Opinion: The huge uproar against the Halal industry

RUSHDIKhaleej Times

There is an increasingly loud chatter brewing about halal food in non-Muslim countries and amongst a segment of Muslims, and, it seems, it’s not all positive.

In one case, it’s a perception of promoting one religion over another by purchasing and/or consumption, like a similar challenge for Islamic finance. In the other case, it’s about the product not being permissible enough (does it mean that its non-permissible?) according to their interpretation, the same situation in Islamic finance (those wanting Shariah-based).

In non-Muslim countries, there is much debate, rising to ministerial levels, about religious slaughter (Poland and Denmark), too much accommodation to the (Muslim) minority segment (UK, Australia), home country (food) culture dilution (US) and so on. Although kosher faces similar challenges, especially on religious slaughter, it does not have the same “emotionally-charged” push-back that halal has had to and is presently enduring.

The differing reactions should be a basis for a multi-jurisdiction primary-based research on the rational for halal and kosher in non-Muslim countries, as this may provide a blueprint for positioning, placing and promoting, especially benefitting suppliers.

Subway spark

Last week, Subway removed ham/bacon and replaced this with halal meat in 185 of its 1,500 stores in the UK, and it created a huge uproar, to the point where the restaurant had to remove locations of halal stores from their website for the safety of their employees. It should be noted the halal meat served at Subway is from an animal that was stunned before it was slaughtered.

Many of the comments were not suitable for printing, and a number of people stated they will be “boycotting” Subway restaurants serving halal because of “unnecessary suffering” of the animal, having always consumed bacon/ham, etc.

Is it reasonable to expect a push-back in non-Muslim countries against Western-brand quick service restaurants changing to halal menu? Yes. Furthermore, would a public relations campaign helped in pre-empting some of the push back? Maybe, but it is better than not doing anything, hoping it will not be noticed.

Toyyab vs halal

For a segment of the Muslim population also residing in non-Muslim countries, they want purity (toyyab) and not just permissibility (halal) for their food. Is this a large segment of the population with purchasing power to influence the slaughter? They need to also scrutinise upstream treatment of the animal, transportation to abattoir, post-slaughter process, distribution and logistics to downstream retailers.

Thus, they are focusing generally on two aspects of the slaughter: stunning and mechanical. They do not want the animal stunned before the slaughter and they want hand slaughter by a Muslim.

This had led to challenges in selected places in Australia and the UK, where there is one halal certification body, Australia has about 15, and actually makes disparaging comments against fellow certification bodies. The end result is causing more confusion amongst Muslim consumers and food suppliers.

Is this about business and certification fees? Should the certification body be a government-owned/operated entity to reduce conflict of interest? Should it be a non-profit organisation? Are there applicable lessons from rating agencies, like S&P, Moody’s and Fitch?

Obviously, in Muslim countries, from Saudi Arabia to the UAE to Egypt to Pakistan to Indonesia and Malaysia, the (rebuttable) assumption is that every food/beverage is produced/imported is halal, as the government, tasked with the responsibility, is monitoring, maintaining and managing that all production and imports are conforming.

Today, there is no global halal industry body like Bahrain-based AAOIFI or IIFM or Malaysia-based IFSB to provide guidelines. Having said that, in 2010, the Standards and Metrology Institute for Islamic Countries, or SMIIC, now with 29 members from OIC countries, was launched and its mandate is that “it shall establish certification and accreditation schemes for the purpose of expediting exchange of materials, manufactured goods and products among member states beginning with mutual recognition of certificates”. It is hoped that the SMIIC would, one day, roll off the tongue for halal as AAOFI, launched in 1991, is for Islamic finance concerning accounting and auditing.

Public relations for halal

Are there easy answers to address concerns (reasonable?) of non-Muslims (will not eat halal) and Muslims (wanting toyyab)? Is the real challenge the role of the media creating awareness than educating and informing without inflaming passions? How do major western media like the Financial Times, Wall Street Journal, Guardian, etc, report on halal food?

Is it the role of the agro-halal food industry to establish, at country level, effective organisation that is consulted before food franchises, say, change their menu to halal only? Is it about damage control?

Is the UK’s Pizza Express, with 434 stores, approach an interim solution, where they “reveal all the chicken they use is halal, but they don’t tell customers unless they ask staff?”

The writer is a global leader and head of Islamic Economy and senior partner at Dinarstandard. Views expressed are his own and do not reflect the newspaper’s policy.