Halal goes global

Observations on the Muslim consumer

The World Halal Forum (WHF) is probably the only economic conference in the world where delegates are given a bottle of Islamically sanctioned cod liver oil in their goodie bags. Or where Islamic scholars and community activists mingle with multinational food executives, scientists and entrepreneurs. "We are now at the point where halal is more than a religious duty," intoned the voice in the slick industry video shown to delegates at the conference, held last month in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

Halal is big business: counting Islamic finance, as well as drugs and foodstuffs, it's worth an estimated $580bn (£295bn), and is dovetailing with contemporary consumer concerns from animal welfare to GM crops and fair trade.

For non-Muslims, halal is widely seen as simply a matter of avoiding pork and alcohol, and shopping at a halal butcher, whose meat has been slaughtered in accordance with Islamic law. But the exhibition hall at the third annual WHF was proof that the industry has moved well beyond meat.

At the Nestlé corner, where information on Islamically sanctioned Smarties, PowerBars and Koko Krunch breakfast cereal was displayed, smiling young women dispensed Maggi noodles and ice cream to milling hijabis and businessmen. The Colgate stall had grinning portraits of its halal committee, which ensures that the toothpaste is free of all animal products. Nearby were stacked silver cans of Black Fury, a halal riff on Red Bull, designed, according to the attendant, to appeal to "people who want to go far in their life".

Such luxe products reflect the consumer power of Muslims, whose growing wealth and rising sense of religious identity are creating a massive market for Islamic goods. Muslim migration has helped. Where Saudi Arabians or Pakistanis can assume (albeit often erroneously) that the food on their supermarket shelves is halal, simply because they live in Muslim states, Muslims in Leeds or Singapore cannot.

It's not just the spread of Muslim consumers that has made halal big business, but the global nature of the food industry itself. Around 80 per cent of the halal food industry is in the hands of non-Muslims. The Brazilians have been big halal producers for decades. Three-quarters of chickens exported by France are halal. Globalising supermarket chains are starting halal lines; France's Carrefour even has a halal product co-ordinator to test that its supply chain is halal from farm to fork.

The most pressing task of the WHF, started by Malaysia three years ago in a bid to promote itself as a global halal hub, is to get stakeholders to agree on a worldwide standard. There are scores of different halal certification bodies, advised by scholars with varying interpretations on what halal actually means. Slaughtering methods are hotly contested: is it halal to stun an animal before killing it, a common modern slaughtering technique? The world is split, with most countries east of India allowing stunning, and those to the west arguing that stunning does not allow sufficient blood-flow to meet halal conditions. (The anti-stunning lobby was at the WHF in force, pointedly boycotting the chicken and beef dishes at the lavish buffets.)

Disputed, too, is the issue of mechanical slaughter. A halal slaughterer must say a niat, a short declaration of intentions in Allah's name, before wielding the knife. But is it halal to say it just once before hitting the button on a machine that uses spinning blades to kill hundreds of chickens a minute? WHF delegates and Muslim media pressed imams for their fatwas on the subject.

At solemn seminars, the kosher and organic movements were cited as models of unity and purpose. Again and again, delegates - suited businessmen, bearded leaders, North American entrepreneurs - called on the umma, the worldwide Muslim community, to agree a standard in the interests of peace and commerce. "It's potentially a tool for unification," said Darhim Dali Hashim, a 35-year-old Bristol graduate who is CEO of the new International Halal Integrity Alliance. "As Muslims, we all want to be able to sit at the same table."

The bickering over standards hasn't slowed entrepreneurial drive. There was talk of R&D on halal vaccines, free from testing on animals. Scientists from a company called Bionet showed how they had harnessed the technology for blood sugar testing to detect the presence of pork or alcohol in food. The Malaysian government had slick stands showcasing its halal industry development zones. And from one Islamic scholar, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, came a welcome hint of flexibility: "There's a perception that there's only one way to be right," he cautioned. "We always have to be mindful of where the differences are, so that we do not create a straitjacket for the community."