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Islam: International Food Companies Eye Growing Halal Market

Because of its stricter hygienic standards, non-Muslims in Britain also buy halal food products (RFE/RL) PRAGUE, May 11, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Food-industry representatives from around the globe met in the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur this week for what was billed as the inaugural World Halal Forum, the latest reflection of the growing purchasing power and influence of Muslim consumers in the globalized economy.

Senior executives from fast-food giants McDonald's and KFC, managers from global food producer Nestle, exporters from Europe, Asia, and Africa -- all were in attendance at the World Halal Forum.

It's proof, say organizers, that halal foods are moving into the mainstream. And global food producers have taken notice.

The term halal, which means "permissible" in Arabic, refers to anything that is allowed under Islam. In the non-Arabic-speaking world, it is most often used to describe food that can be consumed by observant Muslims. Pork meat, for example, and alcohol are not halal.

Hundreds of millions of people around the world live according to halal laws. And their numbers are growing, from China, to Central Asia, to the Middle East, Africa, and Europe.

Living In A Non-Halal World

But following halal rules in a world that remains largely oriented to non-Muslim consumers can be difficult. Especially when it comes to prepackaged and processed foods, how can Muslim consumers be sure that the spaghetti sauce they buy at the supermarket doesn't contain traces of wine or the candies they give their children don't have gelatin made from pork gelatin?

As more Muslim consumers enter the middle class in the Middle East, Asia, and Europe, they are becoming more demanding. And Nordin Abdullah, one of the conference organizers, says global retailers are responding to what is already a $500 billion-a-year industry.

"Halal is starting to move more mainstream, so you're seeing companies like [British supermarket retailer] Tesco, which were attending and speaking at the forum, talking about the new [halal] ranges that they're introducing in their stores throughout Europe," he says.

"We also had Nestle, which is of course a European-based multinational company, who have done amazing things in terms of developing quality halal products out of Malaysia and other places around the world," Abdullah adds. "So it's starting to go more mainstream and it's starting to be more associated with quality."

Stricter Standards

In order to be considered halal, food products, especially meat, usually have to meet stricter hygiene standards than those mandated by governments. Abdullah claims the recent BSE "mad cow" scare in Europe could have been avoided, if halal rules had been followed.

"The other thing that halal takes into consideration is before the actual slaughtering, you have to look at the animal. And if the animal is being fed on animal proteins, which contributed to the BSE disease, it wouldn't be considered halal," he says. "So we wouldn't have slaughtered that animal anyway. So in that sense it's more stringent [than government hygiene standards] and it looks at a broader scope than just at the slaughtering process, or at the packing process or at the cooking process."

That makes halal attractive to more than just Muslim consumers, according to Abdullah. "We're finding in a lot of places that it's not just the Muslims who are consuming halal food. In [Britain], for example, there are approximately 2 million Muslims but there are about 6 million consumers of halal meat," he notes. "So it also has a multiplier effect that you can look at, as a producer."

'Certified Halal Worldwide'

Ultimately, participants at the World Halal Forum hope to devise unified standards and a common labeling system for all halal products. They argue that this will make shopping easier for consumers. And it will also make it easier for food producers to enter the halal market. They will know that by following certain rules, they will be able to obtain a halal certificate that is recognized worldwide, allowing them to expand their sales opportunities.

Abdullah compares the certification process to the well-known ISO standards, developed by the International Organization for Standardization, that have been stamped on manufactured goods for decades.

"There will be local certifiers in the relevant countries who would actually do the certification process based on the standards," he explains. "This would be very similar to the ISO process, where the standards are ISO and they're accepted by the industry, they're accepted by all. And then you have different people who do auditing and also certification. So in that sense, that is also the direction of the halal standards that we're taking."

Based on the success of this year's event, organizers say the World Halal Forum will become an annual gathering, whose clout will be felt wherever there are Muslim consumers.

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