Halal war of words

When fast-food giant Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) announced last year that it was trialling halal chicken in eight of its London stores serving sizeable Muslim communities, it looked like further evidence of halal meat entering the mainstream. This seemed to be great news for both halal meat processors and for UK Muslim consumers, as they could now be catered for at the biggest chicken retailer on the high street. Chicken is probably Muslims' favourite meat and, on paper at least, it looked like sound business sense to cater for Muslim communities in areas such as Beckton, Leyton and Edmonton, where demand would be high.

In October, KFC announced that a further 13 stores outside the capital would participate in the scheme, including Derby and Burton-on-Trent, and, by April 2010, nearly 90 stores are taking part in the trial, which seems to be going from strength to strength.

Yet there is another side to the story. The column inches written on the subject in local, national and even international news outlets has escalated and several Facebook groups, have developed, some of them against the move. There have also been protests outside stores and calls for boycotts. So while the demand for halal chicken is there, keeping everyone happy is proving a difficult balancing act.


Unlikely bedfellows


The debate the KFC trial has caused can be split into three camps. On the non-Muslim side, some people have aired the grievance that their local KFC store does not give them a choice of what meat to eat when it participates in the halal trial. A story picked up by the Daily Mail, The Sun and the Daily Star was the case of Alan Phillips, who was upset when his Big Daddy chicken burger did not contain its customary rasher of bacon, due to the Burton-on-Trent store's participation in the halal trial.

KFC has always made it clear that it has taken steps to ensure these restaurants are within a seven-mile radius of a non-halal store in order to cater to all of its customers' needs. KFC spokesperson Nina Arnott said: "The trial is going well so far, and is likely to continue for a number of months, as we evaluate both customer feedback and its commercial success. The Big Daddy is the only burger out of more than 40 items that has been taken off the menu at our trial stores. But wherever possible, we have made sure that our trial stores are near non-halal restaurants, in order to give our customers a choice."

This assurance has not satisfied everyone, however. Two Facebook groups 'Against the KFC Halal Trial!!!!' which has 1,057 fans, and 'No halal at Colne KFC' with 2,659 fans have been set up in response to the trial. Both stress they are not racist sites but are unhappy that KFC has decided to turn some of its stores into halal meat outlets, which means no provision for bacon.

But another group against the KFC trial does appear to be more racially motivated. As reported in The Burnley Express, a protest was held outside a KFC outlet at North Valley Retail Park. A picture of a placard held at the protest, saying "KFC sell halal meat it's cruel, don't buy it" appears to include an image of a knight in the bottom left corner holding a shield with the St George's Cross, an emblem similar to that used by 'counter Jihad movement' the English Defence League.

Also, an article on the British National Party website on 26 March, entitled 'KFC Halal Menu: Finger Lickin' Profitable' reads: "We don't want foreign companies promoting imported barbarities in our country." So it seems that the more extremist right-wing factions may have jumped on the idea to whip up tension and, potentially, win votes.


Muslim disagreement


Although there are non-racial and racial disagreements over the halal trial in non-Muslim circles, there is also a vocal debate within the UK Muslim community itself about whether the chicken KFC is serving is, in fact, halal, as the chickens are slaughtered using machines.

"Ahead of the trial," says Arnott, "we worked with the Halal Food Authority (HFA) and animal welfare organisations to ensure our systems and processes fully complied with halal requirements, but also ensuring our strict welfare standards did not change. The halal accreditation is from the largest and longest-established halal certification body in the UK, which is recognised by the World Halal Council."

The HFA, which has accredited the KFC trial, has always been open on its website that it uses mechanical slaughtering in its practice, which it claims does not mean the bird is haram (forbidden). A prayer is also given at the moment of slaughter. "We do not feel we have to defend our modus operandi. For 16 years, we have been steadfast on that", said Masood Khawaja, HFA president. He added that the KFC trial had proven popular with many Muslims. "For KFC it has been encouraging and very favourable for both sides."

As MTJ went to press, KFC will have met with the Lancashire Council of Mosques, which, in a statement given to The Blackburn Citizen, issued concerns on "whether there is a thorough certification process in place throughout the supply chain of KFC". Naved Syed, a member of the Food Standards Agency (FSA) Muslim working organisation group, adds: "KFC decided to use a halal certifer that is working outside the guidelines set by the organisation group. These guidelines say this task cannot be performed by machine slaughtering."

Despite all the debate, the growth of the trial implies that it has gone down well with at least some Muslims. It will be interesting to see what KFC's future moves will be.

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