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Halal’s quest to go mainstream

Packaged Halal food at the Union Square Whole Foods in New York. (Photo by Niharika Mandhana/CNS)

Yvonne Maffei buys her cheeses at Costco, her chicken from Fresh Farms, and her frozen snacks at Whole Foods.

“Muslims cant do one-stop-shopping,” said Maffei, 36, a Chicago-based Muslim convert who runs a food blog, myhalalkitchen.com. “We have to go to three different places to find the food that fits our dietary guidelines.”

Maffei is speaking of halal, an Arabic word which means “lawful” and refers, in this context, to food that is permitted under Islamic law. American Muslims like Maffei have long been disheartened by the lack of halal options in supermarkets and food-focused chain stores. While some attribute its slow mainstreaming to a lack of education about halal, others argue that the reason is a scattered Muslim population and even Islamophobia. But in the last few years these obstacles are being overcome as food manufacturers begin to seek halal certification and supermarkets like Shoprite, Pathmark and Walmart take note of American Muslims as a demographic worth catering to.

In August last year, Whole Foods made its debut in halal with four frozen entrees — chicken biryani, chicken tikka masala, lamb saag and lamb vindaloo manufactured by a Connecticut-based company, American Halal. Sold under the brand “Saffron Road” with a large stamp on its packaging that reads “Halal Certified,” these meals are now available in some Fairway stores, Mrs. Greens outlets and nearly 300 Whole Foods stores countrywide.

The term halal often conjures the image of a food cart serving gyros and chicken platters on the streets of New York. The true meaning of the concept is less widely understood. Islamic dietary guidelines exclude certain meats as “haram” or unlawful, such as pork and its byproducts, and prescribe a specific method called dabihah for slaughtering animals. In the case of other foods, ranging from cheese to chocolate, ingredients such as alcohol, certain kinds of enzymes and gelatin are prohibited.

With a Muslim population of 1.6 billion worldwide, the demand for food that meets these guidelines has grown exponentially. In Europe, large supermarket chains like Tesco and Carrefour have catered to this population by dedicating special aisles to halal fare.

In the United States, where estimates of the Muslim population vary from two to eight million, the halal industry has lagged behind its European counterpart. One reason, says Marcia Mogelonsky, a global food analyst at Mintel, a London-based research firm, is geography. Unlike Europe, where large Muslim populations are concentrated in relatively small countries, the United States is vast, with pockets of Muslims. France alone, for instance, which is smaller than Texas, has over six million Muslims. “There are, of course, thriving meat butchers in cities like Detroit and Dearborn, which have a high density of Muslims, but the demand for halal is not yet sufficiently pan-American,” said Mogelonsky.

Phil Lempert, an expert on marketing and consumer behavior who founded the website supermarketguru.com and writes for the weekly trade magazine Supermarket News, said the real problem is that people just don’t know what halal is. The key to breaking halal out of its niche and tapping the U.S. food market, he added, is to target both Muslims and non-Muslims as potential consumers. “Humane is the next big trend in the food industry,” predicted Lempert, pointing out that halal would, if correctly marketed, find favor with a generation of consumers who are interested in where their food comes from, how it is made, and how animals are being treated.

While food manufacturers in the halal business are beginning to market their products to American consumers as a whole, their core customer base remains American Muslim.  Sixteen percent of the $100 billion market for kosher food (prepared according to similar dietary guidelines prescribed for Jews) is made up of Muslims, says a Mintel study, and a 2002 Cornell University study shows that a majority of the Muslims in America are young, well educated and affluent.

“The Muslim consumer in America has been ignored for very long,” said Adnan Durrani, the Chief Halal Officer of American Halal Company. “There is so much pent-up demand.”

Certification, many say, is the key to tapping consumers, Muslim or otherwise. The Islamic Food and Nutrition Council of America (IFANCA), a not-for-profit that certifies products and factories as halal, has been at the forefront of this endeavor. The organization has experienced an 80 percent growth in certification in U.S. and global markets since 2005.

Cabot Cheese, a Vermont-based dairy cooperative, got its IFANCA certification seven years ago. “We are still receiving numerous thank-you notes and calls from consumers who are pleased to the know that our cheddar is halal certified,” said Roberta MacDonald, the cooperatives senior vice president of marketing. Their certification, they have found, attracts not only Muslim consumers but also those who see the certification as “a good housekeeping seal of approval.”

Most supermarkets in America however still host only a handful of halal-certified products, found Syed Rasheeduddin Ahmed, a food scientist and author of the book “A Comprehensive List of Halal Food Products in U.S. Supermarkets” who founded the Muslim Consumer Group in 2003. He believes that after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, manufactures are afraid to align themselves to “anything Islamic.”

“They fear a consumer backlash,” said Ahmed. “They don’t want to alienate the majority of their consumers to cater to a minority.”

His fears are not completely unfounded. Islamophobia has been at the heart of several recent controversies in Europe surrounding halal. In a brouhaha in early 2010, fast-food chain Quick came under fire from consumers for its decision to remove bacon burgers and replace them with a halal option.

“Politics is always tied up with matters of food,” said Mogelonsky of Mintel. “But it all boils down to economics. If there is a big enough market, no retailer will be able to say no for too long.”

Email: nsm2127@columbia.edu

April 3, 2011