Monday, April 8, 2013

Has halal food become just a commercial commodity?

It is easy to blindly trust the assurances of international food manufacturers that the food they're selling is 100 per cent halal. But, how do we really know whether the food we are eating is Shariah-compliant?

The halal-food industry has now become a multi-billion dollar business, and it suffers from the same wheeling and dealing as any other highly sought-after product. The industry is worth some $600 billion in the global market, and some traders are only too happy to slap a halal tag onto the products we buy. We don't really question the background of the factory producing the food item or who really owns it.

The definition of halal is 'anything that is legal or lawful for Muslims'. In terms of meat, this can apply to the kind of animal used (pork is not allowed, for instance) and the way in which they are slaughtered. The animal must be healthy. The butcher must recite a prayer, dedicating the animal to God. The jugular vein, carotid artery, and windpipe are cut with a single swipe from a sharp knife. Shariah declares that the animal should die immediately, and the blood must drain away before the meat can be prepared for consumption.

However, in the West, most animals are stunned before their throats are slit. Halal food inspectors in Europe allow butchers to stun the animal first by driving a bolt into its skull, gassing it, or electrocuting it before slaughter. Then, they label the meat halal and allow it to be sold to the market. However, the UK charity group, Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA), admits that slaughtering an animal with one clean swipe of the knife is more humane than driving a bolt into the brains of these animals.

Animal-rights campaigners note that 90 per cent of all the meat served in popular fast-food outlets comes from animals that were stunned before slaughter. They also point out that most of the meat exported from Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and France are from animals killed in the same way. The RSPCA is now campaigning for these governments to include the method of slaughter on the halal label. So far, the world's meat producers have resisted the call, knowing that if the RSPCA had its way, then the halal meat they are promoting would become questionable. Why don't they simply slaughter the animal? A survey in the United Kingdom showed that half a million animals are killed every day for the meat market, and suppliers find it quicker to gas the animal, rather than slaughter it.

Beyond the West, animals are indeed being slaughtered the correct way. But a recent survey in Malaysia revealed that not all the slaughter-houses employ Muslims. In Indonesia, the canned-food industry has been criticised for allowing traces of non-halal ingredients to be mixed with popular dishes, without any mention of this on the label. 

It is not the West and unscrupulous suppliers that we should watch out for; we should worry about our children, who don't really care to ask questions. Top chefs around the world are now discovering the large appetites of young Muslims, who nod their heads at the mention of the word halal but don't really care about what is being placed on the table before them. Halal food is gourmet food; it is no longer just a special menu that meets the requirements of a religion. It is part of a global franchise that serves the palates of millions of people.  

It is a trade first, with faith running a distant second. The appeal of halal food is rapidly diverging from its original purpose. It is becoming the razzmatazz of enthusiasts, regardless of faith. It is a romance for those who want to experiment without delving into authenticity. 

It is also fast becoming an exclusive club that is stretching beyond food to halal tourism, halal hotels, and now, halal advertisements. The word alone is on the verge of becoming an expensive commodity, marketed by shrewd businesspeople who want to tap into this new industry, taking advantage of the unwitting faithful.

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