12 Jan 2019 by Jennifer Sutcliffe

Halal – what is it and why does it matter?

These days, the word ‘halal’ is becoming more and more prevalent; on supermarket shelves, in restaurant chains and on social media. But do you actually know what it means? Well, assuming you’re not Muslim or well informed on the subject, it’s time to brush up! This is because halal food is big business. So without further ado…

What Is Halal?

Halal means permissible, i.e. that which follows the rules set out in the Quran. However, it is NOT just related to food; it covers many aspects of life, all of which can be divided between ‘halal’ (permissible) and ‘haram’ (banned). When it comes to food and drink, the rules are extensive and also, open to interpretation. These are the big ones:

  • All vegetable, fruit, grain and seafood is halal.
  • Meat is halal, providing the animal has been killed in the kindest possible way with appropriate prayers said at the time of death by a sane Muslim man. Also, the blood must be drained while the animal is alive.
  • Pork is not allowed. The definitive reason behind this restriction is somewhat unclear.
  • Meat must not have been killed in the name of any deity other than Allah.
  • No alcohol or intoxicants. This includes the animals, who must not be treated with antibiotics or growth hormones, since the hormones may contain pork-based ingredients.
  • Animals must be fed vegetarian diets, which means that many chickens and cows raised on U.S. farms don’t qualify, as their feed often contains animal by-products.
  • Animals must be respected and their slaughter given as much dignity as possible, i.e. they should be reared in a way that gives them shelter, food, water and space, similar to that which they receive in the wild, and they should not see another animal’s slaughter before their own.

There are other details, but due to the lack of a universal standard it is hard to define halal exactly. Hence the debate rages…

Why Does Halal Court Controversy in the Press?

Some descriptions of halal claim that by draining the blood from the animal while it is still conscious (without cutting the spinal cord or stunning it), you improve the meat in many ways. This view is based on the belief that blood makes meat more susceptible to putrefaction, which negatively impacts taste and freshness. Also, with less blood the buyer is taking home more meat pound per pound.

However, this study from 2015 proves there is no difference in the amount of blood drained between stunning and not-stunning. Also, many health experts and campaigners, such as the RSPCA, argue that killing animals without stunning causes them “unnecessary suffering”.

This viewpoint, also held by the British Veterinary Association, Peta and the Farm Animal Welfare Council, is in line with legislation from the European Union that requires animals to be stunned before slaughter.

Although there is an exemption given by the British Government that allows non-stunning on religious grounds, the vast majority of halal butchers comply with this legislation. In fact, 88% of Britain’s halal meat comes from animals that have been stunned before slaughter and the 12% that do not certainly court controversy within the Muslim and non-Muslim communities.

However, it is interesting to note figures from the Foods Standards Agency which show how the number of non-stunned sheep slaughtered in Britain has doubled in six years between 2011 and 2017, to more than three million. Also, with Brexit looming, there is the issue of Britain leaving the EU and how this will affect regulations.

With more and more focus on animal rights as well as the economic incentive of stunning (one butcher in Manchester told the Independent: “Non-stun slaughter is a much lengthier process…It can take a week to kill 500 lambs.”), it seems likely that stunning will remain the norm for halal meat.

What might help stem this minimal trend for non-stunning is if a respected organisation could declare a universal standard. The IHAF (International Halal Accreditation Forum) has set itself the task of doing this.

Although it is a relatively young organisation, currently defining halal in the vaguest of terms, it does now boast 27 members and those numbers are expected to double within two years.

As it continues to gain credibility, it may be able to host multilateral agreements, which would streamline accreditation and distribution making the end product cheaper and more accessible for everyone. Ultimately, this should result in increased sales. But why is this momentum building?

Because the Muslim Market Matters, Big Time!

Both in the U.K. and across the world, the interest in and the provision of halal products is increasing and at quite a considerable rate. The State of the Global Muslim Economy Report 2017/8 from Thomson Reuters estimates that global Muslim spend across lifestyle sectors was $2 trillion in 2016. Out of all the categories that make up this spend, Food and Beverage leads the way with a spend of $1.24 trillion. Apart from being the largest sector of the Islamic economy, it is also the most diverse, as product offerings no longer simply refer to meat, but also to confectionary, ready-meals, snacks and children’s food.

To give some comparison, so the scale of demand can be fully appreciated, it is worth noting that Muslim spend on F&B is growing at nearly double that of global growth. It is also expected to reach $1.93 trillion by 2022. But why this apparent massive growth?

It mainly comes down to the rate at which Muslim populations are growing, which is rapidly. According to one research centre there will be a 73% increase between 2010 and 2050. If this quite astounding projection is true that means that in 2050, more than a quarter of the world’s population will be Muslim (a rise from 1.6 billion to 2.8 billion).

High fertility rates combined with a youthful demographic in countries with majority Muslim populations has something to do with this rate of growth, but it also true of minority Muslim countries, like India, which will have the largest Muslim population in the world (311m) by 2050.

As the economic landscape shifts to the East and the middle classes increase (to 900 million by 2030), their spending power becomes more and more relevant. Hence why the F&B multinationals are starting to pay attention.

Catering to Halal

Unilever recently invested $33.3 million into its Halal food operations in South East Asia, while private equity and sovereign wealth funds have also been investing heavily. Interesting partnerships have begun to pop up, such as the e-commerce site Aladdin Street signing a five year partnership with Manchester Utd. Knowing the Manchester demographic and this partnership it is not surprising that the Intu Old Trafford Centre hosted The Muslim Lifestyle Expo last weekend which, of course, focussed a great deal on halal food.

Halal and the Meat Industry

Muslims in the UK represent about 5% of the population, but they consume around 20% of all the lamb sold as well as a growing percentage of beef. This appetite as well as the value of the halal meat industry (around £2.6bn a year according to Eblex) is why the meat industry is beginning to value the Muslim pound, especially at a time when veganism and vegetarianism is stemming rate of sales more generally.

And it’s not just the meat industry in the U.K. that has woken up to this demand. According to Al Jazeera, eight of the ten largest suppliers of global halal meat are non-Muslim majority countries with Brazil, Australia and India all leading the way.

In Australia, 500K people declare themselves Muslim. This growing demographic plus its close access to the South East Asian market (home to some of the biggest halal consumers), is why the country is such a trusted source of halal lamb and beef. As such it adopts one of the strictest halal programs in the world. New Zealand also proudly declares that all of their lamb is halal. Much of which is sold in U.K. supermarkets.

Check out next week’s blog for part two of this article, which looks at how big retail, the restaurant industry and influencers are part of the halal wake up call.