By Louise Birchall, HotelierMiddleEast.com
A consumer-driven demand for quality and specialised halal produce is leading exporters and distributors to offer more luxury, high-margin halal products.
The Middle East has always had a large appetite for meat — creating a lucrative market for halal suppliers — but the evolution of consumer tastes is leading to a diversification of the region’s halal market.
Euromonitor International’s fresh food statistics show that total volume sales growth of fresh meat in predominantly Muslim countries is often higher than regional and global averages.
Turkey, for instance, registered 9% growth over the 2004-2009 review period, while Western Europe managed just under 4%.
In the Middle East and Africa region, fresh meat volume sales rose by 17% over the same period, slightly above the global average of 15%.
Strong growth was recorded in many Muslim countries within the region, for example Saudi Arabia (21%), Egypt (22%), the UAE (32%) and Jordan (27%).
“The United Arab Emirates has one of the highest consumptions of meat per capita in the world,” explains Horeca Trade marketing and telesales manager Soula Baroudi. “The overall demand for halal products is growing as the region’s population is increasing year-on-year,” she adds.
As demand increases, so too does interest in the origins of halal produce.
“Consumers are beginning to ask more questions about ingredients, requesting products that are gluten or nitrate free. The halal consumer is becoming more health conscious,” says Midamar director Jalel Aossey.
“Halal organic foods have also gained in popularity as more and more people show an interest in product ingredients.”
This growth in demand, alongside the diversification in consumer tastes, has led to a number of new entrants in the halal supply market.
“There is plenty of opportunity for food companies to enter and grow this market,” says Aossey.
Among the newcomers are suppliers from Chile. Carlos Salas, trade commissioner, Embassy of Chile in the UAE says: “Halal used to be just products related to meat. Now the Muslim consumer is more worried about health and flavour”.
In addition to meat products, Chilean suppliers are offering halal-certified items such as dried fruit and juices.
“A very good product is a 100% freshly-pressed pure and natural fruit juice collection. The varieties are blueberry, raspberry, carica papaya, muscatel and Sauvignon grapes. They are popular for their unique tastes and health benefits,” says Salas.
By obtaining halal certification, he hopes “doors will be opened” for Chilean suppliers in the UAE, such as Atoz Foods which will soon start distributing a range of meat products in Dubai.
“The whole process of halal certification took us a good two years to get done including the approval of all the companies we work with and their products – now we are ready to go,” says Atoz Foods director John Eapen.
Eapen expects to see an influx of countries following in Chile’s footsteps.
“We see more countries getting their acts together in the medium- and short terms because this is an emerging market and if they want a piece of it, they need to stay abreast and be able to ship into the region.
“We see a lot of countries that have capabilities to produce world-class products rising to meet the standards required by the Horeca segment in the GCC and MENA. The chefs will be delighted to have this,” Eapen adds.
Chilean brand Colun is also new to the market: “The market has been challenging for us. There has been explosive growth in demand for our products. Being halal certified is the guarantee for us of satisfying the production, processing and quality requirements of the high-standard market and demanding customer,” says a spokesperson for the firm.
In 2013, Colun plans to launch a new cheese-processing factory to “produce the best products and dairy ingredients for halal consumers all over the world.”
Despite the vitality of the regional halal industry, some produce is still tough to get hold of.
“There are some challenges with getting certain product available fresh, particularly speciality meats,” explains The Ritz-Carlton Abu Dhabi Grand Canal executive chef David Gache.
Midamar’s Aossey says: “There is a good variety of products that are halal compliant, but the challenge for chefs is finding the variety that they are used to having in their home countries. This involves research and resourcefulness.”
The evolution of halal consumer tastes makes the task even harder.
“The taste preferences and expectations of the halal consumer are diverse and the chefs may find it difficult to please all tastes and preferences. For example, some nationalities consume only lean beef while others demand marbling,” explains Aossey.
Like chef Gache, some chefs prefer to purchase fresh unfrozen meats, which are not readily available in Gulf countries.
But if the product is not available, the chef is forced to adapt.
“It really brings out the creative chef in you – that’s part of the charm of working in the Middle East,” says Gache.
Worldwide, Gache says halal product is more readily available in all types of restaurants – however, this hasn’t always been the case.
“Quite recently halal produce wasn’t available in France. There was no industry awareness of halal produce, but on a recent trip home I noticed immediately that halal was regularly available. It’s nice to see more options outside of the Middle East,” he says.
According to research consultancy Euromonitor International, in countries where Muslims make up an important minority, i.e. between three and 10% of the population – like France, Germany and the UK – the rising demand for halal meat manifests itself on several fronts, and particularly in the consumer food-service channel.
For one, Middle Eastern full-service and fast-food restaurants are usually very popular in such countries, and even though their customer bases may be mostly non-Muslim, the food they offer tends to be halal.
But globally, one issue that remains is the questionability of some halal meat, reports Euromonitor.
Eblex Halal Steering Group, the industry body of the English beef and lamb sector, reported in March 2010 that three quarters of all poultry and some beef and lamb sold as halal were slaughtered by machine – a method not compliant with accepted slaughter practices, which demand the manual slaughter of each animal as well as its religious blessing.
“Foreign markets are no longer accepting halal at face value. There are many unscrupulous certifiers that have surfaced over the past few years. Few are globally accepted,” says Midamar’s Aossey.
Midamar uses US-based halal certifier Islamic Services of America, which Aossey says is one of the world’s oldest and most well-known certifiers.
The discrepancies regarding halal are not confined to international markets or one particular type of consumer.
“Halal consumers could be from any one of 56 Islamic countries or simply be native of the secular state. Additionally, many halal consumers are not Muslim, their decisions to purchase halal consumables vary,” explains Aossey.
“Secular government officials don’t always understand the meaning of halal and have difficulty with the complexity and diversity of international consumers. Each foreign government has its own halal standards,” he adds.
Chilean trade commissioner Salas says the biggest challenge is “to accredit the Islamic association body in the producer country under the authorities of the Muslim country.”
But global standards are currently under development – being spearheaded by Malaysian halal agencies.
For the UAE, Horeca’s Baroudi says: “Each country has approved halal certified bodies which are recognised by the UAE government. All halal products and biproducts must be certified by the relevant bodies in order to import to the UAE.”
She also adds that exporters haven’t been put off by certification requirements, with some moving completely towards halal production for both Muslims and non-Muslims.
Regionally, chef Gache says farmers and distributers have responded to the demand for genuine halal produce, many also changing their operation over to be entirely halal.
“As long as the hospitality market continues to develop in the Middle East, the halal market will follow,” he says.
As more competition enters the market, produce prices are ultimately pushed down. Exchange rates may also be unfavourable for some foreign exporters.
“The market is getting tighter on margins as the exchange rate is not an advantage for the Chilean exporters,” says Salas.
Aossey adds that the increasing costs of animal feed and demand for beef products, and the seasonality of business, also affect profitability, which overall, he feels, has declined.
“But high-end products with higher value added have much better opportunities and margins,” adds Salas.
Midamar’s Aossey also suggests the higher-end market is more lucrative: “We cater to a market that demands premium quality products. Our products are not mass produced and consumed. We still source our products from small, family-owned farms – not the cattle factories.”
With consumer-driven demand and interest in quality halal produce, alongside higher margins on higher-end products for suppliers, it seems we could soon be seeing more luxury halal products on menus and shelves.
The following is a partial list of halal non-meat products that are subject to critical processes or ingredients that can affect the product’s halal integrity, according to the Islamic Services of America
• Bread products
• Cereals – breakfast, natural, and organic
• Cheese, cheese products and coatings
• Coffee mixes
• Dairy products – whipped toppings and drink mixes
• Desserts – cakes and pastries
• Eggs – powdered, frozen, and processed
• Fish and Seafood
• French fries and processed potatoes
• Fruits – fresh and/or dried
• Ice cream and ice cream toppings
• Jams and jellies
• Milk (from species considered halal)
• Pastry items – frostings and coatings
• Peanut butter
• Plants (which are non-intoxicating)
• Sauces and dressings
• Soup and soup base
• Syrups – table and flavoured
• Tea blends
• Vegetables – fresh and frozen