Opinion: It’s not the halal you expected

By Zahed Amanullah, February 23, 2011
Halal, Aisle 3
London, England
Campbell’s Soup is an American icon, embedded in the American culinary subconscience long before artist Andy Warhol featured their soup cans in his most recognized work. So when the Canadian branch of the Edison, NJ food producer started offering halal versions of its popular soups, many people hostile to Muslims proposed a boycott of the company, a situation (along with others) lampooned on late night show “The Colbert Report” in a segment titled “Radical Muslim Snacks.”

In spite of controversies such as this, the number of halal food products and services offered in the West by mainstream companies is growing. In Britain, Tesco and Sainsburys, two of the country’s largest supermarket chains, sell fresh halal meat and frozen halal products in dozens of their stores, largely resisting the occasional tabloid frenzy over halal products allegedly sold by stealth. “There are all kinds of other products – not just halal or kosher – that groups would rather we not sell,” says a Sainsbury’s spokesman.” As long as products confirm to our safety, quality, and provenance standards, we will continue to sell (halal products).” The same resilience can be found in British Subway and KFC restaurant chains, each of which maintains well over 100 halal-only versions of their stores throughout the country.

And as debate and discussion on the meaning of halal grows, mainstream supermarkets, food producers, and restaurants are finding that there is plenty of overlap between traditional definitions of halal food and Western standards of quality and ethics. As such, they’re also finding plenty more marketing opportunities to go with it. Last year, America’s Whole Foods Market chain, which specializes in natural and organic foods, started selling prepared food entrees from the American Halal Company branded Saffron Road. Whole Foods Market insists that the halal label, properly applied, fits the company’s ethos. “Our launch of Saffron Road continues (our) leadership in product innovation and in satisfying and delighting our customers,” says Errol Schweizer, the chain’s national grocery buyer.

Other food producers also see promoting a holistic definition of halal as an opportunity to meet the desires of Western consumers, rather than just Muslims. “Most food products aimed at British Muslims tend to be marketed heavily from an ‘Islamic’ perspective, using Arabic names and Arabic script extensively” adds Zia Choudhury, founder of boutique British food producer, The Serious Sausage Company. “It’s fine for appealing to the target audience, but the approach may alienate non-Muslims. Our branding and marketing is designed to portray taste and quality first, as these are leading and universally appreciated benefits of a food product.”

Part of the strategy is to convey the aspects of halal meat production that go beyond the widely known aspect of reciting the name of God before slaughtering an animal with a sharp knife. Saffron Road describes it as tayeeb, “the sacred tradition of respect for the land, fair treatment for farmers, humane treatment of livestock, and clean, healthy food to eat.” All of the company’s meats come from animals that are “sustainably and humanely farmed, and free of anti-biotics and hormones.” The Serious Sausage Company takes a similar line, saying they “believe halal means more that just correct slaughter techniques. We strongly believe that an animal has to have led a decent life, from start to finish.”

As for halal restaurants, the days of finding only ethnic cuisines from Muslim majority countries – still a dominant perception of halal foods in the West – are long over. In the London neighbourhoods of Bayswater and Notting Hill, a number of restaurants illustrate this. A Mexican restaurant called Chilli’s has long offered only traditional Mexican cuisine rather than the native cuisine of its Arab Muslim owners. Nearby, a Chinese restaurant called Noodle Oodle offers halal versions of traditional Shanghai-ese dim sum dishes, which required experimentation with non-pork meats in a way that helped satisfy dim sum purists as well as Muslim palates. It’s a lot of effort, considering the restaurant is run by owners who are not Muslim.

This trend can be seen not only in fast food, but at the highest levels of quality and authenticity on offer anywhere. Chefs at La Sophia, a traditional French restaurant on nearby Golborne Road, work “3 times harder” to get the same standard as their peers. “We do not use any traces of pork, or any alcohol our food which is a challenge to get it taste the same high French standard,” says head chef Muayad Ali, who has trained at one of celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay’s London restaurants. “We also frequently contact various suppliers and try to get our hands on some exotic halal meat that is not so common in the market. One example new addition on our menu is halal ostrich.”

The common gastronomic thread in all this is the synthesis of halal standards into an overwhelmingly Western cultural framework. Muslims are demonstrating their desire, either as producers or consumers, to experience authentic Western culture and ethical values through food and discovering the commonalities with halal values. Beyond that, the availability of halal products at mainstream institutions such as Whole Foods Market and Sainsburys seeks to attract Muslim consumers to mainstream businesses they may not have otherwise considered. It’s hardly the byproduct of a separatist ideology. In fact, it’s representative of the kind of integration that those suspicious of Muslim communities in the West have been clamoring for.

Zahed Amanullah is Executive Editor of altmuslim.com He will be speaking at the 6th World Halal Forum, 4-5 April 2011, Kuala Lumpur Convention Centre, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. For more information go to www.worldhalalforum.org