Pakistan: Advertisements for Halal food on the rise

ISLAMABAD: A recent advertisement, claiming to be a public-service announcement, features pop-star-turned-televangelist Junaid Jamshed explaining that multinational company Novartis now has a meningitis vaccine that is halal. Jamshed had previously also appeared in an advertisement for Lay’s assuring consumers that the potato chips they were eating were halal.

A spokesperson for Novartis claims the ad wasn’t made because of any pressure and that the pharmaceutical company had always been committed to producing halal-free meningitis vaccines.  He pointed out that in 2010 the meningitis vaccine produced by GlaxoSmithKline was banned in Indonesia for containing traces of swine products while Novartis’ vaccine was declared halal.

However, scientists believe that drawing a distinction between supposedly halal and non-halal vaccines is a futile endeavour. Dr Saqib Ahmed, a professor of chemistry at the Quaid-e-Azam University, says that the seed stocks for meningitis vaccines were developed in the 1960s in the US and included swine enzymes.  He said that replacing the swine enzymes with bovine enzymes would likely not be successful.

Still, claiming that products are halal has now become a part of the Pakistani advertising landscape. The story of how food and other products in Pakistan began to be marketed as halal is one of religious bullying and, more importantly, big business.

The religious bullying began in July of 2009 when a religious newspaper, Daily Ummat, published over a dozen stories on consecutive days claiming that Lay’s chips used pig fat as flavour enhancers. The reports were then picked up by a couple of television channels, Royal News and Al-Huda TV as well as on some radio stations. The campaign got so vicious, says a spokesman for the company, that Lay’s was forced to run the ad for fear of losing sales. The spokesman said that the newspaper was trying to extort the company and promised to stop the campaign if they were paid off.

In the ad, Lay’s claimed that their chips had been given a halal certificate by the Jamia Ashrafia. Jamia Binoria weighed in on the matter too and declared that Lay’s chips were halal. Other companies followed by getting halal certificates, including K&N, which has certificates from both Jamia Ashrafia and Jamia Naeemia.

The certificates issued by religious seminaries, however, are not recognised internationally. The worldwide halal food industry is estimated to be over $600 billion, a market that Pakistan is only belatedly trying to enter. Over 90% of the global halal trade is in food, but the other 10% involves cosmetics, medicines and other items not usually associated with halal products

Currently, Pakistan has no laws on halal product certification but in March 2011 a team of Malaysian experts in halal certification visited the country to advise the Sindh government on creating a regulatory framework for halal certification. The training process, the Sindh Board of Revenue estimates, will take eight to nine months after which they will be able to provide certificates of their own

According to the Malaysian law, all foods are considered halal except those which come from pigs, animals that are generally considered repulsive like lizards and rats, animals which are amphibious and animals which are carnivores.

The Halal Industry Research Centre (HIRC) is the first and still one of the only groups whose certificates are accepted internationally. An executive at HIRC said that the company usually partners with foreign halal certification companies to provide Pakistani businesses an entry to the international halal market.  Tariq Iqbal Puri, the head of the Trade Development Authority of Pakistan, believes that getting proper halal certificates could lead to a 20 per cent increase in the export of meat products. The process of declaring a product halal, explained the executive, involves more than just the way meat is cut. Inspectors carry out visits to factories, random spot-checks and test the products in laboratories. The ultimate decision of whether to issue the certificate is decided by a Shariah committee made up of religious scholars.

Published in The Express Tribune, August 24th,  2011.