Australia: Islamic groups and meat processors at odds over government role

By Shalailah Medhora, The Guardian

australian-flag-mapOne of Australia’s peak Muslim organisations has defended the country’s halal certification process, after a group of meat processors called on the federal government to intervene in its regulation.

Ten meat processors met the Department of Agriculture last month, calling on the government to oversee all aspects of halal certification, including slaughter and product certification, to help open up export markets, the ABC reported.

But Muslims Australia – a federation of Islamic councils – said the commonwealth already played a role through the agriculture department, which licenses halal-approved abattoirs.

“The government is already there,” the general manager of Muslims Australia, Wasim Raza, told Guardian Australia. “There are procedures that are set in place.”

Those procedures are dictated by the countries that import food from Australia.

“Each country that buys food from Australia looks to organisations here to accredit [halal] on their behalf,” Raza said. “Halal certification is not a requirement in Australia, so most of the meat processors look to export to overseas markets.”

The group of meat processors argued that this created a monopoly and gave import countries the upper hand.

The agriculture department acknowledged the meeting had taken place in October. “The discussions covered a range of business and commercial topics, including halal certification,” a spokesman said.

A spokesman for the agriculture minister, Barnaby Joyce, told Guardian Australia that “the minister always welcomes the views of industry on how we can approach supplying export markets, and looks forward to the outcome of the Senate inquiry currently under way”.

“The Australian government is committed to pursuing the best possible market access opportunities for our producers overseas,” the spokesman said. “Our primary function is in making sure our exports satisfy importing country requirements, and this will not change.”

Halal – preparing food according to Islamic law – does not change the content of the food, and often refers to a specific method of slaughtering animals.

A Senate inquiry into halal certification will report back this month. It received more than 1,400 submissions from food and exporter groups, religious organisations and concerned individuals.

The Australian Food and Grocery Council noted in its submission that allowing import countries to set conditions of halal certification can be costly and problematic.

“The concern arises where the export market recognises only a small subset of ‘authorised’ Australian certifiers and where there is no consistency between export markets as to which Australian certifiers are recognised,” the council said. “This leads to the situation where an exporter might be required to obtain multiple halal certifications to export to different markets.

“This situation also creates a quasi-monopoly for approved certifiers, providing no competitive force to encourage innovation and efficiency and manage costs,” it said.

But the council said meat processors would not seek certification unless it benefited them.

“These costs need to be outweighed by the benefit to the manufacturer or brand owner, or the certification is simply not maintained,” it said. “The AFGC is aware of estimates that up to $13bn of Australian agri-food products are exported to Islamic societies annually which requires, or would benefit from, halal certification.”