UAE: Halal industry ‘must make strategic global acquisitions’

By Rushdi Siddiqui, Special to Gulf News

Saleh Lootah seeks progress on certification and links with Islamic finance

Dubai: With Ramadan well under way, the development of the halal food industry in terms of financing and brand-building has assumed importance.

This year, Al Islami Foods has launched the ‘Shine This Ramadan’ promotional campaign to create awareness about various aspects of halal slaughter.

Gulf News speaks to Saleh Abdullah Lootah, managing director of Al Islami Foods about the halal industry in the UAE and the wider Arab world.

Gulf News: The halal industry always seems to emphasise emotive terms such as trust, integrity and cleanliness, why are these concepts so important?

Saleh Lootah: The objective of the halal industry is to highlight not only the importance of halal in terms of Sharia, but also emphasise the other benefits of halal, including from a hygiene and health perspective. From farm to fork, halal is simply better meat, free from bacteria, blood and tender. So the true benefits to consumers that we are trying to highlight go further than the religious aspect.

There also appears to be an emphasis on certification, to ensure that the meat labelled halal is prepared according to the law. Is it possible to have a universal halal certification and, if it is, who will lead the way?

The issue of certification is still far from being resolved due to the different readings of the Islamic law from country to country. There are different Madhahib, and as a result each country has its specific regulations, making it difficult to coordinate.

But at the same time, we have to realise that most of the meat in the Gulf Cooperation Council region is coming from overseas, so from an economic point of view it is difficult to impose a set of rules on the world’s leading producers.

There is a way forward. At this point of time, nobody knows who will lead. There needs to be consensus among the industry and governments and a harmonisation of international certification bodies.

There needs to be a consensus on unresolved issues, a sharing of basic infrastructure and a collaboration with multi-lateral organisations such as the World Bank and development agencies such as USAID, UNIDO, WTO and the FAO.

This will lead the industry to a universal halal certification — which is vital if halal is going to enter the the mainstream economy.

So has the time arrived for an international halal industry body and, if so, who would lead it?

We have come a long way, and the Islamic world is ensuring that there is a halal process in the food industry. There still are some technical issues differing from country to country but, as a whole, we can say that we have almost reached that point.

The next step in this direction will be to have a unified regulation, which should start with a common reading and agreement of what is Sharia law in regard to halal, and this will need to be backed by political will.

What role is there for Islamic finance in the halal industry? How do we develop a better dialogue?

It is a natural grouping. The halal industry should be supported by Islamic finance and the two should go hand in hand. True halal is not only about a process but following Islamic rules. This is how we do it at Al Islami, we deal only with Islamic banks.

One way of starting a dialogue is joint Islamic finance-halal food activities and events to develop understanding and match-making of services and products first locally, regionally and internationally. That should be reinforced by the authorities.

Food security is a major issue in the GCC, what is the halal industry doing to address it?

Halal industry at this point of time is less exposed to the food security issues, as the control process is stricter than in the non-halal food industry. Under the halal process, the human presence in the process is much higher than regular process. Moreover, the halal industry cannot afford to have any food safety problems as it will affect the image of the whole industry. In summary, in the halal industry the controls are stricter than the other industries, so it is less prone to risk.

Globally and especially in the GCC region, food security is directly linked with population growth, demand and supply and an increase in the Muslim population. To safeguard the halal industry and major halal business groups from potential food security problems, the industry should begin strategic acquisitions of halal slaughterhouses internationally.

Finally, if we were to look ten years ahead, where do you see Al Islami foods?

Al Islami is a pioneer in real halal food in the UAE. We are expanding regionally and globally to promote real halal food processes as the best way for consumers. Our future plan is to expand our portfolio using the same real halal platform as a commitment to the world.

What promotions and activities does Al Islami undertake during Ramadan for its customers?

Every Ramadan sees a very healthy competition of sales promotions among food companies. Al Islami organises theme-based promotions. This year, we have launched ‘Shine This Ramadan’ promotional campaign and creating awareness about aspects of halal slaughter. We are educating the people that real halal slaughter is performed without any form of stunning, which is otherwise common in the industry. Through this communication, we are conveying to our consumers that Al Islami does use the meat which is not stunned, hand slaughtered by Muslim butchers.

The writer is global head of Islamic finance at Thomson Reuters.