USA: Halal not just for Muslims anymore

CHICAGO, July 17 (UPI) — With the annual Ramadan celebration just two weeks away, practicing Muslims this year have more alternatives for breaking the month long daily fast — a line of prepared foods from Saffron Road that meet halal strictures.

The Stamford, Conn., company produces 15 items — 12 of them frozen and three broths that can be consumed alone or used as a base for more elaborate fare. All but the vegetable broth are meat-related.

The company currently has revenues of less than $6 million annually but Executive Vice President Jack Acree said it is growing exponentially. Currently, Saffron Road employs eight and contracts out production and packaging.

“Halal is the foundation of what we are as a brand,” said Acree, who describes the operation as “an American company that produces halal products rather than a halal company.”

“Our line is the first natural halal-certified products available nationwide.”

Acree, who is not Muslim but has experience in launching premium products like Terra chips, said the halal industry is where kosher was in the early 1950s before there was any kind of national certification process and when much of what was available was produced only on a local or regional basis.

“We’re pioneering halal in the United States,” he said, adding the company hopes to make its products appealing to a wider audience as companies like Hebrew National (“We answer to a higher power”) have made kosher a commonplace thing in many non-Jewish kitchens.

“Halal is more forgiving than kosher in a lot of respects,” Acree said, adding the company has received numerous comments on Facebook and through direct contact expressing gratitude for prepared halal meat products. “They were primarily eating vegetarian dishes. … It might be easier for them to find a halal restaurant but when they’re looking for a prepared meal, it’s been very limited. The crossover to kosher, to vegetarian is there.”

Like Jewish dietary laws, Muslim dietary laws exclude the consumption of pork products and animal blood, except in emergencies. Halal products also must not contain any alcohol and like kosher meat, animals must be slaughtered in accordance with strict ritual.

Acree said the animals used for halal slaughter must be humanely raised, given no antibiotics and fed strictly a vegetarian diet.

“Halal is not only about religious slaughter but really about the entire life cycle of the animal. It is given respect from the minute it’s born,” he said.

Saffron Road’s biggest retail partner currently is Whole Foods and the company has plans to expand to other chains.

“It didn’t happen strictly because we were halal (the association with Whole Foods). It was because our chickens are humanely raised, no antibiotics and that sort of thing. Many of the items are gluten-free. It resonates across the spectrum of natural foods consumers. They look at kosher as a safer option when it comes to meat. We look to educate them to parallels with halal. … What we are selling is good-tasting food,” Acree said.

Acree speculated there’s been no real push for halal because the Muslim community is so diverse, not nearly as cohesive as the U.S. Jewish community, which came largely from Eastern Europe, most around World War II.

“What we’re looking to do is move halal out of halal shops and into the supermarkets where the vast majority of Muslims want to shop,” Acree said.

“Second and third generation Muslims in the U.S. identify themselves as Americans first and Muslims second. We’re making an American product that is halal certified.”

Acree said he sees the current line as a stepping stone and hopes to expand the line next year into ingredients halal cooks can use to prepare more elaborate meals.

“We really believe in the concept of people sitting down at the dinner table,” he said. “We don’t expect people to cook the way they did 20 to 30 years ago. What we hope to provide are timesavers.”

Saffron Road products currently are available at 2,000 locations, including Whole Foods. Acree said the company hopes to expand to 4,000 by the end of the year.