Mainstream momentum

Halal meat is moving outside its niche and proving increasingly popular to non-Muslim consumers. But, as Carina Perkins reports, rising demand in a sector steeped in tradition brings its own difficulties

In recent years, halal meat has been transformed from a religious requirement into a global phenomenon. Despite simmering tensions, the rapidly growing purchasing power of Muslim consumers has proven too seductive to ignore, and wholesalers, retailers and foodservice giants are all engaging in the battle to cater for the Muslim market. Although the welfare issues that threatened halal meat production in the past have largely been resolved, dispute within Muslim communities over halal standards has been the subject of many a national headline over the last year.

Boycotts, school meals and fast food fury are just some of the elements that have contributed to the recent halal media storm. Despite unresolved disputes, however, the industry continues to grow at a staggering rate and demand for halal has never been higher.

The 2007 World Halal Forum (WHF) - held in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia - highlighted the phenomenal global potential of halal.

This year's theme was 'Harmonising the Global Halal Market' with discussions centering around global halal standards, guidelines and industry best practices.

In a speech about the forum, >> >>WHF chairman Khairy Jamaluddin said: "Because of the rapid and complex evolution of this market, the global halal industry players and stakeholders - the farmers, producers, manufacturers, logistic providers, and retailers of this industry - all need an arena for collaboration, regulation and development of the market."

NEED FOR STANDARDS

The need for agreement on standards and practices for halal meat production is particularly pressing in the UK. Conflicting opinions of different accreditation bodies and imams over issues such as stunning, have created a growing mistrust of halal meat among British Muslims, which culminated in a call for a boycott of all halal meat in July. Abdul Raja, who started the campaign by email, wants Muslims to use their spending power to force the government into setting up a national body to regulate halal. EBLEX responded that it would be perfectly willing to help the community produce a quality assurance scheme, but argued that it needed an agreed set of rules before work could commence.

STUNNING DEBATE

Most of the debate is centred around the issue of stunning. Some independent accreditation groups, such as the Halal Food Authority (HFA) believe that pre-stunning should be allowed, as long as the animal is not actually killed at that point. Other groups, such as the Halal Monitoring Committee, have placed a blanket ban on stunning because of the possibility that the animal could die from the process.

"The word 'halal' is now a buzz-word, not only nationally but internationally," says Masood Khawaja, president of the HFA, "but we must modernise to develop the industry. Islam does not stop us from doing things scientifically and taking advantage of technology." HFA has robustly answered attacks from animal welfare groups about the welfare implications of religious slaughter. "With the efforts of the HFA, the question of animal rights and animal welfare has been thwarted," explains Khawaja. "We have addressed the question and shown that Islamic slaughter is not as inhumane as people report it."

By introducing a more moderate version of halal slaughter, however, HFA has come under attack from Muslim groups, which claim stunning and modern methods of slaughter result in haram - or non-permissible - meat. Concerned halal consumers want national accreditation to clear up the confusion, but Khawaja does not believe a government accreditation body is the answer. "I think it is preposterous to even think about a government-unified body to regulate halal because the government cannot make religious laws," he explains. He does agree, however, that there needs to be some sort of discussion about best practices and a global agreement on what they are. "But these standards need to be agreed by people involved in the food industry - not imams and clerics who are out of touch with the sector," he says.

EXCITING POTENTIAL

If standards can be agreed, the sector has exciting potential. In a recent survey, advertising firm JWT identified Muslims as Britain's biggest untapped niche market. They make up 3% of the UK's population but, as the fastest-growing religion in the world, with the youngest age profile in Britain, that percentage is set to rise even faster. By 2025, it is estimated that Europe's Muslim population will have doubled.

The survey - Marketing to Muslims - urges businesses to take advantage of a consumer group with a collective spending power of £20.5bn. Halal meat is one of the main sources of potential profits for businesses looking to capitalise on this spending power. According to Tahira Foods, Europe's leading producer and distributor of halal foods, the UK market is worth an estimated £700m a year at retail. Meanwhile, figures released by the Meat & Livestock Commission (MLC) suggest that sheep and poultry account for 82% of meat consumption in the British Muslim community and that Muslims consume 20% of sheep meat in the UK. Beef is the smallest sector of the halal meat market, worth £100m a year compared to poultry and lamb, which are worth £350m and £250m respectively.

RETAILING INTEREST

This year UK meat businesses have been accelerating their efforts to cater to the rapidly growing Muslim market. Supermarkets have started to broaden and diversify the range of halal produce they stock, adding frozen items, ready-meals and meat accompaniments - such as sauces and spices - to already popular fresh meat ranges.

"We now supply every major multiple in the UK," says Faiza Akmal, marketing executive for Tahira Foods. "Morrisons introduced a frozen range in May and we are doing a lot of work with Tesco, which plans to spend RM1 billion (€215m) on Malaysian-made halal food over the next five years."

There has been a significant rise in the number of halal brands on offer too, with supermarkets looking to gain full potential from halal produce. "For the last 12 years, Tahira was the sole halal brand, but in the last three years, particularly 2006, we have seen a lot more brands come in," says Akmal. "Supermarkets are trying to tap into the market and are putting out halal products under their own brand."

Foodservice establishments have also been quick to jump on the halal bandwagon: Subway opened its first halal store in Walthamstow, East London, on 27 June this year; McDonald's is trialling a halal chicken menu at its Southall restaurant; and Nandos now uses 100% halal chicken. And an increasing number of independent halal restaurants are opening up across the country. "Restaurants are now more overtly displaying their halal credentials," says Tony Goodger, foodservice trade manager for the MLC.

PUBLIC CATERING

The public foodservice sector is a major market for halal produce. "Halal is very important in the public catering market, especially in schools," says Goodger. "The NHS, the prison services and the Home Office have all released halal guidelines for their catering suppliers, which were drafted after discussions with the local Muslim community."

Goodger believes that schools need to replicate this emphasis on community-agreed standards. "School meals face a lot of mistrust," he explains. "On the one hand, there are the Muslim consumers who are concerned that the halal meals they are receiving aren't genuine and, on the other, there are the non-Muslim consumers who are concerned they are being given halal meat against their wish."

Two recent events demonstrate the battle that schools are facing over halal meals. In June, the Lancashire Council of Mosques (LCM) encouraged local pupils to avoid school meals, over concerns that a new supplier was not providing authentic halal meat. After considerable uproar, the school released a statement saying that, although it had a new supplier for non-halal meat, it was still buying halal from its old supplier. In December last year, there was a similar outcry from non-Muslim parents over the fact that schools were serving their children halal meat without telling them.

FORWARD THINKING

Khawaja believes that the future of the halal industry is dependent on forward-thinking growth, rather than a return to ancient methods of slaughter. "The most important thing is to offer traceability right through the chain, from the beginning to the end," he explains. "But we must ensure that we continue to use science and technology for our growth and our progression."

Pre-stunning and an improved public perception of halal meat means that the market is increasingly attracting non-Muslim consumers - a trend that could change halal meat from a niche product into mainstream demand. "I am sure we can take advantage of the principles of halal, which translate into the fact that the food is wholesome, pure and simple and so for everyone," he says.

Current consumer trends towards natural, ethically produced meat and apparent consumer willingness to pay more for products perceived to be safe and of high quality, such as organic meat, suggest there is potential for halal to present itself as a premium option guaranteeing certain standards of welfare and purity. "We envision halal products to be available not just for Muslims by Muslims, but for it to come to represent the highest-quality, standards and sanitation for everyone," said Jamaluddin at the 2007 WHF. "Halal must come to represent a value-added product.

"Hopefully, the farm-to-fork guarantee of a product's halal integrity will eventually be accepted by global consumers as a seal of the very highest quality. Halal is not just a niche market for Muslims, but a powerful, vibrant and rapidly expanding sector that has a significant role to play in global trade."

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