By Ed Bedington
When it comes to halal, it’s all about trust, according to some in the trade, but with a lack of labelling and the constant debate over stunning, that trust might be hard to come.
Halal meat has rarely been out of the headlines over the past few months, with cries of indignation from the less salubrious end of the tabloid press over issues surrounding the labelling of products as halal.
While, as one might expect, the papers have missed the point, be that intentionally or otherwise, and have focused on the issues surrounding stunning, there remains a major issue when it comes to labelling of halal meat.
Of course, it was the topic of stunning that brought the halal issue to the fore, with the likes of the Daily Mail squealing with indignation over the imagined welfare travesty that was being unwittingly visited upon the non-Muslim community. But, while it is a far-from-settled debate within the halal community itself, there’s no getting away from the fact that the majority of halal meat sold, and consumed, is stunned.
“It’s a distraction,” says Naved Syed, MD of Birmingham-based processor Janan Meats. “Unstunned product is less than 1% of the market, and we’re focusing on the extreme end of the situation.” He points out that, for Muslim customers from the Middle East, it is not even an issue.
Yet, for some, it remains a flashpoint of debate and recent months have even seen the establishment of a new organisation, the Association of Non-Stun Abattoirs (ANSA). Mohammed Saleem, spokesman for ANSA, claims a “very large part of the Muslim halal market” is focused on non-stun meat. “Large and increasing numbers of Muslim consumers, when given the choice, are turning towards pure non-stun halal as the purest and safest choice for the discerning Muslim consumer. The opportunities in safeguarding this capacity in the UK, and the risks of losing it – as would happen if recommendations from certain anti-non-stun lobbies are successful – are obvious even from a purely commercial angle.”
He claims the consensus is with his organisation: “From the Muslim point of view, there is a clear majority in favour of non-stun halal – both in scholarly circles and also among informed (as opposed to uninformed) consumers. A survey of UK scholars recently showed that almost 90% of them rejected stunning before slaughter.”
Regardless of which side is right or wrong, there is clearly a divide within the halal sector, which not only contributes to the confusion, but allows others to exploit that division. However, the figures from the Agricultural & Horticultural Development Board (AHDB) suggest that, in reality, stunned meat makes up the majority of UK Muslims’ consumption.
According to the AHDB report, of the 14 plants interviewed, which included most of the large-scale halal slaughterers, “Eleven stun their animals before slaughter, and only two do not stun at all. The remaining abattoir stuns before slaughter as a matter of routine, but will slaughter without stunning if a customer specifically requests it.”
So, while the debate over stunning rages, it continues to cloud the issue when it comes to labelling, with some calling for general halal labelling, while others, with the support of agriculture minister Jim Paice, are pushing for labelling on the method of slaughter.
When it comes to labelling, ANSA and other halal producers remain in favour. Saleem says: “ANSA strongly supports the clear and non-discriminatory labelling of all meat and poultry that clearly identifies origin and method of slaughter. ANSA supports the right of all consumers – Muslim or otherwise – to know where their meat is coming from and how it was slaughtered, to enable them to make a free and informed choice.”
Syed agrees: “I believe they should label anything that is halal, everyone has the same rights as me, so you should be told it’s halal. I have no right to force my beliefs on to you.”
He says that, regardless of whether the meat is stunned or not, the fact it is produced according to a Muslim ritual should be made clear, and any attempt to hide that only serves to undermine wider community relations. “Sikhs and Christians don’t want halal meat; why should they want meat that has been blessed by a Muslim? That’s what leads to people fighting among each other – they think Muslims are getting the benefit all the time.”
He points the finger of blame at the more mainstream companies for feeding halal to non-Muslims, a move he describes as “against all morality”.
For the mainstream producers, halal is not only an attractive category, but for some proteins, such as poultry it is also a huge help with carcase balance. Syed points out: “When it comes to poultry, Muslims consume 40% of the 18.2m chickens killed a week. Non-Muslims consume the white meat, breast etc, but the bottom half is mostly consumed by the Muslim market — leg and thigh meat will all be going into halal — doner kebabs etc.
“So, without that extra consumption, companies would struggle to sell the products, and that’s why a lot of the mainstream producers do halal.”
However, it is not just the Muslim processors who are in favour of halal labelling. Rob Smith, communications manager with Vion, says: “We produce a limited quantity of halal meat in one small specialist plant, and on two other sites, which we deliver according to customer needs. We’ve always consistently supported clear labelling, but as a mainly own-label supplier, what goes on the label is determined by our customers.”
When it comes to New Zealand, around 80% of the country’s lamb is produced under pre-stun halal methods, says John Mabb, of Beef + Lamb New Zealand. “However, because our product is nearly 100% own-label, we conform to whatever our customers put on the pack.”
However, Mabb makes the point that with competition for space on labels at a premium, labelling something on more ephemeral grounds does pose a challenge. “Most information on a label is about where the product is from, its weight, its price and what the ingredients are, but with halal meat, it doesn’t look or taste any different, and that is possibly why there’s more of a difficulty in saying yes or no to it.”
He also makes the point that producers struggle to convince retailers to use labels such as the NZ rosette, or Red Tractor, so to add another into the mix would pose a challenge.
Johanna Buitelaar Warden, head of animal welfare and business development for AB Sustain, believes any introduction of such labelling would simply muddy the waters: “If you started sectioning out non-halal versus conventional in the supermarket, it would create supply problems and would confuse the consumer. Research has shown, however, that consumers are often confused by labels and there is a risk that they may not fully understand, therefore interpreting all halal to be ‘bad’.”
For Muslim consumers, trust is key, says Syed, and for non-Muslim operations, that poses an extra challenge. “For Muslim shoppers, the people they trust is a fellow Muslim. They would trust their butcher more than they would trust a multiple retailer for example.”
He says a large part of this is down to the teaching of the Qur’an, which tells Muslims that they are expected to trust their brother, who will bear the sin if something goes wrong. As a result, Muslim consumers are more likely to trust a fellow Muslim, and Syed says that, for the non-Muslim processors and multiple retailers, simply putting an Islamic-sounding brand to a product is not enough. “Simply hiding behind an Islamic name is not enough; who is going to front your business? Unless you get the trust element right, it won’t happen; just labelling something as halal will not earn that trust.”
One retailer getting it right, however, is Asda, he says. “Where Asda has got it right, is by ensuring they have a Muslim person, Noor Ali, running that area of the business. It shows that they’re not just paying lip service to the sector. They were the first to put in a concessions and Noor is pushing it more and more.”
And it is not just Syed who is singing Ali’s praises; she was recently awarded the title Businesswoman of the Year at the Asian Women of Achievement Awards.
The benefits for retailers in tapping into the halal market are clear, claims Syed. “When the multiples have put halal concessions in stores, sales have gone up by about 40% across the board – that’s why it’s so important to get halal meat in store. On average, Muslim consumers shop three times a week for fresh meat, and when they are in store, it’s not just meat they are buying. So the retailers are getting extra customers, three times a week.”
Overall, the halal market is significant. Despite only making up around 3% of the population, around 2.5m people, the UK’s Muslims account for around 20% of the country’s sheepmeat consumption, and eat over 95% of the UK’s mutton, according to figures from Eblex.
Until recently, details of the scale and scope of the market were unclear. However, Eblex has attempted to shed light on the sector, with a report published at the end of 2010 entitled: ‘The halal meal market: Specialist supply chain structures and consumer purchase and consumption profiles in England’.
The report, which was commissioned by the Eblex halal steering group, draws on qualitative and quantitative research into Muslim consumers’ attitudes to halal meat and examines purchasing habits, consumption behaviour, provides an overview of the most popular cuts and explores opinion on the key issues of religious slaughter and stunning.
Chris Leeman, Eblex retail project manager, says: “This is the most comprehensive study of the halal market to date and provides unique insight into what is a fast-growing market – for example, eight out of 10 Muslims regularly eat meat, it is nearly always bought fresh and often in bulk. Trust is afforded to halal butchers, however, for those looking to enter the halal supply chain, accreditation, product labelling and the presence of Muslim staff are areas that need to be considered.”
The report is available to download from the retail section of the Eblex website – www.eblextrade.co.uk – along with further material of interest to the halal supply chain.
Eblex has also produced the ‘Lamb Cutting Guide for the Halal Market’, which was developed to address the very specific needs of the market. Created by Eblex master butcher Dick van Leeuwen and halal butcher Riyad Al-Hassan, Eblex says it provides a single comprehensive specification to ensure consistency throughout the halal industry – something that was previously missing.
Overall, the halal market has plenty to offer those brave enough to get involved in the debate, and is one of the fastest-growing in the world; Syed estimates the UK market alone to increase by 5-10% in the next five to eight years. So, if you can overcome the challenges, there is plenty of opportunity for aspiring suppliers.
The slaughter debate rumbles on
The debate on religious slaughter continues to rage, and more fuel was recently poured on the fire by the announcement that the Dutch parliament was on the verge of banning slaughter without stunning.
For a proponent of the process, it is a matter of religious freedom, and many claim that non-stun slaughter is more humane. ANSA spokesman Mohammed Saleem says: “On the scientific side, there is and has been a debate on this, but it is becoming increasingly obvious that the science on this is not very clear, and that the evidence quite strongly supports the view of those who believe that the non-stun method, when carried out in accordance with proper religious instructions, is very humane and on some strong scientific evidence is less painful and less stressful for the animal than stunning-based methods of slaughter.”
However, the debate is coloured by emotive issues, from religious freedom to animal welfare, and in some ways, this holds back industry from reaching a sensible consensus on the issue, with many organisations sitting on fence and refusing to be drawn into it.
“In the vast majority of cases, people don’t really understand what halal means and that there is a distinct difference between stunned and non-stunned halal,” says Johanna Buitelaar Warden, head of animal welfare and business development for AB Sustain. “There is an argument that non-stunned halal animals ‘do not feel pain due to the sharp knife’. In fact, there has been ongoing work that has produced scientific evidence (some showcased at the recent Humane Slaughter Association Symposium) that animals that are not stunned do feel aversion, pain and stress during the practice.”
Regardless of which side of the fence you sit, there will be plenty of eyes on the Netherlands at the moment and the wider ramifications of the Dutch decision will be felt in the next few years.
At the end of the day, most commentators feel it is unlikely that non-stunned meat will ever be accepted outside of a small niche market – the concept itself is anathema to mainstream consumers, who consistently put animal welfare to the top of their shopping lists.
The idea that all halal meat is non-stunned, therefore, poses some serious problems for processors, which will look to straddle the divide and supply both markets.