A question of faith

Related tags Halal

A question of faith
As more Halal products appear on the shelves, Rebecca Green looks at how firms can capitalise on this growth market

When the likes of Tesco and Asda catch on to something, you know it's likely to be big news, and right now Halal food is a hot contender for shelf-space. A multitude of products are appearing in supermarket aisles, and larger manufacturers are starting to catch on. But the big question is: have they done their homework?

In 2001 Mintel estimated the UK market for fresh and prepared Halal food to be worth £460M, and it is predicted the global market will reach £500bn by 2010 - a big incentive for companies looking to branch out into the area, says Khalid Sharif, md of Halal confectioner Ummah Foods. The firm has listings in Asda and Tesco for its two chocolate bars and is just about to launch a third, mint variant.

"Halal has changed so much and a much wider market is being created," he says. "Confectionery, ready meals, biscuits, snacks, drinks - every product is being looked at."

But while Sharif believes more Halal aisles will start to appear in supermarkets, he says companies should approach the market with caution. Although it's not hard to get supplies, making the switch to Halal does complicate the manufacturing process, he warns. "For instance, you might be using a vegetable-based colouring, but you have to think: was alcohol used to extract it? And take the packaging - is the glue made from animal fat? And does the cleaning process use alcohol? It gets really, really detailed."

Put simply, Halal means 'lawful and permitted' within Islamic law. Foods that are not Halal, known as Haram, include: any part of a pig; carrion; carnivorous animal meat or blood. Meat that has not been slaughtered according to Islamic law (which, among other things, states the animal must not be dead before slaughter) is also Haram, as is alcohol. Gelatine, a by-product of a mainly non-Halal slaughterhouse industry, is also forbidden.

And if these requirements themselves are not enough for manufacturers to contend with, Sharif advises any potential newcomers to think beyond the product they want to launch: "If you want to tap into this market you've got to be aware of the social and political issues," he suggests.

"Mainstream manufacturers need to realise that it's not enough to just come out with a Halal product - Muslims are looking beyond the products and to what the company is doing for the community. It's more than just trying to meet dietary requirements. It's about reaching out to a community that feels under siege at the moment. So if you want that market, you've got to do more to meet that factor."

Sharif doesn't believe this will deter manufacturers from exploring this niche market, however. "Now the general knowledge about Halal food is growing, manufacturers are starting to realise there is a gap in the market. I'm surprised some of the bigger companies haven't done it yet, but the supermarkets have caught on. Eventually it won't be a selling point, it will just become the norm," he predicts.

Indeed, there are already rumblings of interest coming from some of the big names, says Saber Khan, director of research at Ethnic Focus, the official partner at this year's World Food Market.

"We've been working with clients such as Cadbury and Nestlé, who are interested in making their products more accessible to Halal consumers, doing research for them into the market," he explains. "They recognise the population is growing and want to tap into that by using non-Haram ingredients." Ethnic Focus provides a testing studio used by companies such as Nestlé to try out concepts on different populations/religions. "The consistent demand we've had for it suggests [larger manufacturers] would start making Halal products if they had the right ingredients," claims Khan.

He expects further growth across all categories, particularly jellies and gums, which have been "missing the trick" when it comes to Halal because of their gelatine content.

Apart from the growing Muslim population in the UK (expected to rise from 1.8M to 2.7M in the next decade), what is driving this growth? Sharif suggests it is partly to do with the changing requirements of Muslims, particularly second and third generation, who aren't exempt from the 'cash-rich, time-poor' phenomenon: "More professionals have less time but more money. And there are more young mums who can't spend as much time preparing meals," he explains. "These days, when Muslims are growing up in a community they are looking for more convenience foods to meet their requirements."

But Sharif believes there is another, more serious reason underlying this boom: "There is a younger generation of Muslims in the UK and at the moment they feel quite demonised, so they define themselves by their faith, a part of which is their dietary requirements," he says. "At the same time, they don't want to give up their convenience foods, so a niche industry is created."

It is not just Muslims who are eating Halal food. In much the same way as non-vegetarians enjoy vegetarian food, so too do non-Muslims eat Halal products. "We supply City Hall in London," explains Sharif, "and the majority of our customers there are non-Muslim - they simply like the taste and the community focus." At Ummah Foods, 10% of all profit goes to Muslim and non-Muslim charities and the packaging is designed by young artists - an approach Sharif recommends to other firms looking to enter the market.

Such has been the demand for Halal food over the past few years, that airline caterer LSG Sky Chefs has set up a dedicated Halal unit - Unit 600 at Heathrow, which produces 66,000 Halal meals a week across 210 flights. Gerry McCorriston, LSG senior executive chef, says in some cases non-Muslims are requesting the Halal option on board the aeroplane. "It's a very diverse food with spectacular colours and intense flavours - people want to try it."

No limits

McCorriston says that despite the strict dietary requirements, there are "no hard and fast rules that limit new product development or mean you can't make modern food". While some of the unit's customers require traditional dishes, others want something a bit different, he says. Meals range from Arabic lamb shank and Lebanese chicken, to Baba ganoush (Babaghanoush) and Sadyia fish.

"There is still a limited number of suppliers, which is a bit of a challenge, but as the market grows, suppliers will see there is a gap there," says McCorriston. "At the moment, because it's a specialist area, it probably takes them a bit longer to reorganise or set up Halal production areas."

Sharif doesn't anticipate this being the case for long, however, and predicts the niche companies that pop up over the next five years will soon become more mainstream.

In the meantime, the market has a lot of preparing to do to overcome what many feel is its biggest stumbling block - the lack of an official body for Halal certification.

"Nobody can agree on what the agreed Halal standard is," bemoans Sharif. "And there is currently nothing stopping anybody from setting up their own Halal certification body."

Khan believes this is a big problem in the UK. "The biggest confusion is the plethora of certification bodies that exist."

It is not just the number of bodies that is the problem, but also the differing opinions they all hold on interpreting aspects of the Islamic law, for instance the guidelines for slaughtering animals.

There is some dispute over whether animals can be stunned before slaughter - some Muslims believe stunning at a low voltage (not enough to kill the animal) is necessary to keep up with modern industry and the increasing demand for Halal meat. Others say that any level of stunning, however low, goes against Islamic law and that meat slaughtered in this way should not be labelled Halal.

Masood Khawaja, president of UK certification body The Halal Food Authority, avoids confusion by making firms sign an agreement to say that they understand what Halal is. He believes it is important for the Halal food industry to move with the times. "There is a balance that needs to be struck between scientific and technological advancements and keeping the Islamic dietary laws," he says.

While some certification bodies have different views to the consumer, Khan suggests that "in the end it comes down to price"

"The second and third generation consumers are quite pragmatic in their approach - price is a big consideration," he points out. "So the industry has got to recognise these modern mechanisms."

Whether Halal food will make the mainstream remains to be seen. But with Halal products already in place in other Muslim-populated countries, companies like Cadbury and Nestlé are well placed to enter the market ... for now, its over to them. FM

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