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Merciful Meat

Najeeb Hasan | July 30, 2013 | Food & Drink Story Eat and Drink

Ahmad Karaouni kills sentient creatures—goats, lambs, and calves mostly, but also chickens—almost every day. He slaughters each beast with his own hands, using a knife sharp enough to slice cleanly through a paper towel, which is harder than it sounds. His proximity to the animals that he kills gives him insights into his trade that most meatpackers do not possess—like the fact that it adds at least a half hour of work when a customer asks that a carcass be torched rather than skinned. (The technique imparts a smoky succulence to the meat that is especially popular with customers from Nepal, the Philippines, Nigeria, and Ethiopia—any customer, really, that is partial to goat.)

Karaouni and his wife, Lourdes, are the sole proprietors of Nature’s Bounty Meats, a small-scale slaughterhouse just outside Vacaville in an unincorporated area of Solano County. Despite being frequented more by first-generation immigrants than by Michael Pollan–quoting butchers, Karaouni’s tiny halal slaughterhouse is doing its own small part to advance the cause of sustainable meat production. At Nature’s Bounty, Karaouni juggles what often seem like competing expectations. He’s committed to knowing the history of each animal that he kills. His customers, though, generally just want fresh, cheap meat. (Ram Khatiwoda, a Bhutan native and Nature’s Bounty regular, tells me that he’ll take his business to a grocery store if Karaouni ever charges more than $5 a pound.) Karaouni manages to thread this needle by selling whole animals instead of costlier individual cuts and by pruning his overhead. The animals that he slaughters are only one or two weeks removed from pasture and never see a feedlot.

On an afternoon this past winter during one of my first visits to Nature’s Bounty, I find Karaouni inside the kill room helping his skinners, Eddie and Armando, ready a goat for torching. Eddie drags a freshly killed carcass onto a waiting trolley and rolls it—hooves splayed at awkward angles and a trail of fresh blood in its wake—to a patio at the back of the shop that overlooks a fenced grazing pasture. There, Karaouni ignites a propane blowtorch (he wears no safety goggles), takes aim, and blasts the goat, first making its coat glow a bright orange, then charring it black, and finally scraping it clean with a wire brush. About 20 minutes later, the goat looks like a newly fleeced, caramel-colored sheep.

Much, but not all, of Nature’s Bounty’s kill is, like the torched goat, custom meat, regulated by the state and available by law only to those who buy directly from the slaughterhouse. Karaouni’s animals are meant for personal consumption, not resale, and must be lugged home by customers in their entirety—whether butchered or as an intact carcass. The slaughterhouse is also USDA-inspected, which allows Karaouni to offer his meat at a handful of farmers’ markets and natural grocery stores. He’s proud of this regulatory approval, but points out scornfully that he doesn’t look to the USDA to define his grass-fed, hormone- and antibiotic-free animals. “For the USDA, veal doesn’t drink its mother’s milk, it doesn’t see the sun, and it’s jailed in a four-by-four- foot cell,” he says. “For us, veal is a young animal.”

Karaouni’s desire to treat each animal as an individual and to raise (and kill) it with utmost humanity places his operation at the forefront of a movement within the American Muslim community. He tells me more than once that if Muslims learned about the origins of their halal meat (which the USDA often doesn’t grade), many wouldn’t eat it. Not that he judges those who shop for price over quality: “In our countries,” he says, “you know how we were treated. You don’t blame [an immigrant] for not paying $5 or $6 a pound when he can get it for $3 or $4 a pound at the halal market.” Still, he’s troubled that observant Muslims, like many kosher-keeping Jews, rely on only the most basic requirements for ritualized slaughter.

It’s not enough, Karaouni insists, to rubber-stamp all halal meat as good meat without considering where that meat comes from. “Halal” is a term in Islamic law that merely means “permissible.” The standard dictates what kind of animal Muslims can eat—pigs are out, but so, for example, are carnivores with fangs and any animal that has been beaten, strangled, or killed by a fall. It also regulates the slaughter itself, mandating in most schools of Islamic law, for instance, that the animals must be slaughtered manually by a devout person who invokes the name of God before the kill. In one sense, halal for Karaouni is akin to USDA approval: a standard that provides merely a starting point for the proper treatment of the animals we eat. Both, he believes, fall distressingly short of the ideal.

Karaouni grew up watching his father, a farmer, cull animals that roamed free in South Lebanon, and he has slaughtered nearly every animal that he’s eaten for the past three decades in the United States. In the early years, sorting through the insides of American livestock that he didn’t raise, he saw, in the finger-thick deposits of yellow-tinged fat hiding the flesh, the presumed effects of feedlot finishing. “I only found out what kind of animal I had after I killed it and looked inside,” he says. “But it’s too late after you kill it.” Those animals mostly went to his dogs.

With his slaughterhouse, Karaouni joins an increasing number of Muslims who suggest that halal may be too tolerant a benchmark in this age of industrial food systems. “Islamic law is concerned with how the animal is killed,” says Nuri Friedlander, who, with his wife, Krystina, founded the website Beyond Halal, where they list a handful of options for sustainably sourced halal meat across the country, including Nature’s Bounty. The couple argue that Muslims err by screeching to a halt at a legal baseline—one that has generally been interpreted to permit industrially sourced food—without making an ethical evaluation of how the food arrives on their plates.

The Friedlanders’ message—bolstered by the fact that the Prophet Muhammad equated cruelty, even mental cruelty, to animals with cruelty to humans—carries special resonance in the Bay Area, home to some 250,000 Muslims. In these parts, even nonreligious grocery shoppers are apt to prefer a sustainably raised cut of halal or kosher meat over an industrially sourced alternative. Jessica Prentice, a chef, entrepreneur (she’s credited with coining the term “locavore”), and cofounder of Berkeley’s Three Stone Hearth community-supported kitchen, says that she has encountered many Jews—and some Muslims—who are seeking alternatives to faith-sanctioned but industrially processed meats. “I know a lot of people who had to make what to them was a hard decision to eat either humanely and local or in accordance with their religious beliefs,” she says. “A lot of people decide, well, the soul of [ritually slaughtered meat] has to do with connecting religion and humaneness, so I’m actually going to choose to do what’s local and pastured.” With Nature’s Bounty, Karaouni aims to make that compromise moot.

Page two: An unlikely activist

Karaouni doesn’t neatly fit the profile of a food activist. He is in his early 60s, sturdy and built low to the ground, like a bull rider. It’s not hard to imagine him running a livestock rustler off his property, something that he has had to do on occasion. (One day, I arrived shortly after he had spotted a visitor tucking a live pheasant under his jacket.) Karaouni’s most distinctive feature, more than the American Spirits that he jams between his lips between kills, is his right hand, which lacks a thumb and has only a nub for a forefinger. Naturally, people think that he mangled it butchering meat, but the injury actually occurred in Lebanon. He was 18 when a car he was riding in overturned, rolling several times and pinning his hand in an axle. The accident prompted his immigration to the United States. After recovering, rather than stay a year behind in high school in Lebanon, he applied to American colleges and enrolled at the University of San Francisco, where he earned a degree in international business. To this day, he hasn’t made his left hand dominant—he writes right handed and, more impressively, grips his slaughtering knife with his right hand, using his ring finger and pinkie to pinch the handle tightly against his palm.

Before Karaouni decided that he would slaughter goats and sheep for a living, he ran a profitable floral farm for 15 years on the same 10 acres where Nature’s Bounty now stands. Serendipitously, the market for dried floral arrangements boomed in the mid-1990s, and he did just fine, selling enough flowers to live comfortably. “If I walked outside without $500 cash in my pocket, it wouldn’t feel right,” he says. When he saw a way to make even more, he went all out, planting more flowers and hiring more employees. Business skyrocketed: millions of dollars a year in revenues, 20 to 25 employees—but then he began losing control. Often, all his money was consumed by his expanding operation. “A lot of times,” he continues, “I would put my hand in my pocket, and I didn’t have $20.”

Karaouni was big enough to fail, worrying constantly about falling into debt and attending distant trade shows stuffed into a suit and fenced in by the walls of hotel rooms. Then, a favor to his brother, who had slaughtered animals in Lebanon, put him on the road to Nature’s Bounty. Karaouni had the land and the cash, about $174,000 after he sold property in Lebanon and Honduras, his wife’s homeland, and he told his brother to supply the animals. In August 2008, he obtained a license to sell whole carcasses out of his shop as a custom slaughterhouse. By November, his brother, who didn’t have the temperament to haggle with customers, had left. Karaouni says that his brother had been buying bargain-basement lambs and goats at livestock auctions, where the sick ones, he suspected, were often pumped full of antibiotics to perk them up for sale. “The animals weren’t making it past the third day,” Karaouni says. “Every day, we’d have two or three animals dead. I wasn’t trying to open a cemetery.”

Today, Karaouni estimates his yearly kill— mainly lambs, goats, and calves—at 2,500 animals, a number that’s grown steadily over the past five years. Typically, he cycles through about 100 animals every few weeks. The unacceptable ones, too old or too unhealthy to slaughter, are picked up, at a loss to Karaouni, by men trolling farms and ranches for animals to turn into cheap halal meat. The remaining animals graze on a series of fields that horseshoe the perimeter of his property until they are herded into pens inside the corral, where they stay until they’re sold.

The kill floor at Nature’s Bounty is in a simple, rectangular building that sits near the back of Karaouni’s 10 acres, about 50 yards behind his house. A wood-railed outdoor chute connects this building to the roughly constructed corral a few yards to the east, where his goats and sheep spend their final days. It’s from this corral that customers select their animal for purchase, after which Karaouni or one of his skinners enters the pen and chases down the chosen one. Then the worker walks the animal, using a maneuver that looks like a loose headlock, toward the chute. Once inside the chute, the animal ordinarily progresses unaided toward the kill floor. If he must, Karaouni will swat larger animals, usually calves, with a plastic oar, but he never deploys an electric prod, believing that stunning an animal impacts the way it bleeds.

The chute ends at a door that prevents each animal from witnessing the previous kill, as is recommended in halal slaughter. Once through the door, the animal is guided into a hard right turn that ends at a hinged steel contraption painted grass green and resembling a giant waffle maker. Ten years ago, Karaouni spotted ranchers using a similar restraint while trimming the hair of show goats. Called a squeeze box, it is positioned upright on its hinges as the animal enters. After the animal’s head pokes through the other side, the device is shut and flipped 90 degrees so that the animal is suspended on its side about three feet above the ground and facing the qiblah, the direction of Muslim prayer. Unlike conventional operations, which rarely allow outsiders, including journalists, to view the actual slaughter, Karaouni—who performs each kill stroke himself— hides nothing. It’s not unusual to see small children ogling as the animals are bled, skinned, and eviscerated.

Page three: Its very existence is an outlier

An insistence on transparency is not the slaughterhouse’s only rare quality— its very existence makes it an outlier. Karaouni is a Lilliputian in a world populated by giants. American sheep, their numbers hovering at over 5 million head, are scattered across more than 80,000 farms and ranches. But in a pattern replicated throughout the range of animals that we eat, almost 60 percent of the 2.2 million lambs and sheep slaughtered in 2012 were funneled from those 80,000 ranches into just three processing plants. One of them, Superior Farms in nearby Dixon, is so close to Nature’s Bounty that a massive white wind turbine erected on its property can be seen from Karaouni’s driveway. Not a large slaughterhouse compared to cattle and hog operations elsewhere, Superior nearly doubles Karaouni’s annual kill total every week at its Dixon plant.

The production model for sustainably produced meat, which relies on small-scale slaughterhouses like Nature’s Bounty, has been likened to an hourglass, with the bulbs on the top and bottom symbolizing consumers and willing ranchers. The constricted bottleneck in the middle represents the current shortage of small slaughterhouses. A farmer who might need only 40 or 50 cows slaughtered can’t turn to an industrial plant, most of which are clustered in the Great Plains and run on tightly regimented production cycles, but access to local slaughterhouses is rapidly dwindling. Just 50 years ago, there were several slaughterhouses in San Francisco itself. Food and farming writer Barry Estabrook has noted that 1,500 local processors have shut down within the last decade. A Food & Water Watch study released in 2009 confirms this trend, charting a 20 percent decrease in small-scale slaughter facilities between 1998 and 2007.

Karaouni’s dedication to micro-scale custom slaughter, to the notion that we must know our meat, won’t do much to counter the widespread consolidation of the meat industry. But he’s certain that his operation has lessons to teach. For him, the main problem with high-volume slaughter is the inability to source animals like the ones he remembers in Lebanon, free from feedlots, irrigated fields contaminated with pesticides, and antibiotics and hormones. “It’s got to be a small operation,” says Karaouni. “If you do 100 head a day at one slaughterhouse, that’s 700 head a week, 2,800 head a month. Multiply that by 12 for the year. You’re not going to find those animals. There’s no way.”

Karaouni makes $40 for each lamb or goat that he slaughters. With a margin that low, especially when every animal means 20 or 30 minutes of work, it’s tempting to ramp up production. But because it’s his own meat that he’s marketing, he resists this urge, declining frequent requests, mostly from owners of halal markets, that he expand. At one time, he worked with a halal market supplier who paid him a few hundred dollars a day to rent his kill floor. It was easy money, and Karaouni tolerated it as long as he could, even as federal inspectors, who consistently give his facility high marks, raised their eyebrows at the carcasses. They teased him that Nature’s Bounty should now be called Karaouni’s Fantastic Animals, a reference to the artificially grown stock that they were seeing at his facility for the first time. One day, Karaouni saw his new lessee kill 15 lambs, of which 2 would be condemned by the USDA and another 7 had pneumonia. “That was the last day he killed here,” Karaouni says. “I told him, ‘It’s over, finished.’”

When he took over from his brother, Karaouni experimented with purchasing from livestock auctions, but he couldn’t verify the provenance of the animals. His solution was to circumvent auctions by agreeing to buy all his lambs from a single rancher two weeks after their birth. It’s a novel arrangement in a line of work wherein most ranchers are beholden, with little leverage, to the behemoths of the slaughter industry. Karaouni reserves his animals with a deposit and promises to complete the purchase at market price once the lambs mature. The rancher—who grazes his sheep on the hills near Rio Vista, less than 30 miles from Vacaville—avoids terms dictated by a large processor and the headache of trucking his lambs to auction, while Karaouni knows exactly what his lambs have ingested. When he first proposed the deal, he promised to buy 500 newborn lambs and put down a $25 deposit for each if the rancher vowed to finish his lambs on grass and not pump them with antibiotics or hormones. “He said I was crazy,” says Karaouni, “but the first year, he saw that I came up with [the money].”

Now, Karaouni is up to 4,000 lambs with the same rancher and—such is their level of trust—is no longer asked to put down a deposit. He is protective of this relationship, knowing that the market pressures ranchers to produce increasingly larger animals. “The ranchers, their main aim is profit,” he shrugs. “They don’t care. The more they feed the animals things like corn, the more the animals are going to grow. If he can sell his lamb for $150 or $200, which way is he going to go? That’s why I paid a deposit: to let him know that those are my animals—not your animals.”

The contradictions, however, aren’t all the fault of the breeders, who follow the cues of a handful of processors who determine everything from weight to price. The processors, meanwhile, say that they respond to consumer demand in the form of large grocery retailers, which pass those standards downstream. Superior Farms, for example, the industry’s leading lamb processor, slaughters 10-month-olds, mostly finished on feedlots, weighing between 140 and 150 pounds. But Karaouni won’t stand for it. No rancher, he believes, should raise a 150-pound lamb in 10 months. He sells 6- to 10-month-old lambs that range from 60 to 115 pounds. “For me, 130 pounds is a disaster,” he says. “At 110 pounds, I start shaking my head.” He does a back-of-the-napkin calculation for a hypothetical 160-pound lamb and arrives at 88 pounds of meat. He jerks his head up. “Who wants 88 pounds of meat?” he demands. “I will not touch it. I will not eat it. If you tell me the lamb was two years old, that’s something. But 10 months at 160 pounds?” His disgust is palpable.

When I visit Karaouni one Saturday afternoon this past spring, I catch him inside the kill room during a lull after the morning rush, slumped in a plastic black chair, his head tilted back against the wall. “I’m too old for this,” he complains to Lourdes. He tells me that for all his attention to natural foods, his biggest challenge might be the day-to-day running of his business, a responsibility that none of his three children is likely to shoulder once he walks away. On a grazing field outside, about 20 lambs, born just weeks before, huddle near their mothers— animals that Karaouni had elected not to slaughter in the winter because they were “second-class.” He hadn’t unloaded them in castaway markets for cheap halal meat because they were pregnant (a surprise: one of his males had escaped castration), and he knew that the Islamic discouragement against slaughtering pregnant animals would be ignored. So now he has babies.

Karaouni had just informed one of his customers that five goats preceded the customer’s lamb in line. The customer took it badly, arguing to be moved up. “I said, ‘Good-bye. I salute you.’ So he took off.” Karaouni shrugs. “That’s why [people from Muslim countries] are [falling] behind the whole world. They think they are the only ones who exist.” He recalls his father sending him to government offices in Lebanon with a folded piece of paper and instructions not to look at the money enclosed inside. “We’re accustomed to it,” Karaouni sneers. “We’re special. We don’t have to wait.” He thinks, sometimes, that he’s become too Americanized, having little patience for habits— haggling, indirectness, unreliability, disregard for time—that he identifies, almost like a 19th-century Orientalist, as peculiar to his customers from Muslim countries. Some of the more religious customers bother him in inventive ways, rejecting, for instance, his halal authenticity because he follows the Shia tradition.

Page four: Slaughtering the lamb

Shortly after Karaouni bemoans his community, a blue station wagon carrying five passengers, four men and one woman, skids to a stop in the gravel driveway. He sighs, readying himself to argue about something. They exchange pleasantries in Arabic, and Karaouni leads all five into the corral. Trouble starts when they press him for a male lamb that’s not castrated. Impossible, replies Karaouni, whose lambs are castrated at two weeks. He tells them that he doesn’t have any. The visitors push back, believing that he must have at least one.

“If they had balls, you walk in this place, and everybody would have to cover their nose,” Karaouni says defensively, his voice rising. “They smell.” A family conference ensues in Arabic. Karaouni tries again, in English: “I killed 500 males for qurbani [the Eid al-Adha sacrifice]. They were all castrated.”

They retreat, finally believing him, but now demand that Karaouni let one of the younger family members—a tall, burly twentysomething man wearing knee-length shorts—enter the pen and select the lamb himself. “They’re wild animals, not feedlot animals,” Karaouni warns, warily opening the pen. As the youth scuffles with a lamb, Karaouni shouts, “You’re not supposed to touch them like that!”

The family, it turns out, has fled from Iraq. The woman, the mother of the lamb catcher, explains in halting English that they’ve lived in the United States for three years and were in Syria before that. She once had another son, a goldsmith in Baghdad who’s now dead, shot and killed by bandits. As she speaks, one of her companions, a balding older male, disrobes behind the open door of the station wagon, exchanging his trousers and plaid button-down for a cotton robe, unadorned and dull gray. He strides purposefully into the kill room, barefoot, with a white handkerchief draped like a hood over his head. Inside, he ceremoniously unsheathes, from a wrapped towel, an ordinary kitchen knife, making it apparent that he’ll slaughter the lamb himself.

Karaouni glances up, his eyes widening when he spots the foreign knife in his shop. Wordlessly, he takes the knife and stalks to the paper towel dispenser, stretches a single sheet military-bed tight, and attempts to slice it in half. The knife fails the test—twice. “Is there any reason you need this knife?” he asks loudly. He drops the knife on the stainless steel counter, the clang echoing his disapproval. The Iraqi agrees to a new knife, which he sanitizes with hot water before slaughtering the sheep with a sawing motion. “That’s enough!” Karaouni turns away, spreading his hands in disgust at the unnecessary aggression—the lamb had already died.

Over the course of several visits to Karaouni’s farm, I ask versions of the same question several times: Why is he so committed to something— knowing the provenance of his animals—that most of his customers, more interested in custom-processed meats at low prices, really aren’t. He answers differently each time, depending on his mood. He won’t sell anything that he wouldn’t also feed his children. He’s inspired by his religion. He disdains Walmart. He has a reputation to uphold.

But one evening just before sunset, after the kill floor has been hosed down and Eddie and Armando, his skinners, have left for the day, Karaouni answers by talking, as he sometimes does, about South Lebanon. His father, he tells me, employed a herder, an elderly man who was improbably spry, to graze his goats—he owned about 2,000 of them—in the mountains near his farm. Often his father would ask the young Karaouni, then 12 or 13, to run lunch up to the herder. “One day I asked him,” Karaouni says, “‘Don’t you ever get sick? I don’t understand how you can take care of these goats at your age.’” The herder laughed at him. “He said to me, ‘I’m up in the mountains, where there is fresh air and spring water. If I get thirsty, I catch a goat and drink.’” Karaouni pantomimes pulling a teat toward him and craning his neck for a gulp. “‘Why would I get sick?’” He looks up to confirm that I see the connection. “When you see where my animals are, you’ll ask the same thing.”

His animals, he means, have the hills, which is all they really need.

Originally published in the August 2013 issue of San Francisco

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