When most people go shopping for meat, they don’t put much thought into the task beyond the quality and the price.
Show the same meat to observant Muslims, and they will ask you a whole slew of questions: is the meat from an animal that can be eaten; was it slaughtered properly; did someone say a blessing before it was slaughtered; was it marinated in alcohol; did it come into contact with wine?
The industry of halal, foods that are permitted for consumption according to Muslim law, is gaining a strong foothold – both in the United States and beyond – and has an estimated global turnover of $580 billion a year, catering for many non-Muslims as well as Muslims.
But the swell in demand for halal products has given rise to fraud, where companies and exporters are labeling foods as halal, when, in fact, this is not the case.
The problem is causing Muslims worldwide to rethink the halal certification process and minimize instances in which Muslim beliefs are being exploited for the sake of a fast buck.
With this in mind, the World Halal Forum, which convened in Malaysia at the beginning of May, has established an International Halal Integrity Alliance, which aims to counter halal deception and standardize halal regulations.
The alliance technically works on a voluntary basis in which companies will adopt the IHI standards. If a halal certifier is recognized by the IHI, this will give them more credibility in the eyes of the consumer.
“This is a group of people who have no vested interest except for integrity,” Nordin Abduallah, deputy chairman of the World Halal Forum, told The Media Line.
Islam currently has some 1.5 billion followers, many of whom are observant, and their numbers are continuously increasing. Food manufacturers have a vested economic interest in labeling a product permissible for consumption by Muslims, since it can boost the sales considerably.
Up until now there has been no centralized body that defines the standards of halal and accredits certification organizations.
The lack of order in the halal certification industry has been problematic in some countries, including the Middle East, home to a significant percentage of the world’s Muslim population.
The US, surprisingly, has a relatively good record on halal certification, but there have been problems there, too, and Muslims are now trying to make the process more systematic.
“Especially now, with the devaluation of the US dollar, there’s an increase in demand for American goods in the Muslim world,” said Jalel Aossey, director of business development at Midamar, a US-based company which manufactures and exports halal foods.
Manufacturing companies are supplying to the Middle East, and they are seeking halal certification, he said.
While truth in labeling laws in the US is quite stringent and any false information can involve heavy penalties, the laws regarding food exports are more lax.
Aossey explained that, “Many exporter consolidators buy American food products that are knowingly not halal and they will put either a sticker on it or they will get a supposed halal certifier that will give them a certificate. That certificate is separate from the product and they send that product overseas. The importer, in Arab countries in particular, needs that certificate in order to clear the goods and show that it’s halal.”
The vast majority of US food products are not identified on their packaging as halal, he says. However, the certificate will say it is a halal product slaughtered according to Muslim law, and that slip of paper makes the products permissible for Muslims.
“You can go to any supermarket in the Middle East and find American goods that are being sold as halal, but you would never find that product sold as halal in the United States,” Aossey said. “I think it would be shocking if people really knew how few products are actually halal in this part of the world that are being sold as such.”
Consumers in the Middle East are becoming increasingly aware of this problem and are being asked to play a more active role in determining what is permissible according to Islamic law.
Midamar is creating a consumer organization, which will contact American food manufacturers and ask them in writing whether their foods are halal or not. It is a relatively simple process to find out whether a certificate is legitimate or not, Aossey said.
If the American manufacturer says it does not produce halal products, but it is reaching countries overseas as halal, this indicates that someone in the US is “making” the product halal before it leaves the country.
In some ways, the halal industry is learning from the Jewish kosher industry, in which products have to be identified as kosher directly on the packages.
“The product is only kosher if identified with the seal on the package. They do not accept paper certificates for obvious reasons, as the halal industry is learning now,” Aossey said.
Surprisingly, Southeast Asian countries and not the Middle East are spearheading efforts to make the halal certification more regulated.
In Malaysia, for example, there is already a system in place where a consumer can pull a product off a shelf in the supermarket and send the number of the barcode in a text message to a central database. The consumer then receives a text message back informing him or her whether the product is registered with the Malaysian halal certification authority or not.
Halal fraud can be done with malice or it can be purely accidental, Abdullah said.
“Maybe there are some clever marketing people who want to put a halal logo on a product because it then sells better in the Middle East, without knowing what this really represents,” he said.
“The other level is people who know there are pork-based components in the product and do it anyway. Every few weeks we find a company that does that. We think that with the increase of Internet usage, those companies will find it’s not worth the risk, because people send an e-mail out, and the information gets around very quickly.”
On the other hand, Abdullah said, this is being abused for purposes of slander, where people will accuse a company – perhaps a competitor – of halal fraud when in fact there is nothing wrong with their conduct.
“The International Halal Integrity Alliance is playing an increasingly regulatory role because it protects the companies that are doing things properly and it also protects the consumer,” he said.
Aossey believes that while some people in the industry are intentionally practicing deception, there is also a lack of education about what it takes for a food product to be halal certified.
“Some companies think it’s just paperwork. They don’t understand there’s a true process from the slaughter to the processing,” he said.
What is halal?
Halal is an Arabic word meaning permissible, and refers to anything permitted according to Shari’a, or Muslim law, as opposed to haram, which means unlawful or forbidden.
The word halal is usually used in the context of foods that are permitted for consumption by Muslims.
The Quran, the holy book in Islam, instructs followers of Islam as to what is haram.
“Forbidden to you (for food) are: dead meat, blood, the flesh of swine and that on which hath been invoked the name of other than Allah, that which hath been killed by strangling or by a violent blow, or by a headlong fall or by being gored to death; that which hath been (partly) eaten by a wild animal unless ye are able to slaughter it (in due form); that which is sacrificed on stone (altars); forbidden also is the division (of meat) by raffling with arrows; that is impiety.”
(The Quran, Al-Maida, Sura 5 verse 3, translation published by the Amana Corporation, 1989)
Based on this source and other scriptures, The Islamic Food and Nutrition Council of America (IFANCA) outlines the following as foods that are haram, and not permitted for consumption by Muslims:
Swine or pork and their by-products
Animals improperly slaughtered or dead before slaughtering
Animals killed in the name of other than Allah (God)
Alcohol and intoxicants
Carnivorous animals, birds of prey and land animals without external ears
Blood and by-products of blood
Foods contaminated by any of the above products
Food containing ingredients such as gelatin, enzymes and emulsifiers are mashbouh, or questionable, because the origin of these ingredients is unknown and more information is needed in order to categorize them as halal or haram.
For the meat to be halal, some rules must be followed in the interest of animal welfare: the animal must be fed as normal and given water prior to slaughter; the animal must not witness another animal being slaughtered; the knife must be razor sharp and must slit the animal’s throat from vein to vein with one swipe; and the slaughterer and the animal should be facing Mecca.