Hamzah Mohd Salleh‘s lab is trying to ensure the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims can stick to their religion’s strict halal rules
Can you explain the concept of halal?
In Islamic law, there are things that are allowed, known as halal, and things that are forbidden. In terms of Islamic dietary laws, things that are forbidden include pork, products derived from pork, and alcohol. But many products are in a grey area. Muslims are advised to only consume things which are clearly halal.
What type of research do you do?
My colleagues and I aim to find ways to detect non-halal materials in products that are to be certified halal. Our chemists check for porcine DNA or an unacceptable level of alcohol, for example. We also try to find alternatives to forbidden ingredients, such as gelatin made from fish skin instead of from pigs. Our research assists the halal industry – estimated to be worth trillions of US dollars per year globally – and the religious organisations that certify products as halal.
Does halal go beyond food?
Yes, it extends to cosmetics, personal care products and pharmaceuticals, to name but a few. Most capsules for medicines contain gelatin, for example. More and more pharmaceutical companies, at least those in the Muslim world, are trying to source gelatin from halal sources. And Muslims want to know whether the lipstick they wear or the lotion they put on their skin is acceptable. We are also looking at the food animals eat, so whether it is OK to use a pig’s body parts as animal feed, and whether pig hair is permissible for use in, for example, a pastry brush.
Are there other areas of active research?
We are working on making sure the processes used to make drugs are halal. To make vaccines and other proteins, you need to culture cells in a bioreactor. To increase the density of the cells you can use microcarriers – insoluble particles that the cells congregate around – usually made of porcine gelatin. I’m developing a microcarrier that works in the same way but is made of halal materials. The next step will be ensuring that nutrients given to the cells to make them grow are also permissible.
Halal slaughter involves cutting the animal’s throat with a sharp knife, before draining the blood. Does your work inform this area?
The Malaysian halal regulatory body doesn’t encourage stunning before slaughter, but since the country imports meat from countries such as Australia and New Zealand, where stunning is required, guidelines have been drawn up. These detail the current to be used and how long it should be applied, based on an animal’s weight. We want to detect if guidelines are violated. So we are trying to find biomarkers – increased levels of hormones or enzymes – that are produced if an animal is overstunned, to make sure that the electricity is only used to stun rather than kill.
Do you think the growth of halal science is because halal certification is big business?
That’s one reason. There are great opportunities for companies to address the needs of Muslims around the world. If you fulfil the requirements and accommodate those needs, that is OK, even if the driving force behind this is profit.
This article appeared in print under the headline “One minute with… Hamzah Mohd Salleh”
Hamzah Mohd Salleh is an associate professor at the International Institute for Halal Research and Training at the International Islamic University in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia