Opinion: An Islamic approach to ethical consumerism

By Zahed Amanullah, June 8, 2011

As the halal marketplace and industry matures, we are seeing more efforts to incorporate ethical values in halal products. And as American halal food consumers demand a deeper spiritual connection with their food and the processes by which they are produced, they have also demonstrated that they are willing to pay for them.
Happy cow, happy consumer
London, England
Until recently, halal foods were defined only by ritual slaughter and mass-market production. But today’s ethical consumer trends are making the industry take a second look at what halal really means.

Ask any number of Muslims about the meaning of halal (when it comes to food) and you’re likely to get as many answers as there are cuisines. While the methods and conditions under which halal meat was prepared were relatively uncontroversial or unchallenged a generation ago, increasing consumer awareness has resulted in a demand for greater transparency in standards and production.

According to recent surveys, American Muslim consumers are much more brand conscious (70%) and much less price sensitive than in the past. As their identities gel, over 80% want to buy brands that support their Muslim or cultural identity. At the same time, 75% want brands that make them feel part of a wider community, not a marginal one. These seemingly divergent requirements are worth a deeper look since they are actually the driver of convergence of Islamic and Western values, as it pertains to natural food ingredients, sustainable farming practices, socially responsible ethics, and environmental stewardship.

Recent trends in all natural and organic American food products have given some indication of what American Muslim consumers are increasingly seeking as their lifestyles converge. Over the past few decades, we have seen an emphasis on ethical consumerism and values-based food products. Organic and natural foods, which contain no additives, preservatives, or unhealthy processing, have been growing at 20% per year since the early 1990s and in the U.S. alone generate over $30 billion in sales. Sales of socially responsible products that promote just practices for workers’ rights and socially responsible ethics, such as FairTrade, have proved to be very compelling economic and social enterprises in the US. And environmentally friendly products, which offer recycled packaging and energy efficient alternatives, have also made a positive impact with consumers. American consumers have proven that they are willing to pay a premium for products with these values. Wouldn’t affluent American Muslim consumers, who are 40% more affluent than the average American, do likewise?

For pioneering halal food manufacturers and certifiers who have been keeping track of all these trends, serving this market means creating a “faith-based” approach that goes beyond the conventional rules-based criteria for religious slaughter. This approach emphasizes restoring sacredness and nurturing a spiritual connection with food, creating an emotional connection with food and culture that should appeal to Muslim and non-Muslim consumers alike. These values are often called “tayyib,” an explicit reference in the Qur’an that refers to what is good, wholesome, and pure among what is permissible (halal).

Exploring tayyib more broadly, a case can also be made for a set of common values in business ethics that meets or exceeds the highest standards set in mainstream industry. This includes applying Islamic principles of economic and social justice (diversity, empowerment, transparency), equity to stakeholders (fair wages for employees, fair trade globally), and a sense of responsibility to the environment, consumers, and society at large.

This tayyib approach also warrants more attention to the basics of ritual slaughter itself. Although mechanical slaughter has been increasingly allowed by some halal certifiers to cope with price and volume constraints, the traditional method of slaughtering by hand has found strong advocates, especially since it is a much cleaner and holistic alternative to the unhealthy commercial meat production and factory farming methods present in mainstream America today. “Human beings can calm the animal down before slaughter and reassure the animal with a human touch,” says Abdullah Nana, head of Halal Advocates of America, an organization that monitors halal processing. ”The recitation of the name of Allah by a human being at the time of slaughter is a requirement for Muslims, and we firmly believe that the name of God serves to calm the animal and reassure it before slaughter.”

Such an approach has its supporters within the mainstream industry. Consider the efforts of Temple Grandin, a doctor of animal science at Colorado State University and a pioneering animal welfare expert. Grandin has researched unstunned hand slaughtering and found scientific evidence to prove that it to is less stressful to the animal than stunning (though other less scientific studies used by stunning advocates argue otherwise). Additionally, she found that more pain and stress was caused to the animal from the way it was held during slaughter (usually hung), which has led to her proposals of alternate methods of restraint. Adds Nana, “I know of organic meat plants who implement hand slaughter and have a tremendous appreciation of ritual slaughter as a whole and the alignment of this slaughter method with the values the company stands for.”

For American Halal, a Stamford, CT-based premium halal company, these tayyib values were designed into their Saffron Road brand from the ground up. Starting with a commitment to use hand slaughtered meat with transparent and verifiable standards, they endeavoured to use all natural (antibiotic free or certified organic) ingredients with no additives, preservatives, or hormones; animals humanely raised in a safe, clean, and comfortable environment; sustainably and locally raised on smaller family owned farms; and 100% vegetarian animal feed with no hormones, antibiotics, or rendering. All of these have been implemented at considerable expense and risk, particularly so for an early stage company like American Halal.

“The spiritual essence behind this 1,400 year old Islamic tradition of zabihah and tayyib harvesting is the belief that all our livestock should be given proper dignity and treated humanely so that the livestock we eat are raised in a safe, clean, comfortable environment,” says Adnan Durrani, CEO of American Halal. “By sourcing only from smaller family owned farms and adhering to zabihah or hand slaughtering methods, we at Saffron Road believe we can then conduct this in a holistic manner, to better serve our Creator while still being mindful of our core sustainable values. For sure our halal sacred cow is that we shall never fall into the questionable practice of machine slaughter – for us, this would be a sacrilege in terms of our core values.”

And in order to effectively translate these values to a wider audience, a broader ethical approach would include the highest standards of mainstream certification in a number of areas. For Saffron Road, American Halal sought participation in the Non-GMO Project (which opposes genetic modification) and became the only halal certified brand to meet the guidelines of Humane Farm Animal Care (HFAC), a US animal welfare organization which Temple Grandin is the advisor to, insuring Saffron Road explicitly follows Grandin’s animal welfare philosophy in their treatment of animals.

To complete the process, Saffron Road sought a mainstream retailer that embodies the same ethos and values – Austin, TX-based Whole Foods Market, the largest natural food retailer in the world. Saffron Road became the first halal product line to be offered nationally at the premium natural food chain, which incidentally was the only U.S. food retailer to raised its profit forecast to record levels for 2011, in spite of slumps elsewhere in the U.S. food retail market. Sales of Saffron Road have also been robust and Whole Foods has recently increased Saffron Road’s shelf space by 400% and is adding 11 new products for Ramadan, 2011.

As the halal marketplace and industry matures, we may see more efforts at incorporating tayyib values in halal products. As American halal food consumers continue to demand a deeper spiritual connection with their food and the processes by which they are produced, they have also demonstrated that they are willing to pay for them. It’s a message that hearts and minds of the global halal industry cannot afford to ignore.

Zahed Amanullah is Executive Editor of altmuslim.com. He also serves on the Board of Directors for American Halal.