Opinion: The politics of halal

Shelina-JanmohamedBy Shelina Janmohamed of Ogilvy Noor

Last month in Sri Lanka, serious violence broke out among local Buddhists when the government said it was considering a halal certification scheme. The scheme was aimed at the domestic Muslim community to whom it would offer security in consumption. As a bonus, it would help establish a place for the country’s products in the growing world halal economy.

The local body of Islamic clerics who proposed the scheme has since withdrawn it in the interests of local harmony. It was the right thing to do – but a loss for local Muslims and for Sri Lanka’s share of a $2.1tn global market.

This is probably the most extreme case so far when it comes to the politics of halal. But tensions over manufacturing, certifying and promoting halal products are replicated in other countries, too. Points of contention include who has the right to certify, whether some certifications are better than others, and what to do about consumers who specifically don’t want halal products.

So what exactly are the politics of halal? And what do you do if you are a business, brand or organisation engaging in the halal economy, only to find that the halal label spills over beyond certification and food control into a contentious political space?

In Asia, which has the world’s largest Muslim populations (over 65 per cent of the global Muslim world), halal is being developed as a unique selling point, with countries like Thailand, the Philippines, Malaysia and even tiny Brunei vying for position. Unsurprisingly, Gulf states are also jockeying for pre-eminent halal status, offering their place at the traditional heartland of the Muslim world as one of their credentials.

Often the commercial strategies of countries promoting halal seem at odds with local attitudes. The US meat federation is building towards halal export because it recognises that this opens up new markets. US producers know that for consumers, halal is a preference. Yet at the same time, the US is struggling with similar – albeit less violent – domestic negative attitudes to halal as those in Sri Lanka.

Wherever they are in the world, halal certifying bodies and government authorities need to respect the wishes of those who actively avoid the consumption of halal products, whatever their reasons, by clearly marking halal status.

Countries and brands vying for early-mover status need to negotiate all of these various political challenges.

First, the status of halal needs to be rescued from hijack by political narratives where ‘halal’ is used as a football for deeper ethnic and religious tensions. In many countries, as in Sri Lanka, halal products and brands are used by extremists as a cover for promoting anti-Muslim tensions.

While the civic and political implications of this are for governments to deal with, it raises a wider issue for brands that want to label their products as halal. KFC came under attack for opening halal branches to counter growing competition from halal fried chicken chains in the UK. KFC stood its ground. McDonalds has caused confusion in India by offering halal certification in some regions but not others, as well as adding vegetarian only outlets into the mix.

Both in terms of trade and in consumers’ eyes, countries first need to establish their credibility as suppliers of halal products, meat or otherwise. This must be done through clear and rigorous certification processes. For countries that are not Muslim, they may wish to defer this accreditation to local Islamic bodies, as Chile has done – and which had been the original proposal in Sri Lanka. Alternatively, they may wish to invite accreditors who they feel have greater standing, as is the case of Brazil, or the model that Brunei is offering.

There are also new, more rigorous and sophisticated methods being developed to establish halal status, which are particularly interesting in the light of the horsemeat scandal as well as the subsequent contamination of halal products with pork DNA. RFID technology is being used to track products from their farm origins all the way to the consumer. This inspires confidence in the entire production chain. It also alleviates issues that are increasingly being raised about halal products such as whether packaging or co-location can contaminate products.

It remains to be seen whether countries that are not Muslim can successfully create their own credible halal labels. Long term, it is entirely possible that with the right investment and brand building, such countries will be respected as halal producers. However, these brands will need to be carefully crafted with transparent certification processes, managed by respected authorities, and persuade international consumers that the country genuinely cares about halal. Countries must be able to demonstrate this through the way they treat their Muslim minorities, and their halal brands must resonate with wider, positive consumer beliefs about a nation’s hygiene, efficiency and respect for Muslims.

Singapore is one example where there might be an easy leap of trust for international Muslim consumers, as Singapore itself is a trusted brand on issues of cleanliness and process. It is a country that already supports halal production and trade. The question the small nation that is sandwiched between Malaysia and Indonesia needs to ask itself is whether a collaboration with neighbouring Islamic states is a wise political move into the halal fray.

For countries further afield exporting to Muslim nations, building partnerships with local Muslim bodies is the natural first step to establishing their credentials. The majority of New Zealand’s meat is halal and exported to the Middle East. The UK and the US already export halal meat abroad. The UK notes that meat produced for Eid ul Adha, the Festival of Sacrifice, is an excellent boon in terms of seasonality. France is producing luxury halal products like foie gras which is proving popular in the Middle East. Ireland too is well placed to export to the emerging nations, although it will need to be cautious of the scandal that surrounds a Northern Ireland company found to have had pork DNA in its halal meat products.

Global brands whose products may ship across territories also need to think carefully about their certification strategies. This is important because no halal stamp means no sale to Muslim consumers. Worse, if the wrong certification is used, consumer confidence can be lost.

The most common approach at the moment is to acquire certification from multiple bodies, one for each territory. Alternatively, brands can partner with one or more existing halal bodies to enhance each other’s halal standing across territories. An obvious example is the Malaysian government’s JAKIM certification, which is the de facto standard in Malaysia and which is slowly being rolled out abroad.

With 1.8bn Muslims around the world, a shift to younger demographics in Muslim nations and economic poles moving to those regions, any brand not considering how to reach Muslim consumers is, frankly speaking, behind the curve. Having a strategy for developing halal products and how to certify them should be near the top of any to-do list.

For those brands who are serious and have the global reach, it is worth considering creating their own halal label. By building halal into their brand promise and protecting its sanctity, they will have a unique differentiator with the consumer. And even more significantly, they will find a place deep in the heart of the Muslim consumer.

Shelina Janmohamed is vice president of Ogilvy Noor, a specialist consultancy for building brands with Muslim consumers.