Olymel and Halal: Private prerogative must trump public interference

By Beryl Wajsman on March 23, 2012

The controversy over Halal chicken slaughtering by Olymel has ballooned into a series of debates on everything from animal cruelty to unfair pricing to unreasonable accommodation . Yet all these miss the central point. If a society wants to be called free, it cannot take upon itself the right to dictate to a private enterprise - that asks nothing from the state - how it should conduct its business. That is not freedom. That is statism. The arrogance that our public officials and commentators take upon themselves to intervene in private prerogative is not only unjust, it is dangerous. It leads to a society where demonization becomes the goal and disinformation the tool.

Olymel is one of Quebec’s largest and most successful companies. Some $2.5 billion in sales with about 10,000 unionized employees. It dominates the poultry and pork markets. I point this out because this whole issue began when a PQ MNA, a veterinarian by profession, rose in the Assembly to denounce the slaughter of cattle without stunning as is required by Islamic religious law. The matter then broadened when members of the media weighed in suggesting that because Olymel abides by Halal rules in part of its chicken processing, it is somehow incurring considerably more costs which are then passed on to consumers of all products of Olymel. Finally this stool grew a third leg when yet another series of commentators decided that Olymel was engaging in “unreasonable accommodation” by having part of its production follow strictures deemed essential by part of the  market. 

All these politicians and commentators are entitled to their opinions. They are not entitled to the fabrication of facts. So let’s set the record straight a bit. Not as an apology for Olymel. It certainly does not need my efforts for that. But as a lesson in how reality is twisted in Quebec by forces that want to dictate all our actions all the time.

First of all, that PQ MNA may or may not have a point about the most humane way to slaughter cattle. Certainly free enterprise is not license to abuse animals. But the reality is that Olymel does not slaughter cattle. So why that MNA brought Olymel up in a commentary on cattle slaughter is a total mystery. Maybe it is just that the PQ’s social democratic dogma found it useful to demonize the largest animal processor in the province as a proxy for demonstrating that free and fair markets are not enough. They have to be controlled markets under the dictates of a command state.

Secondly, the difference in costs between Halal and regular chicken processing is minimal. In a universe of 10,000 employees it may involve the hiring of several dozen people. If it cost too much and wasn’t profitable Olymel wouldn’t do it. That’s how Olymel became successful. It likes profits. The costs are not big enough to be even noticeable at the retail level. Unless of course the commentators who raised the issue of cost used that as a proxy for demanding more rule and regulation over industry. After all, regulation is the one growth area in Quebec. And that’s because since 1976 the heavy yoke of regulation has chased as many companies out of Quebec as the language laws. It reminds us of Ronald Reagan’s quip that the philosophy of big government is, “If it moves tax it. If it keeps moving regulate it.” It’s just a power play mentality that has been taken for gospel in this province.

Finally, to those who argue that this is somehow “unreasonable accommodation” they should examine Olymel’s corporate profile. Olymel’s decision wasn’t taken years ago because of demands from Quebec’s Muslim community. Nobody demonstrated outside their plants. Olymel gets almost half its annual revenue from international sales. And there are a billion Muslims worldwide. It’s a major market. Olymel sells into it and, though this is certainly lost on many talking heads, brings to Quebec a great deal of hard foreign currency. Olymel doesn’t operate with blinders on never looking past the Ottawa River and the rock at Percé. It looks at the world as its market, even though many politicians in Quebec would prefer otherwise.

The reality is that there is no issue here. The only singular over-riding issue is that the Quebec state and its leaders must stop trying to dictate behavior and objectives of private enterprise. That mentality is killing our economy. We have a debt to GDP ratio not far from Greece`s. We need to wake up. Let individual enterprise and endeavour flourish and let`s get on with growth and progress. The old politics is just that. Old and done.

 

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