidental presence of (non-wine) alcohol for non-intoxicating purposes does not render food haram--if it is in an amount that doesn't intoxicate; isn't there as an intoxicant; and isn't consumed because of intoxication.
The same reasoning might extend to your case.
posted by hangashore at 4:25 PM on July 14, 2009 [2 favorites]


Response by poster: Once more, thank you all!

I agree that we are jumping ahead of ourselves little bit here...that we can't assume that all of our Muslim employees will react negatively to the presence of this ingredient in the product.

Maybe (hopefully) it will not be a big deal. But our experience with the employee who refused to work because he thought that yeast was alcohol- well, it shook us up a little. If he was that worried about yeast, then he will likely feel strongly about an actual alcohol extract.

Thank you all for reminding me that religious doctrine is open to many different interpretations, and that no matter what our research turns up, we can't just say "Islam says you can do this, so we're going to make you do this." An important point for us to keep in mind as we go forward.
posted by GuffProof at 4:53 PM on July 14, 2009


Bear in mind that Islam is not a coherent body, and getting an opinion from the local cleric will not necessarily help any more than it would to, say, get an opinion from the Baptists as to how to deal with the religious sensibilities of Irish Catholics. They might be learned enough and objective enough to give you a good answer, but not necessarily, and their answer, even if it affords with the doctrine of these particular Muslims, may not be accepted by virtue of whom it comes from.

Also, different Muslims place different personal values on their own religion just like everyone else does; one might freak out over the yeast, another might happily go along to the bar with the rest of his shift and drink a beer, and yet both consider themselves good Muslims. Religion as a group identity and signifier of group membership, especially as an immigrant in a foreign land, is far more important to the average person than the minutae of religious practice.

Don't forget the influence of group politics either; the local cleric may be against his congregation working at your plant for reasons unconnected with alcohol, eg he may feel--wrongly or rightly, though from your attitude I'd bet on wrongly--that you are underpaying or mistreating them. It's much more important that the cleric approves of them working there, than what particular duties they do. Address that question first.

I'd talk privately to the brightest and most willing worker--the one you're looking at promoting to foreman--and ask him what he thinks, and if he could get you the number of their religious leader if any, and/or set up an appointment; bring that guy along to the meeting with the cleric to help translate if necessary, for convenience in case the cleric wants to ask him questions in private (and that will do a lot to show your good faith), and to introduce you. Pay him for his time, too - they're not working at your plant just because you're a nice guy. :)
posted by aeschenkarnos at 8:00 PM on July 14, 2009


I recommend NOT going to any outside authority. If I cared about religion, I would hate the idea that my employer was going around looking for some authority figure to make it OK to violate my beliefs.

Agree with others- present the material to your employees, and see what happens. You have already done everything you can do, give them the dignity of making their own decisions.
posted by gjc at 9:14 PM on July 14, 2009


Maybe (hopefully) it will not be a big deal. But our experience with the employee who refused to work because he thought that yeast was alcohol- well, it shook us up a little. If he was that worried about yeast, then he will likely feel strongly about an actual alcohol extract.

He might. But he might also be the only one who does. That's why it may be better to just inform them all and let them make their own decisions and then just handle making other arrangements for the ones who may decide they have a problem for it, instead of assuming they're ALL going to have a problem and pre-emptorily solving it.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:42 AM on July 15, 2009


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