Reason to believe

07 August, 2009

Adam Baker wonders if halal meat can be the guiding saviour to invigorate a once-great UK livestock sector

A common misconception about halal is that the term is only used in regards to meat, but this is not the case. Halal basically means lawful and this not only applies to the meat and the food Muslims eat, but also how they make their earnings and how they conduct their affairs and actions.

Another common misconception is that halal meat is a market exclusive to Muslim consumers. A staggering statistic revealed this year by Advantage West Midlands through the Food Standards Agency is that, while there are two million Muslims in the UK, there are six million consumers of halal meat nationwide. That means there are more non-Muslims consuming halal meat in the UK than there are Muslims in the UK buying and eating it. This figure can be attributed mainly to the New Zealand lamb being consumed by non-Muslims, which is in the main halal, as well as the lamb and chicken served in Indian restaurants, rather than non-Muslims going out of their way to buy halal meat in supermarkets - although a minority of them will do so.

Incidentally, many Indian restaurants are not run by British Indian Hindus but by British Bangladeshi Muslims. Also, many kebab take-away restaurants are run by British Turks or British North Africans, who are predominantly Muslim. This is also coupled with the growth in other specialist restaurants serving halal meat, such as Somali, Yemeni and Lebanese.

Meanwhile, UK Muslims are becoming one of the fastest growth areas when it comes to UK consumer buying power. Advertisers are now chasing a new buzz-word in advertising-speak, the 'green' pound, and Muslims are apparently the fastest-growing segment of the middle classes in the UK and, on average, have larger families with around 3.4 children, compared to the national average of 1.9. "That is the key," says Naved Syed, MD of halal specialist Janan Meats in Kingswinford. "Remember that we now have third-generation Muslim consumers making purchasing decisions. These householders are no different to other householders across the country. Both parents are likely to be out at work and both will be looking for the three purchasing decision drivers - 'health, indulgence and convenience'. With the latter has come the massive growth in halal ready meals and halal baby food. These consumers live within a 'cultural pick and mix' society, whereby they retain their religious beliefs, festivals and strong work and family values, yet want to eat more westernised foods as well as following fashion, music, soaps, reality TV and so on. These are the consumers of today and tomorrow and the supermarkets and food policy-makers need to recognise this and run with it."

The multiples and the foodservice operators are waking up to this fact. For a number of years now, many supermarkets have starting to increase and invest in their halal meat output on its shelves, and this past year it seems that this sector has been fleshed out even further to proportions never seen before in this country.

 

Halal to go

In the past year, it has been the high street that has seen a dramatic change in the opportunities for halal meat, with both KFC and Domino's Pizza offering halal in some of its stores. KFC is currently trialling halal chicken in a number of restaurants in north, east and west London and the scheme is being backed by the Halal Food Authority (HFA), with all the chickens stunned prior to slaughtering. Stunning the chicken is permitted by the HFA, as long as it does not kill the bird outright before slaughter, and mechanised slaughtering is also permitted and does not render the chicken haram (forbidden) adds the HFA. The reason for this is that mechanical slaughtering still requires the halal slaughterman to be present at the moment of kill, where he is able to recite the tasmiyya (prayer) as the stunned chicken passes through a sharp fixed knife which cuts the jugular veins, carotid arteries, oesophagus and trachea. A KFC spokesperson adds the trial is still in its early stages but is going well.

Meanwhile HFA has also been busy this year accrediting a Domino's Pizza store in Blackburn, which uses 100% halal meat ingredients on its pizzas. Toppings now include halal spicy beef, roast and tandoori chicken, halal pepperoni and halal cured turkey as a way of appealing to and targeting the local Muslim community more, after the store initially struggled when it opened in 2005. The Blackburn shop is the third Domino's Pizza take-away to go 100% halal, with stores in Birmingham and Bradford previously making the switch.

With other fast-food chains, although poultry and lamb are the most popular meats, a small proportion of Muslims also eat beef. Burger King and McDonald's, which dominate this market, are looking into halal opportunities to offer their customers but, at present, do not offer a great deal on the halal front. "As part of our research, we recently surveyed a number of ethnic groups and are currently analysing the feedback and findings, including the option of providing halal meat," says a Burger King spokesperson.

McDonald's seems to have gone a little further in this field, with chicken rather than beef, but is now ending its halal trial. A McDonald's spokesperson says: "We have been running a halal trial in our Southall restaurant since 2007, in close co-operation with the local community. This has involved working with the local franchisee and restaurant staff to provide a range of halal chicken items in the restaurant.

"The trial has now run its course and we have decided that it will end in the next few weeks. We are still evaluating how we might look to introduce halal in some of our restaurants in the future, but for the time being, we will discontinue the halal offer in the pilot restaurant in Southall."

High street sandwich and baguette maker Subway, which is one of the fastest-growing fast-food names in the UK, has also embraced the growing demand for halal meat. "All our stores are individually owned and operated by independent franchisees, who aim to offer choice to their whole community. When a franchisee opens a new store they review the population demographic and, in areas with a heavy Muslim population, stores may choose to offer halal-certified meats," says Subway Europe customer service and communications coordinator Peter Mompalao de Piro. "We opened the first halal restaurant in the UK in Walthamstow, London, in June 2007. Since then we have opened a further 79 stores. Any decision to open any new halal stores will be based on consumer demand.

Mompalao de Piro adds that all Subway meat used in halal stores has been certified by the Islamic Foundation of Ireland and the company does not sell non-halal meat in halal stores or serve halal meats in regular stores. "We provide our customers with an informed choice. Stores selling halal meats are clearly marked and details about the locations of our traditional stores and halal stores can be found on the store finder," he adds.

Naved Syed, however, feels that fast-food outlets in general and, for that matter, Indian restaurants have been serving halal meat for years and years and have not necessarily told customers that it was halal meat they were eating.

 

Under one roof

Many Muslims in the UK traditionally buy their halal meat from independent retailers in the local community, but a growing number are turning to the supermarkets to complement their big weekly shop. Asda, Tesco and Sainsbury's, the big three, are all investing in this area. "We sell halal chicken and lamb. We have five lines for chicken and three lines for lamb," says a Sainsbury's spokesperson. "It is branded under Tahira and we sell it in 37 stores, 33 of which are in London, one in Preston, one in Leicester and two in Birmingham."

HFA president Masood Khawaja says he is delighted to see that all the supermarkets now have shelves full of halal-approved food, as it was a different story a few years ago. "A while ago, when I used to go to multiple head offices, the door used to shut on us, saying that it was out of the question to stock any halal-endorsed products," he says. "There is now an enthusiasm in the trade to serve customers who have acquired an appetite for halal - regardless of their ethnic and cultural orientations."

Yet not all the major supermarket chains have taken the halal leap, with both Marks & Spencer and Waitrose confirming that they do not supply halal meat in any of their stores nationwide. The Co-operative is another chain that does not yet offer halal meat but does not rule out the possibility. "We have not actively sought to develop any own-brand meat labelled as halal. It is our understanding that consumers seeking this type of meat tend to purchase it from specialist independent retailers," says senior technical manager Andrew Nicholson. "If, in our consumer research, we identify a demand for The Co-operative to offer halal meat to our customers, then we will investigate the possibility of doing so."

The discount stores, which have seen a fantastic year in terms of sales and growth have had a mixed response to halal. Lidl PR manager Simon Wilson says: "Yes, we sell halal meat. We sell frozen kebabs in all of our stores and fresh and frozen chicken breasts in some selected stores. We have been selling halal meat for quite a while now, but it is regional and depends on demand."

Meanwhile, Netto sells whole birds that are halal, but that are not advertised as such, while Aldi and Farmfoods do not sell any halal meat advertised for that market.

But it might be a matter of when, rather than if, in the future. Nizar Boga, who runs a consultancy firm under his own name, reckons the supermarkets could be the trend-setters if they play their cards right. "They could provide a viable alternative to a local Muslim butcher if certain assurances are undertaken. They should certainly factor in matters that will generate public confidence, both in the quality and religious compliance." Boga feels that the supermarkets could not only be the trend setters for across-the-counter sales of halal meat but could also raise awareness and educate the public.

Naved Syed adds that one area he feels the supermarkets must improve in is the range of cuts they have on offer in-store. He says: "At present, they appear to be labouring under the misconception that Muslim consumers eat Western cuts of meat. They need to change this to have a range of halal cuts of meat, which reflect the cuts that Muslim consumers currently buy from independent halal butchers. They should also look at the on-pack information they provide."

 

Britain's halal goldmine

Obviously with Britain historically a white Christian country, a tradition of halal meat available in the UK has only been a reality in the 20th and the 21st century. The nation's farmers and abattoirs have no experience of rearing and processing livestock and poultry in the Islamic custom, but this could soon change if more eyes were awakened to the possibility of Britain becoming a world hub for halal meat exports.

Interestingly New Zealand has already led the way in this regard and has set a template that Britain could follow. Originally populated by Mãoris, then Europeans, particularly the British and the Dutch, New Zealand is not historically a Muslim country and its sheep meat industry had no traditions set in Islamic practice. The Iranian Revolution of 1979, which saw the toppling of the Iranian monarchy, changed all that. According to Shoeeb Riaz of 3As Consulting Services, New Zealand was the country that met Iran's halal meat demands post-revolution and now nearly all New Zealand lamb is processed in the halal tradition.

The enterprising New Zealand meat industry, as many industries alongside it, such as wool, fish and butter, saw the opportunity of catering to the Muslim market and grabbed it with both hands. As evidence of this, as far back as 1985, the New Zealand and Iranian authorities set up a Joint Ministerial Commission (JMC) to discuss and advance trade and economic relations between the two countries. A Political and Economic Cooperation Commission has now since replaced the old JMC and last met in Wellington in June last year.

Yet Britain has a far greater tradition and history of links to Islam than New Zealand, but no real tradition of trade dialogue with Muslim countries. Due to the Empire, many Muslims, particularly from countries such as Pakistan, Bangladesh and India, have moved to this country and set up home here. The UK has also welcomed scores of persecuted Muslims from across the globe over the years, including people from Uganda, Bosnia and Somalia and is known to be one of the most welcoming and accepting non-Muslim countries in the world for Muslims to set up home and continue their traditions. So while the 20th century saw the birth of the UK halal meat industry, the 21st could see its fruition - and it could all happen somewhere in a field not far from Birmingham.

Earlier this year, Advantage West Midlands (AWM) announced the results of a scheme that could have far-reaching possibilities for the UK meat industry in the future. Livestock producers in Midlands counties, such as Herefordshire, Staffordshire, Shropshire, Warwickshire and Worcestershire, recently got together to create a halal 'farm to fork' traceability system, claimed to be the first of its kind in the UK. Alongside charity the Qurbani Project and Janan Meats, AWM and the West Midlands Minority Ethnic Business Forum set up a two-year pilot project to feed needy Muslims in Bosnia with fully-approved halal meat that was reared and processed in the UK. The project was successful and the scheme could be expanded to feed the starving in countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan, as well people in this country. Although the project was a charitable endeavour, the concept could be taken further by profit-minded organisations, which could start feeding rich Middle Eastern countries with safe, halal meat made in the UK. This could invigorate lamb and poultry producers in this country and, to some degree, beef farmers, as Britain could be seen one day as the gateway of halal meat to the world.

In March, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) government lifted restrictions affecting UK lamb exports to the UAE post-foot-and-mouth, in a move welcomed by EBLEX, Quality Meat Scotland and private companies such as Janan Meats. The door is slowly creaking open, but government and industry bodies are yet to fully grab the handle grasped by the New Zealanders back in the early to mid-1980s. That said, EBLEX has been leading the way on halal. This year, a new DVD - the first of its kind - was launched for public sector caterers to raise awareness of the opportunities that the Muslim market offers English sheep farmers and to help give more information to the Muslim community on halal slaughtering. The DVD is only a start, but it illustrates the work that people in the industry, who do not come from Muslim backgrounds, are putting in behind the scenes. Among them is AHDB foodservice trade manager Tony Goodger. "In the past, there has been a concern in the Muslim community about the stunning process and whether you have killed the animal. We have proved it can be recovered and we have also shown that stunning is an act of animal welfare," says Goodger. "We promote non-stunned meat, as well as stunned meat done the halal way, with the slaughterman using a sharp knife blade to cut in the right position and reciting the prayer. With the supermarkets, the biggest problem is that they are placing lamb cuts designed for the Western market in halal packs. Muslims do not eat the same cuts, so supermarkets need to go and look at the cuts that Muslims do eat."

He adds: "The supermarkets should look at what Muslims do on the high street and replicate that. What Muslim consumers want is good, clean, safe, assured food." Goodger also feels that what the UK meat industry needs to do is try to dispel some of the myths of how halal meat is produced.

"I need to express my sincere thanks to EBLEX, which has recently produced a DVD on this subject, highlighting the main points," says Boga. "It now remains for the message to be communicated to the public. I hope this is just the start and that its future agenda will include the hard work needed to convince the government to be more involved in assuring the Muslim community that its dietary requirements are being met properly, through various agencies."

Naved Sayed adds: "The industry bodies that collect the halal levy (EBLEX, QMS and HCC) must do more for the Muslim community, bearing in mind that 3% of the UK population is Muslim, yet we are absorbing 25% of the whole of UK red meat and over 40% of the poultry [sales] in the UK. EBLEX has made a great start with the DVD and this has moved the market forward by years, but it needs to do more. We pay around £4m-£5m annually in levy and we need to see this invested in the development of the halal meat sector."

For the future, Masood Khawaja feels that more British Muslims should make an effort to share the halal enterprise, by owning and managing more farms, slaughterhouses and portioning plants, and must not let themselves be left behind with new technologies. "Muslims must endeavour to make full use of the science and technology available and must not just become end-users, critics of the modern-day modus operandi of food procurement, or bearers of the beliefs that they are the only ones with the knowhow of religious ethics to handle halal," he says.

With many forward-thinkers in the UK halal meat industry, who are open to change and dynamism, it depends on the indigenous UK meat industry, industry bodies and, ultimately, the government to see if they can work with the talent and knowledge of the British Muslim community and get the ball rolling towards Britain becoming the garden of world halal meat. Otherwise, another country such as New Zealand will take the initiative and the chance for the UK to do so will be lost for another generation.

 

 

Hala Myth Buster

1) Halal slaughtering is cruel

A tradition crucial to halal meat rearing and slaughtering is the well-being of the animal. Most right-thinking Muslims do not want to hurt an animal unnecessarily, in the same way that most right-thinking Christians, Hindus, Jews and Secularists would not want to. Some important principles that must be maintained for the meat to be halal is that the animal or bird reared for human consumption must be fed on natural food, the slaughterman must be an adult and sane, the animal should be fed, watered and rested before the point of kill and the animal must not be able to see its fellow animals being killed, it must not see blood and it must not see the knife until the moment of death.

 

2) Halal is just like kosher

Although there are some similarities, there are also many differences between slaughtering of animals in the Islamic and Judaic faith, according to Shoeeb Riaz, 3As Consulting Services research consultant. In Islam, a prayer must be said for every animal killed, in Judaism, a prayer only needs to be said for the first animal killed in a session. In Judaism, if the slaughterman finds a nick or damage to the knife he uses during kosher slaughtering, all the animals previously killed using that knife before the damage was noticed are now not considered kosher and are discarded, but Muslims are not as strict with this theory. Strict Jews also cannot eat the lower parts of an animal or hindquarters, due to a story in the Torah where the prophet Jacob was injured after a fight with an angel on the lower part of his body. Muslims again do not follow this rule. Halal rules are also much more flexible when compared to Jewish law, where the Torah is set in stone. "Islamic law changes depending on the society we live in," says Riaz, which he sees as being more dynamic.

 

3) All halal rules are found in the Qur'an

Riaz says that the Qur'an is more a general framework, a book of principles and philosophies. The main rules on halal are found in the words of the prophet Muhammed.

 

 





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