The recent announcement that a halal chocolate bar is now being distributed nationwide in the UK may bring some small cheer to the country's Muslim school children growing up on a strict halal diet. The caramel chocolate bar produced by Ilford-based Ummah Foods has been two years in development and uses ingredients, production processes and packaging that meet the strict Islamic religious rules on diet.
It is not the only product appearing on shop shelves aimed at this, as yet under exploited, ethnic market. Halal food is mainly sold through a wide but fragmented network of independent retailers and the players are mainly small suppliers. But more recently Asda, Safeway and Sainsbury have introduced halal beef and poultry to stores in Muslim populated areas.
There are as yet no nationally recognised or trusted brands, but Kellogg now uses a halal logo on some of its products and many other food manufacturers from meat and sauce to sandwich and snack providers are moving in on what is a niche but growing market.
Islam is one of the fastest-growing religions in Europe and an annual growth rate of 6.5% means that by 2014, followers of Islam will form the second largest religious group in Europe behind Catholics.
Up until now the community has not sought many convenience products, mainly because many of the first generation Muslim shoppers were women who tended not to speak English or work and so had more time to cook from scratch.
But second and third generations of people born in the UK have the same interests and concerns as the wider population. It will be more likely that the woman will go into full-time employment and have less time to prepare meals. However, she will be looking for convenience foods that comply with her religious beliefs.
The small to medium companies in this sector are enjoying increasing demand. Express Cuisine in Manchester, for example, produces halal sandwiches, salads, snacks and, more recently, ready meals, mainly for independents in the north west of England. Its products are now being stocked by Costcutter, and the company says it is gearing up to expand its factory and double turnover in the next 12 months.
The growing spending power of the Muslim community means leisure and travel industries are also seeing a potential market and are starting to cater for their special requirements. Public institutions such as hospitals and schools are also taking note. The National Health Service, in particular, is making a move to ensure appropriate meals are available to its patients. It is consulting with key stakeholders to agree a national framework for ethnic food and special diets, including halal. It says the quality of halal meals has been a concern among the Muslim community and this is a key area it has been seeking to develop.
Growing interest from the catering sector, large institutions and now some of the major retailers is one of the reasons that Macphie's chilled and frozen foods division at Tannochside near Glasgow decided to start producing halal products.
"Many of our customers that had a requirement for halal food were having to manufacture it in-house, but were looking to outsource production," says Kevin Cox business sector manager at Macphie.
The company has been granted a licence to supply halal approved sauces. Arrabbiata, Béchamel Sauce, Chicken Velouté, Curry Sauce, DemiGlace Sauce, Fish Velouté, Tomato and Basil Sauce, Veal Jus are currently offered, with many further recipes under development. The company is keen to start producing other halal products that clients may require.
But those companies considering the halal market need to gain a thorough understanding of the Islamic diet before launching, as the requirements can be unusual. As Cox explains: "Islam is not merely a religion of rituals but a way of life."
Followers subscribe to an Islamic dietary code based on guidance given in the religious teachings of the Quran (Koran). Products that fall within the rules are known as hahal. Those that do not are called haram and are prohibited. There are many other important Islamic terms such as: mashbooh, which means something questionable or doubtful; or makrooh which is generally associated with someone's dislike for a food product; and zahiba or dhabiha, used to differentiate meat that has been slaughtered by Muslims and in the required way from that which has not.
Foods or ingredients that are definitely haram include: alcohol, pork and pork products, any animals that are not slaughtered to Islamic principles, fish without scales and some molluscs and crustaceans.
Milk and eggs, if sourced from halal animals are permissible. But there are many food additives, preservatives and processing aids that can make products haram.
Halal certification has been going on in countries such as Indonesia since the 1990s but, as yet, there is no overriding body or recognised logo in the UK, although the Islamic community is working towards it.
At present, any individual Muslim, Islamic organisation, or agency can issue a halal certificate, but the acceptability of their certificate depends on the community served. The three key bodies involved in the accreditation and monitoring of halal produce in the UK are the Halal Food Authority (HFA), the Muslim Food Board and the Institute of Islamic Jurisprudence.
Cox says: "We had to go through quite a few hoops, submitting recipes to the required authorities to ensure there is nothing improper there. They trace everything back to its origins and if they are not happy they send it back and indicate which ingredient they are not happy with. It can take four-to-six weeks to get a recipe approved."
While most of the laws are drawn from ancient teachings, they are not necessarily static. As new products are introduced and more information on foods becomes available, interpretations can change. But the laws don't only cover ingredients either, they also affect production and packaging.
Cox says for Macphie this meant some special considerations. "In general, the manufacturing is no different, but the process used to clean the equipment and premises does have special requirements. We have dedicated packaging equipment and packaged film and separate storage bins to store materials to ensure there is no cross contamination. We also have specially trained staff to manage the production."
The market may be niche now but just as non-vegetarians sometimes eat vegetarian products, the wider community may add to its potentialFM
Origin: The origin of rice goes far back into antiquity. Archaeologists have found evidence that rice was an important food in Mohenjo-Daro in Pakistan as early as 2500BC and in the Yangtze basin in China in the late Neolithic period (8000-5000BC). It is believed the divergence between the South Asian and Chinese forms, now commonly referred as Indica and Japonica types, happened 2-3m years ago. Its use as a crop spread gradually around the globe but in the 16th and 17th centuries, outbreaks of malaria -- thought then to be caused by the malodorous air of swampy areas -- curtailed its cultivation in Europe.
Production: Rice covers 81m hectares of the world's surface and thousands of varieties now exist. There are long grain varieties with long slender kernels which produce light, fluffy rice; medium grain varieties with shorter, wider kernels; and short grained varieties with round kernels that are soft and cling together when boiled. White rice has all bran and germ layers removed by polishing, but brown rice, with its outer coating contains more minerals and protein. Certain varieties of rice, grown in the Indo Gangetic plains, have unique eating qualities and aroma are known as basmati. And then there is Thailand, which produces its famous Jasmine rice.
Nutritional properties: Rice is the ideal health food being fat-, cholesterol-, sodium- and gluten-free. The oil fraction is believed to have both cholesterol reducing and anti-oxidant effects and brown rice is a good source of vitamins and minerals.
Culinary uses: In addition to being an accompaniment to ethnic meals, the source of the potent Japanese liquor sake and one of the UK's favourite puddings, rice has many other uses. A Belgian company is using rice extracts for the development of desserts. And one of rice's extracts is already being used in a lactose-, gluten- and wheat-free ice cream, drinks and chocolate. Surprisingly, rice is not used in rice paper -- which comes from the Asian rice paper tree, a member of the gingseng family.