More than 1.6M people currently follow a Halal diet in the UK and there are two key drivers that make the Muslim population an increasingly important market for food manufacturers.
The first is a numbers game. The Muslim population is younger and growing faster than the UK population as a whole, with the average British Muslim family having 3.5 children as opposed to just 1.8. This reflects a global shift that is expected to see Muslims account for over a quarter of the worldwide population within the next 10 years. Secondly, the nature of the market in Britain is changing, since half of all UK-based Muslims are now British born.
These second- and third-generation British Muslim consumers show the same inclination as everyone else to opt for convenience rather than cooking from scratch, and are also looking to expand the range of cuisines they enjoy beyond the Asian dishes traditionally favoured by their elders. This changing population not only promises a growing market for Halal foods, but also makes it ripe for new product development (NPD).
"We started off very traditional but now we include mainstream products like sausages and burgers," says Nadeem Ayyub, marketing director for frozen food specialist Shazan Foods. The Preston-based company has also hit the convenience button with its microcook range of kebabs and tikka products. "These are quality products that are cooked by us just like at home or in a restaurant, so all the consumer has to do is microwave them," says Ayyub.
In Arabic, halal simply means 'permissible' or 'lawful'. Most foods are considered Halal but there are notable exceptions, which are haram or 'prohibited'. Pork and its by-products are totally out, as are carnivorous animals, birds of prey and land animals without external ears or marine animals without fins and scales. Blood and blood by-products are also forbidden, along with alcohol and other intoxicants.
In addition, meat and other animal-derived products may only be eaten if the animals are slaughtered and bled correctly. There are specific prayers and procedures to follow and, crucially, the animal must not be dead before slaughtering. For many Muslims this means that animals must be unstunned when killed, in case the act of stunning is itself fatal.
"In principle, the issue with Halal is not the stunning itself but managing it so it doesn't kill the animals," explains Rizvan Khalid, director of meat processing firm Euro Quality Lambs, which is a leading supplier to Halal manufacturers across Europe. "If it can be shown that controlling the current does not kill the animal that would be acceptable, but more scientific data would be needed to give Halal consumers confidence."
No single standard
The result is that many of the different, self-appointed Halal authorities specify a total ban on stunning, while others may be willing in theory to consider some form of electrical stunning, provided it could be shown to be reliably non-lethal. This is just one of the issues where a lack of consistency has left many manufacturers calling for the establishment of a single, industry-wide Halal standard.
"There are 22 different bodies in the UK alone and it causes nothing but confusion," says Bill Kimberling, commercial director of Mumtaz Ventures. "We're not a member of any of these bodies and Mumtaz make sure the things we buy are Halal ourselves."
Khalid believes that the confusion over standards is a significant obstacle to growth: "The Halal market is growing but not as fast as it was because it is being hindered by the lack of a single Halal body." Like Mumtaz and many other manufacturers, this has led Euro Quality Lambs to go it alone.
So self-regulation is a popular approach among dedicated Halal manufacturers, where the whole business is built on Halal principles. On the other hand, there are still plenty of Halal-centric businesses that prefer to opt for external certification. Furthermore, for mainstream food manufacturers looking to launch Halal ranges, certification may be the only way to provide their target market with the confidence they need.
"We've been running our Halal certification service for two years and it's definitely an area of growing interest," says Mike Law, chief certification officer for Cert-ID. Cert-ID's Halal auditing service is based on a standard from the UK Halal Corporation, which is also the standard adopted by Bodycote Lawlabs and EFSIS.
"What we're seeing is second and third generation British-born Muslims looking at the kind of food around them and thinking I want some of that," says Law. "Halal is very much moving into mainstream food manufacture, both in ingredients and finished products. Companies want to have something to show their customers. Many Muslims would mistrust compound foods, especially western-type foods if it wasn't said explicitly that it's Halal."
Compound Halal food
It was this lack of choice in the market that sparked the launch of Al-Falah Halal Foods. "We went to school here in the UK ourselves but we couldn't eat the foods that we saw other people eating. So we thought let's give people what they want to eat," says co-founder and md Naheed Dadlani. "We sub-contract to a number of different factories, but all the facilities we use are certified by the Halal Monitoring Committee, so all our meat products are from unstunned and hand-slaughtered animals."
Starting from an initial range of premium and standard chilled deli products, such as pastrami, beef salami and sausages and chicken baloney, London-based Al-Falah now offers around 90 products in both chilled and frozen formats. According to Dadlani, around 60% of British Muslims are of Pakistani or other Asian extraction. Apart from traditional Asian food, she says that Chinese is the next most popular cuisine among this group, and that's why five Chinese ready meals are among Al-Falah's most recent launches. Halal children's food is also a big growth area, which the company is addressing with new products such as frozen chicken nuggets and chicken kievs.
More NPD is already underway and further new offerings are planned in the next few weeks. Dadlani can't specify what most of these will be, but she will say that the company is planning to expand from savoury into confectionery with a range of jelly sweets, some of which will contain gelatin. "Confectionery is a big growing market so we've had something in the pipeline for a while," she says. "But we've only just found a source of gelatin that we're happy with so we're finally ready to go ahead."
The difficulty over gelatin and other, less obvious ingredients is a good illustration of the difficulties that Halal manufacturers face when trying to meet the requirements of Muslim consumers. "There can be much more to it than you think," says Law. "For example, alcohol is one that has a far-reaching effect. You may not include it in your recipe but you've got to think about other ways in which alcohol can get into the food chain. Many ingredients such as flavourings use isopropyl alcohol as a carrier, for instance, and cleaning fluids are often alcohol-based."
Some manufacturers are having to resort to serious science to overcome the obstacles to NPD in Halal foods. For example, the presence of alcohol in ordinary vinegars led Bradford-based Mumtaz to work with universities in Leeds and Bradford to come up with a purification process that has now enabled the company to launch a range of Halal vinegars and salad dressings. "Most Asian families don't use salad dressings because they're not Halal, so this is opening up a whole new area for them and hopefully encouraging them to eat more healthily," says Kimberling.
This continues a history of innovation by Mumtaz, which launched the first Halal baby foods in May 2006. Like the salad dressings, Kimberling says that the baby products target a genuine need, rather than simply filling a gap in the market. "All babies suffer from anaemia to some extent because they're growing so fast, but 73% of Muslim babies suffer from acute iron deficiency. Muslims mothers tend to stick to fruit or vegetable-based baby foods because they can't be sure that the meat-based foods are Halal," he says.
From a few shelves in Tesco, the company now exports its baby foods to over 40 countries. By the middle of next year, Mumtaz expects the baby range to be joined by a new range of toddler foods. "In the UK most Muslims are Asian, so they eat spicy food that children up to the ages of four or five won't eat," says Kimberling. "These families can often find it difficult to find suitable products for their children."