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Dec 18, 5:58 PM EST

Plea hearing set for ex-manager in halal food case


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IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) -- A former manager at an Iowa-based halal food supplier is expected to plead guilty as part of a federal criminal investigation into the company's exporting and marketing practices, according to court documents filed Thursday.

Conspiracy charges filed against Philip G. Payne are the latest involving the Midamar Corp., which is accused of exporting beef products to countries such as Kuwait and United Arab Emirates that didn't meet halal standards as advertised.

The founder of the Cedar Rapids-based company, 73-year-old William B. Aossey Jr., and his two sons who now direct it have pleaded not guilty to similar charges, as did the company and its halal certification organization, Islamic Services of America.

Unlike those defendants, Payne was not indicted by a grand jury but instead charged in an information, which is usually reserved for defendants who are cooperating with the government.

A plea hearing was scheduled for Jan. 5 for the 50-year-old Payne, who worked as Midamar's operations manager from 2008 to 2012. His attorney didn't immediately return a message.

Prosecutors contend that Payne conspired to mislead regulators and customers about the source and nature of Midamar's beef products, how cattle were slaughtered and the level of adherence to halal standards.

Halal products are supposed to meet Islamic standards of manufacture, meaning they are not to be contaminated with pork or alcohol, and that livestock is slaughtered in accordance with Shariah law. Midamar and I.S.A. promised customers their products met the strictest standards, saying they always used Muslim slaughtermen who recited the "Tasmia" prayer under the supervision of halal checkers.

Prosecutors allege that from April 2010 and June 2012, some of Midamar's beef came from a Minnesota meatpacking plant that often didn't use Muslim slaughtermen or checkers. In many instances, beef slaughtered at the plant was actually done by rabbis as kosher beef. The plant killed all cattle with a brain-penetrating captive bolt stun gun - a commonly used technique that Midamar claimed wasn't used because it negates the halal process, prosecutors say.

Midamar spokeswoman Sara Sayed said this week the Minnesota plant "engages in non-invasive stunning after the ritual slaughter" and is not a primary supplier.

The company's lawyer has defended its practices and alleged the government is violating the separation of church and state by trying to regulate halal standards.

The company is also accused of falsifying certificates to fool the United States Department of Agriculture into allowing beef for export to Malaysia and Indonesia that didn't come from a facility approved under those countries' strict standards.

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