Cut-throat competition

Sep 17th 2009 | PARIS

From The Economist print edition

Feeding Europe’s Muslims is a growing business


Better learn to spell it

before the beginning of Ramadan, the month-long Muslim fast which ends
this weekend, an unusual advertisement appeared on French television.
Panzani, a pasta-maker, was touting its Zakia line of halal
ready-meals. In a secular nation it seemed like “a little revolution”,
as Le Parisien, a newspaper, put it. The French can presumably
take it in their stride. The trade in halal food is growing fast, and
is likely to continue to do so.

Big food
producers have long catered to Muslims, a market worth some $630
billion globally according to KasehDia, a consulting company that
specialises in the trade. Nestlé has produced halal goods since the
1980s; 75 of its 456 factories now have a halal certification. But only
recently have big European shops followed suit. Carrefour, the world’s
second-largest retailer, launched a new range of products just in time
for Ramadan. Casino, a French supermarket chain, has a halal line, and
British outfits Tesco and Sainsbury’s carry halal products. KFC, an
American fast-food chain, is conducting a trial of halal food in eight
of its British restaurants. All its French ones are already halal

The main
reason for growth is demographic. Although many European countries do
not tally Muslims or any other religious group (estimates in France
range from 4m to 7m) it is clear that Muslim populations have grown
quickly as a result of immigration and higher birth rates. Many of the
people who sought asylum in Western Europe in the first half of this
decade were Muslims from Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia. Mohammed,
Muhammad and Mohammad were all among the 100 most popular baby boys’
names in England and Wales last year.

Muslims are disproportionately poor, they spend plenty of money on
food. Islam is associated with a strong tradition of communal feasting.
Antoine Bonnel, who runs the Paris Halal Expo, reckons that the average
French Muslim spends a quarter of his or her income on food, compared
with 12-14% for non-Muslims.

Nearly a
third of the money goes on meat. That demand, which contrasts with a
drop in meat-eating among health-conscious Christians and godless folk,
has helped transform the global livestock market. The slaughtering of
all lamb and goat meat in Australia for export is now done in
accordance with halal custom, which involves killing animals with a
single cut and draining their blood. A tenth of Australia’s total meat
exports, worth about $570m a year, is halal. Brazil dominates the
global market with a 54% share of exported halal meat, according to

As the halal
market grows, two problems are emerging. The first is the lack of broad
standards. Halal regulations vary widely both between countries and
within them. In Australia, all slaughter for halal meat is regulated by
the government. In France, by contrast, there are over 50 certification
bodies, all in competition with one another. Mr Bonnel describes it as
“a huge nightmare” that can lead to charges of impurity. The Malaysian
government’s Halal Industry Development Corporation has tried to create
a global standard, with little success so far.

The second
problem is squeamishness among non-Muslims. Animals slaughtered
according to halal custom are supposed to be alive when their throats
are cut, a practice that animal-rights groups condemn. Switzerland,
Norway, Iceland and Sweden forbid it outright. Some governments have
reached a compromise that allows for animals to be partly stunned
before being killed. But not all Muslims are happy with this. The halal
market may be buoyant, but the waters are choppy.