Opinion: Ensuring synthetically produced food meets halal requirements

By Norkumala Awang – New Straits Times

TECHNOLOGY is applied to meet the world’s food security needs and ensure the sustainability of the food supply chain.

Synthetic technology in food science is emerging as a new development that can affect the quality and quantity of food, and production efficiency of food supplies.

To protect the wellbeing of consumers and in fulfilling the increasing demand for food, the quality of food should not be overlooked.

Technology is an undeniable advancement. So Muslims must tackle any development related to modern food and accept it as a challenge with clear knowledge and understanding.

Thus, raising consumer awareness of synthetic food is critical to avoid confusion, should difficulties arise.

To maintain and boost quality as well as extend shelf life, synthetic technology is adopted in the food industry to produce something similar to the original.

Besides natural components, food additives are produced synthetically.

The purpose is to improve taste, appearance and texture, as well as to protect against microbiological dangers.

Additives are classified according to colours, emulsifiers, preservatives, flavour enhancers, foaming agents and sweeteners. They play a specific role in the manufacturing of food products.

Consumers may be unaware that these products are created with synthetic technologies.

The E-code system was introduced by the European Union and agreed upon by the Codex Alimentarius (CA) to facilitate the identification of food additives.

CA refers to Food and Agriculture Organisation guidelines relating to food production, labeling and safety.

However, there is much uproar due to confusion about the E-code system, which contains substances prohibited in Islam.

The misunderstanding is spreading among Muslims as it involves halal and haram sensitivities. Muslims should address this issue wisely.

The E-code system includes additives derived naturally or synthetically from plants or animals and not just the swine element.

Cultured meat is a modern product based on synthetic technology and is expected to solve the problem of food insecurity.

The invention is reported to have originated from an idea by Western researchers inspired by a scientist, Alexis Carrel.

The development of synthetic technology has also increased society’s concerns about environmental issues, such as greenhouse gas emissions, water and land use, and depletion of natural resources, and whether they can be overcome or minimised.

If the production of cultured meat can be developed up to industrial level along with effective commercialisation efforts, it can compete with the livestock industry.

Consequently, the rate of greenhouse gas emissions is expected to fall and the risk of animal-borne diseases, often associated with livestock farming, can be reduced indirectly.

Evolving technologies have had a positive impact on the production of a wide variety of foods, yet some of the foods are likely to put consumers at risk too.

Thus, researchers, scientists and jurists need to scrutinise the subject comprehensively.

Without comprehending the issues from bioethical and religious aspects, Muslims will be trapped in unending dilemmas.

The food industry revolution, with the advent of synthetic technology, is expected to have an impact on consumers’ health too.

Among the potential health effects of synthetic technology are genotoxicity, carcinogenicity, hypersensitivity and allergies. These certainly require an Islamic point of view.

Therefore, any advancement of food technology requires the collaboration of religious scholars, scientists and technologists to ensure that the food meets the halal requirements.

Such an understanding is critical in resolving halal and food safety issues that involve values and ethics related to biotechnology.

Any new technology that emerges should be considered in the context of the maqasid al-shariah by assessing the conflicts and challenges faced by Muslims. Furthermore, philosophical frameworks and Islamic worldviews need to be taken into account in debates about food issues.

The writer is a fellow at the Centre for Science and Environment Studies, Institute of Islamic Understanding Malaysia