Opinion: Why is Halal food so hard to find in Britain?

Kausar, Glasgow-born of Pakistani parents, is a halal foodie. It’s a group of people now so numerous and, he believes, so poorly served that he and his friend Noman Khawaja have not only coined a new term to describe them – “Haloodies” – but organised a festival for them: London’s first, and the world’s largest, Halal food festival, which takes place at the capital’s Excel Centre this weekend and confidently expects to draw 20,000 paying visitors.

“There’s a huge market out there, waiting to be tapped,” he says. A medical doctor by training who has also worked in investment banking and the pharmaceutical industry, he sees himself as typical of a new generation of young, middle-class Muslim consumers now contributing to a growing demand for high quality and varied halal food.

“Our parents came over in the 60s and basically put up with what there was,” he says. “Now there are many people like me: well educated, good jobs, decent incomes … and we want things. I want to go out with friends – with non-Muslim friends, too – and with my family of course, and be able to eat halal French, Japanese, Thai, pizza, like everyone else. Michelin-starred food, if I want, why not?

“I don’t want to be different to anyone else. In the rest of my life I don’t feel different; I feel fully embedded in life here. Halal should be available everywhere. Fine for people not to want it, of course; there should always be a choice. But it should be available for those who want it.”

It is already a lot more available than it was when Kausar’s parents arrived in Scotland. Once seen as a minority taste – the province of a handful of small specialist producers, a few hard-to-find independent shops and unadvertised restaurants – halal (the word means, in Arabic, “permissible” or “lawful”) has come a long way since the 1960s.

The big fast-food chains are certainly on to it: spurred on by halal-only rivals such as Chicken Cottage and Perfect Fried Chicken, more than 100 KFC outlets around the country are currently running an open-ended trial with finger-lickin’ halal. Pizza Express uses halal approved chicken, as do about one-fifth of Nando’s 270-odd restaurants in Britain.

‘Muslims love fine dining too’ … Muayad Ali, the chef at La Sophia in west London. ‘Muslims love fine dining too’ … Muayad Ali, the chef at La Sophia in west London. Photograph: Martin Godwin for the Guardian

(Even McDonald’s experimented, before deciding that offering halal meat in its restaurants would require “significant changes to our kitchen procedures and supply chain” – essentially because they serve beef, pork and chicken on the same premises.)

Traditionally, halal has been a difficult market for major supermarkets, partly because of its scattered nature and partly because there is no single halal cuisine. Customers looking for halal products might have their roots in Pakistan, Turkey, the Middle East, north Africa, Bangladesh or India. But Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Morrisons all now sell ranges of halal products at selected stores. Boots sells halal baby food. The World Halal Forum estimates sales of all types of halal food combined totalled £2.6bn in Britain in 2011.

So is halal the next big food fad? The fundamentals certainly look promising. Britain’s Muslim population is growing: in the the 2001 census, 3% of the population of England and Wales – 1.5 million people – said they were Muslims. In the 2011 census, the corresponding figures were nearly 5%, or 2.7 million people.

The Pew Foundation has estimated Britain’s Muslim community will continue to expand, to 8.2% of the population, or around 5.6 million people, by 2030. Moreover, a survey by Eblex, the organisation for the British beef and sheep industry, found that 90% of Muslims eat halal meat, and Muslims eat proportionately more fresh meat than the rest of the population, accounting for up to 15% of UK meat sales.

“But still,” says Kausar, “surveys suggest that no more than 3% of the UK population are vegetarian. Walk into any restaurant or supermarket today and you’d be surprised not to find a veggie option. Yet Muslims represent 5% of the population, and in most restaurants and many supermarkets there’s no halal option. Nothing.”

Halal foodies are, indeed, not very well served when it comes to high-class restaurants. Some upmarket eateries do now offer halal choices: all the lamb and chicken at Michelin-starred Benares in Mayfair, for example, one of London’s best Indian restaurants, is halal, while the Meat & Wine Company at Westfield, in Shepherd’s Bush, offers a separate – and separately cooked – halal menu. Given advance warning, many top hotels can also provide halal dishes.

But there are precious few serious eateries in Britain where Muslims can sit down and tuck in without fear of a drop of red wine in the sauce or a pinch of gelatin in the dessert. One of them is La Sophia, a friendly and unassuming French restaurant in London’s Golborne Road, packed most evenings.

It’s not a particularly posh place – the focus is on the food, not the furnishings – but people have been known to drive down from Scotland specially to eat here. Others call weeks ahead from such meccas of haute cuisine as Paris and New York, just to make sure of getting a table. The Saudi royal family are apparently regulars.

There’s little on the menu to explain why. This is classic French fare: starters include beef tartare, foie gras with brioche and spiced pear chutney, escargots with garlic and butter sauce; mains might be roasted sea bass with wild rice and chorizo, marinated grilled rabbit in a wholegrain mustard sauce, roast spiced rump of new season lamb with caramelised carrots. There’s even a (very short) wine list.

But La Sophia is so sought-after because it is a proper gourmet restaurant whose customers know, for certain, that everything put in front of them will be halal.

“If you want to eat halal and eat out,” says Palestinian-born chef Muayad Ali, who worked around the world with Gordon Ramsay and Yotam Ottolenghi before opening La Sophia with his wife Sousan Douar Ali, “the choice has always basically been between the curry house and the kebab shop. Or a vegetarian option. But Muslims love fine dining, too. Why shouldn’t they be able to just go out and do it?”

For halal to really break through, it will have to be embraced by non-Muslim consumers. This is one of the festival’s aims and seems already to be happening to some extent: at La Sophia, chef Ali says 30% of his customers are non-Muslim. They say they come for the quality of his ingredients and the uniqueness of his flavours: he spends months devising halal-approved alternatives for the red wine and lardons in a good bourguignon sauce, for example, and sourcing halal chorizo, foie gras and even 100% alcohol-free wine.

‘Most restaurants have a veggie option. Where’s the halal one?' Imran Kausar and Noman Khawaja.Most restaurants have a veggie option. Where’s the halal one?’ Imran Kausar and Noman Khawaja. Photograph: Mehmet Ali Maybarskan

Some people argue that halal meat cooks and tastes different – and often better – than other meat, although there appears to be little scientific evidence for why – or whether – that should be the case. But the whole notion of halal, Kausar points out, is founded on Islamic ideals of purity and cleanliness, on the promotion of health and wholesomeness, a set of ethical values about food production known as tayyab that should, these days, appeal to all consumers who care about provenance, sustainability, respect for the environment and humane animal husbandry.

There is, though, a major obstacle to broader acceptance of halal food. The Islamic rules concerning halal meat require the animal to be slaughtered while alive and healthy, and demand that the appropriate Islamic blessing be recited during the act of slaughter. Crucially, the animal must also be killed by a single, quick cut to the throat, and its blood must be allowed to fully drain out. To many non-Muslims, that process seems cruel and inhumane.

It has been compulsory in the EU since 1979 to stun all animals before slaughter in order to make them insensible to pain. To the dismay of many, however, most member states grant exemptions to Muslims and Jews, who argue that in a properly performed Muslim dhabiba or Jewish shechita slaughter, the animal loses consciousness so quickly it feels no pain.

It should be said that some respected scientists agree: Joe Regenstein, professor of food science at Cornell University, told the New Statesman that the “traditional or Prophetic method” of slaughter “results in the animal producing large quantities of endomorphins, putting it in a state of euphoria and numbness”.

Wilhelm Schulze of the Hanover University of Veterinary Medicine found in 1978 that the ritual cut, carried out properly, was “painless … according to electroencephalography recordings”, while Prof Temple Grandin of Colorado State University also believes that if non-stunned slaughter “is done really right”, there is no real difference with stunned slaughter.

But there are plenty who disagree. The New Zealand veterinarian Craig Johnson, in particular, has demonstrated that animals suffer more without stunning, establishing in one experiment that even after being administered a mild anaesthetic so they could not feel the incision itself, calves slaughtered by a cut to the throat produced brain signals corresponding to pain – a response that was entirely absent with stunning.

In its latest review of religious slaughter, published earlier this year, the RSPCA’s farm animals department concluded unambiguously that “scientific research has clearly demonstrated that the slaughter of an animal without stunning can cause unnecessary suffering”.

And in a western world that is becoming increasingly more anxious about Islam, and about the behaviour of some who claim to act in its name, halal meat – with the overtones of barbarity that surround it – has become a source of controversy, tension, even hysteria. A proxy, many argue, for something altogether deeper.

“These are coded words, unfortunately,” says Ghias El-Yafi of Tahira, a UK-based halal food company founded in 1994 that now turns over £7-8m annually across Europe. “Whenever the issue of halal is raised, there’s an underlying agenda – it’s really code for anti-Muslim. Halal is never addressed objectively.” Krausar says halal is “tied into a kind of Islamophobia. It’s automatically politicised, incredibly divisive – even among Muslims.”

It’s not hard to see what El-Yafi means. Headlines such as “Top supermarkets secretly sell halal: Sainsbury’s, Tesco, Waitrose and M&S don’t tell us meat is ritually slaughtered” and “Britain goes halal … but no one tells the public,” websites such as www.boycotthalal.com and ongoing campaigns by the likes of the EDL and BNP make his point abundantly clear.

That same RSPCA report, though, also shows that at least some of the controversy around halal meat may be exaggerated. It cites a 2012 report by the government’s Food Standards Agency which found that of all the animals slaughtered by the shechita and halal method in UK abattoirs during the survey period, only 3% of cattle, 10% of sheep and goats, and 4% of poultry were not pre-stunned. In other words, nearly 90% of all animals slaughtered by the halal method are stunned beforehand. Amid the barely concealed Islamophobia of some coverage and comment, that fact is not always made clear.

Some Muslims, however, insist that stunning is not halal. They can say so with some confidence, because there is no single halal authentication body: five different certification authorities exist in the UK alone (and dozens more abroad), each with a different interpretation of what exactly is permissible.

The Halal Monitoring Committee or HMC, for example, based in Leicester, considers all pre-stunning an offence against Quranic law and tradition. The more progressive Halal Food Authority or HFA is perfectly happy to permit stunning, providing of course the animal is still alive at the time of slaughter.

Other authentication bodies around the world are reportedly even more liberal, allowing the Shahadah or Islamic blessing to be recited just once, at the start of the day, in abattoirs using fixed automated blades – or even to be pre-recorded and played continuously on a sound system.

With no consistent, internationally recognised labelling system, the result is that consumers may often have no idea they are buying halal meat, let alone how the animal was slaughtered. “It would all be a lot easier,” says David Bayer of one of Britain’s largest meat wholesalers, DB Foods in Poole, Dorset, “if there was more transparency, a more unified approach.”

Bayer’s company, which recently opened a dedicated halal warehouse and is launching a new online home delivery business, Halal To Door, has seen halal meat sales grow from 1-2% of its business to 9-10% in recent years, spurred by demand from large food service companies supplying institutions such as schools, hospitals and airlines.

“Some now insist everything is halal. Their attitude is: we have to be careful.” But Bayer, whose halal meat is certified by the HFA, says he “would not dream of touching” any meat that had not been pre-stunned.

“As a company, we’re animal welfare-approved,” he says. “We would never compromise our business by handling meat from animals that had not been stunned before their throats were cut. But the point is, consumers need to know that. They have to know what they’re getting. It needs to be clear.”

Much as Kausar is keen to steer clear of such thorny questions at this weekend’s festival, it’s likely – amid the celebrity chefs, cookery demonstrations and 80-plus exhibitors ranging from high-class restaurants to artisan producers and mocktail makers – there will be critics, some of them vehement.

Kausar’s dream (and he’s only half-joking) is that one day “I’ll be able to eat halal haggis”. Festival co-organiser Khawaja, meanwhile, would “just love to be able to go into Marks & Spencer’s and try the shepherd’s pie, not have to stick to salmon”. Unfortunately, as long as there’s room for doubt about how much of the meat we eat is halal, and about how exactly that halal meat was slaughtered, the controversy – and strong feelings – seem set to persist.