Educating the population about halal meat, production methods and quality standards has helped moving its sale out of purely Muslim communities into mainstream trading. But it will not be straightforward. While the non-Muslim industry strives to fully understand the sector, Muslims themselves recognise the need to harmonise different interpretations of halal practices, counter misunderstandings and to raise standards. Leading halal processors, retailers and entrepreneurs may practise high standards but are acutely aware of UK sensitivities over animal welfare and the need to improve hygiene standards.
While halal may have been a closed, even a niche, sector in the 1970s and '80s, the '90s saw the beginnings of a breakdown of barriers within halal groups through better communication. Since the turn of the century, a number of groups and websites have begun appearing, aimed at promoting halal and broadening understanding. Websites from the Halal Food Authority, the Halal Monitoring Committee and the European Halal Development Authority all set out their views and interpretations on standards.
Rizvan Khalid, the executive director of one of the main halal processors, Shropshire-based Euro Quality Lambs, believes a wider communications policy within different halal groups may be the launchpad for further development of the sector. The challenge going forward will be to bring many of these groupings closer together, he says. "There is a lot of consumer education still to be performed to counter many misconceptions rumours if you like both in the halal and the non-halal communities. A lot of it is holding the industry back.
"The halal market is growing tremendously. There needs to be something to bring groups together; they need to operate in a more acceptable framework to function properly." That framework, he says, might be a mixture of industry and consumer groups working closely together. "It's very much an evolution and it will be interesting to see how it plays out. There is great potential."
Estimates put the value of the halal market in the UK as high as £2bn, but much of the meat is imported. A company at the forefront of developing the UK is Halal Industries Group, a private equity company aiming to develop markets, supply chains and infrastructures through wholly-owned subsidiaries in both Islamic and non-Islamic countries. In the UK, the firm has announced plans to create up to 3,000 jobs in a new £150m halal-themed business park in south Wales, comprising a halal product-packing centre, halal meat processing, halal meat storage and a halal research centre. Funding would come from outside investors and perhaps government top-up grants. The plan is to have the park open within five years.
Mahesh Janarayan, chairman of Halal Industries, sees further possibilities: "The growth of halal in western mainstream society has come about through the cross-border migration of Muslims and the dynamic growth of Asian and Middle Eastern food in mainstream society," he says. "The fastest-growing restaurant market in the world is that of Asian and Middle Eastern food and most of them serve halal.
"Halal has spilled over to the supermarkets, due to the fact that supermarkets respond to demand. And there is now a perceived demand for halal food, especially in certain ethnic residential pockets such as Birmingham."
Current world and political events have probably slowed momentum in the halal market. Janarayan believes the general acceptance of halal is a long way off in the West. "The true significance and meaning of halal is little-known among mainstream society," he says. "Unfortunately, the negative Muslim sentiment does not bode well. In my opinion, halal will continue to grow, purely to cater to the sheer size of the Muslim market. But it will probably take the same awareness curve that organic food did and it will be some time before a British household puts halal on the shopping list as a must-have item."
Steering group work
Nevertheless, halal is a significant market and one that Eblex, for example, is looking to better understand and serve. The organisation set up a steering group to look at halal at the beginning of this year, one working on a better understanding of the sector. The group is looking to guide work in the halal market and act as a forum for issues related to the meat. It is trying to better understand Muslim population growth in England, as well as demand for halal products, the supply chain and changing consumption trends, and build on previous work done to form a complete view of the sector. The work the group is doing has been welcomed by the European Halal Development Agency as significant progress for the halal meat market and Muslim consumer. Changes in the consumption of halal meat and consumer trends towards halal products in England are currently being studied. It has yet to report any findings, although some public announcements are expected soon.
Eblex is already producing more specific material for the halal supply chain. A DVD has been made available, called The Quality Meat Supply Chain for the Muslim Consumer, to help farmers, consumers and public sector caterers understand how halal meat is produced in England. A lamb-cutting guide for the halal market has been created as a training tool, with the aim of achieving consistent standards throughout the industry. A halal poster to highlight specific cuts is also in development and will be made available shortly, and relevant dates in the Islamic calendar are now posted on Eblex's trade website.
Among leading halal processors making an effort to embrace a wider audience and foster a better understanding of halal concepts is Naved Syed, managing director of West Midlands-based processing plant Janan Meat. Syed recently opened his plant for a day to show how its use of new monitoring technology, including CCTV and stun monitoring equipment, is raising standards. More than 100 people spent time touring the site, which employs 55 and has a throughput ranging from 10,000 to 20,000 lambs and sheep a week.
The open day was held to show the Muslim community that halal principles are being correctly adhered to on the slaughter line and to demonstrate to non-Muslims that best meat production practices are being carried out. "There are problems of credibility with producing halal meat and we want to show that we have nothing to hide," said Syed. "We want to convince our Muslim community exactly how we do halal and non-Muslims how we care for animal welfare. We want to convince all communities. Animals are our product and our livelihood. We have to ensure we do right by them to the best of our ability." Janan is also trying to expand its sales into mainstream supermarkets and wholesalers.
The interpretation of halal standards, particularly the issue of whether it is permissible to stun animals prior to slaughter, causes widespread debate within Muslim communities and welfare concerns outside. The open day was widely welcomed by Muslims looking to see how Janan interpets standards and by non-Muslim interest groups looking to work with the halal sector. Members of the Lancashire Council of Mosques, which liaises with more than 100 public sector bodies and community groups in Lancashire seeking assurance that meat procurement is from genuine halal sources, toured the plant. Rizvan Khalid of Euro Quality Lambs, said holding the open day was the right thing to do "without a doubt". He planned to hold his own open day when the time was right.
Eblex director Nick Allen also welcomed the open day. "The fact that Janan has CCTV in the abattoir demonstrates their determination to be open about their operation. We have seen Animal Aid get into abattoirs and get potentially damaging footage. Maybe we have to be prepared to be a bit more open to counter those inferences and have a greater understanding of what is happening. It's not everyone's cup of tea to see what goes on in an abattoir. The public want to know it's done right, but they don't want to see it for themselves but it's enough to reassure people in the public sector, along with the retailers."
Regional director for Weddel Swift Distribution Andy Lea said the open day initiative was all about raising awareness of the sector, which could only help it. "I've come along to learn more about halal," he said. "It's a market we ought to be in, but it's not an easy market to get into." Weddel is looking to add a range of halal products to its portfolio and is currently talking to processors.
Syed has been highly critical of the Food Standards Agency's (FSA's) failure to properly implement halal guidelines, drawn up in 2004 at a cost, he says, of £1.4m. "They've been sitting in a drawer gathering dust for the last five years," he claims. As a member of the FSA Muslim Organisations' Working Group (MOWG), he recently urged other representatives to boycott its next meeting. Syed claims that, in 2004, an agreement was made by the MOWG, which laid out clear guidelines for local authority food law enforcement officers to take action against businesses that failed to implement halal standards in the same way as they would take action against contravention of food law in food premises generally. "The guidelines have to be implemented," he says. "We have to address this issue, we cannot ignore it it's straightforward. The rest of the world are implementing similar guidelines so why are we pussy-footing around?"
But not everyone thinks implementation is straightforward. According to Khalid: "I don't see how the FSA can enforce the guidelines, because although good, they are only guidelines."
The issue of whether to stun or not makes it difficult to implement one set of guidelines, he says. "Having studied the stunning issue from a scientific and a religious point of view, I can see the benefits of both." The 'default' practice at Euro Quality Lambs, where an average 15,000 animals a week are processed, is to stun. But for some customers animals are not stunned. "Some consumers only accept non-stun, but some will accept stunning as long as it does not kill the animal," he says. "But the determining factor is not the stunning itself, but how you handle and restrain the animal for stunning or for immediate slaughter." With such diverse and different requirements from customers and consumers, it is difficult to come up with one set of guidelines, he believes.
Sarah Appleby, head of enforcement and local authority delivery at the FSA, says: "One of the concerns to come out of the latest meeting of the working group was whether all local authorities were aware of the guidelines and steps are now being taken to ensure better awareness." The group is also working on a voluntary code of practice for red meat abattoirs, aimed at ensuring consistent and acceptable standards in the production of halal meat while fulfilling halal practices. The draft code is currently out for consultation with interested groups, although there is no timescale at the moment for its introduction.
Mainstream supermarket groups are working with halal specialists to expand their halal offering.
Tesco has been working with the National Halal Food Group (NHFG) to develop the sector in some of its stores NHFG sells produce through retailers and wholesalers. Tesco's Birmingham Hodge Hill store, which opened in December and created 250 new jobs, stocks a range of halal products. It also has a dedicated halal meat counter, which is an NHFG concession, the second halal meat counter that the Birmingham-based NHFG has opened for Tesco in the region. Chief executive Muhammed Yaqoob, says the counters "allow customers to readily obtain a range of high-quality halal meats".
The store group has also launched a dedicated halal barbecue range this summer. Tesco ethnic food buying manager Steve Ewels claims: "Until now there has never been a dedicated halal barbecue range. We know, from our own sales data, that there is a high growing demand for halal food, so for us it is a natural move to offer a barbecue range." Tesco currently offers 100 different fresh halal products, with volume sales growing at 82% year-on-year.
Other supermarket groups are developing specific halal meat offerings. Asda currently has 16 halal counters across the UK, run by external companies, among them Hounslow-based halal meat retailer Haji Baba in London. Two more concessions will open this year, with more planned in 2011. Recognising the growing significance of ethnic food sales in the UK, Asda opened what it termed the 'World Food Store' in west London last year, serving six different nationalities covering hundreds of ethnic lines, including a halal butchery.
In 2009, Asda saw a 42% year-on-year rise in sales of ethnic products across its stores, off the back of an 83% increase in 2008. The London store concept will be rolled out in other places if it proves a success.