USA: Halal meets kosher in health-food aisle

By Barry Newman / The Wall Street Journal

Muslims and Jews are advancing, at different rates, toward new breakthroughs in frozen pepperoni pizza.

Daniel Gryfe, the 24-year-old operations chief of Gryfe’s Kosher Bakery near Toronto, launched a frozen kosher pizza in the U.S. last year. Now he is at work on the next model: pizza with soy-milk cheese and veggie pepperoni. Neither milk nor meat, it would satisfy not only Jews who keep kosher, but also vegans and the lactose intolerant. “We’re the first kosher pizza to go after the mass market,” says Mr. Gryfe. “We’ve got stone-ground, whole-grain crust.”

William Aossey, 65, founder of Midamar Corp., of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, is a Muslim. He sells a frozen pizza, too. His has real cheese and pepperoni made from halal beef-raised and slaughtered according to Muslim dietary laws.

As Mr. Aossey strives to bring his pizza — and his people — into the American culinary mainstream, his model is the Jewish struggle for freedom from the delicatessen. Gryfe’s hopes non-Jews will want to go kosher-vegan. Midamar is betting that Muslim Americans are ready to go Italian-Islamic. “We’ve had immigrants accuse us of ‘distorting the culture’ by feeding kids halal pepperoni,” says Mr. Aossey, whose father immigrated to Iowa from Lebanon. “But your children are going to grow up in this country. You cannot deny them American food.”

Mapping kosher’s progress, halal producers are coming to see that eating may be the fastest way to this country’s heart. Muslims can be as American as pepperoni pizza and still keep their faith. And halal-pizza makers can make a lot of money. “It’s the approach the Jewish community took 60 years ago,” says Mohammad Munir Chaudry, 62, who grew up in Pakistan and now heads the Islamic Food and Nutrition Council of America. “We are 60 years behind, but it’s not going to take us 60 years to catch up.”

Mr. Chaudry’s council, based in Chicago, certifies halal products with a “crescent M,” much like the circled “O” of the Orthodox Union, the largest kosher certifier. Asked if he has borrowed a page from the kosher book, Mr. Chaudry replies, “We borrowed the whole book.”

The book began with the leap of beef franks from the corner deli to a corner of the chain supermarket. Kosher stamps spread, letting observant Jews in on salsa, sushi and samosas. There are 86,000 products marked as kosher now, and by that measure sales are approaching $200 billion a year. Still, with fewer than six million Jews in the U.S., purchases by the faithful have their limits. To keep growing, kosher is going “natural.”

The tactic got an airing at Natural Products Expo West, a show that drew 2,700 organic, herbal and Earth-friendly exhibitors to the Anaheim Convention Center not long ago. Its organizer, New Hope Natural Media, of Boulder, Colo., set up a companion kosher show with 40 booths one floor below. Alongside them, in an ecumenical first for America, it also set up booths for a dozen purveyors of halal food. “It’s all about better-for-you foods,” says Fred Linder, New Hope’s president.

Neither kosher nor halal, of course, translates as “healthy.” Both forbid pork, and both require rituals for butchering meat that are comparable, although not interchangeable. Religious Muslims don’t drink alcohol. Religious Jews don’t mix milk and meat, nor do they eat shellfish. Neither group eats birds of prey or blood. The rules are complex, but one thing isn’t disputed: Calories and cholesterol don’t matter.

The perception of purity is close enough for Mr. Linder. “The growth possibilities,” he says, “particularly on the halal front, are enormous.”

That may be news to U.S. mass marketers. Estimates of the U.S. Muslim population range from one million to seven million. In the rest of the world, with 1.4 billion Muslims, it’s a given.

Halal-product marketers see the possibilities as the global trade in processed foods and ingredients makes it harder for Muslims almost anywhere to know precisely what they are eating. Gelatin in yogurt can come from forbidden pigs, rennet in cheese from improperly slaughtered calves, and enzymes and artificial sweeteners from contaminated factories.

Malaysia would like to create a world body to validate what is or isn’t halal. The issue is bound to come up at the first World Halal Forum in Kuala Lumpur May 8. Like kosher certifiers, halal certifiers differ over rules and compete for fees. That may be one reason mainstream U.S. marketers haven’t pursued Muslim shoppers.

Politics is another. “They don’t know if there’d be a backlash from Islamophobes,” Mr. Chaudry says. His council certifies products of 2,000 U.S. companies, largely for shipments to Islamic countries.

In Europe, such fears may be fading. Antoine Bonnel, a French trade-show operator, noticed when Carrefour Group, the hypermarket chain, began wooing French Muslims. This year, it sold whole sheep in its parking lots for the feast of Eid al-Fitr, at the end of Ramadan.

In 2004, Mr. Bonnel put on the first-ever kosher-halal show in Paris and “made politics completely unimportant.” He mustered an all-American halal contingent in Anaheim: from steaks and chicken tortillas to lactose-free bouillon cubes. Retail buyers passed through the show: Wild Oats, Whole Foods, Albertson’s. Jalel Aossey, the Midamar founder’s 31-year-old son, told them all, “Halal is not a fad.”

But to some, the products are still a mirage. Jim Small, a buyer for Ralphs, Kroger Co.’s California chain, would like halal sections in his stores. But “there are no major distributors,” he says. “You don’t know even know where to look.”

And the halal-as-healthy idea may be lost in the wilderness. Ziyad Brothers, a Chicago halal-food importer, didn’t have their new Wild Garden Hummus Dip displayed at the halal show. It was upstairs, with the natural foods. “The consumer base on this is the American mass market,” says the company’s general manager, Nassem Ziyad. “It’s all natural and also shelf stable. It’s a pioneering product.” The label said “Product of Jordan,” with a small stamp: a circled “K,” for kosher.