The lowdown on halal certification

Like mosques, headscarves and face-veils, halal certification is seen by many as a sign that Muslims are changing the Australian way of life. Lately it’s been the subject of some debate, in the media and in politics. Why is halal such a hot topic?

 

What is halal?
01
8

Halal is the Arabic word for “lawful”. For Muslims, it refers to objects and actions that are permitted by Islamic law. The opposite of halal is haram, which means “forbidden”. Murder and theft are haram, for example.

However, the words halal and haram are also commonly used to designate whether or not particular food and beverages may be consumed by observant Muslims. The underlying rule is that those foods which have not been prohibited under Islamic law are assumed to be halal. The most noteworthy prohibitions in the Australian context are the consumption of pork and alcohol. However, some are more obscure. For example, cochineal extract (a red food extract mostly used in sweets and bakery items) is regarded as haram because it is derived from an insect.

Grain, dairy, fruit and vegetables are all halal by nature and do not require certification. However, sometimes these products will display the certification symbol anyway. This shows that it is clear of contamination by traces of prohibited product, or may come about because the company concerned has halal certification for their entire enterprise.

How does halal differ from kosher?
02
8

Muslim and Jewish dietary laws share many parallels, most obviously the prohibition on the consumption of pork. Locusts are another similarity. Given the history of locust plagues in the region where both religions originated, it’s perhaps unsurprising to find that these are the only insect regarded as both halal and kosher (although there are different opinions among both Muslims and Jews as to which species of locusts are acceptable). Halal and kosher slaughter practices are also similar, with the animal’s throat slit with a sharp blade and the blood drained. Both religious traditions emphasise that death should be as swift and painless as possible.

However, some animal rights groups have campaigned against both forms of slaughter because of the issue of pre-stunning. Australian regulations require animals to be stunned so that they are unconscious when slaughtered. However, a small number of abattoirs have been granted exemptions from this requirement in order to allow them to undertake religious slaughter – a practice the RSPCA is campaigning against. The vast majority of halal slaughter undertaken in Australia is done with the use of stunning.

Of course, there are also significant differences between halal and kosher. Kosher permits the consumption of alcohol while halal (unlike kosher) does not prohibit mixing meat and dairy products.

Another similarity between kosher and halal regulations is the strong opposition that both have attracted. Criticism, and some would say demonisation, of kosher food has taken place in Europe for centuries. Calls to boycott halal-certified goods bear many similarities to campaigns against kosher certification, with halal and kosher respectively described as the “Islamic tax” and “the Jewish tax” – the inference being that certification increases the cost of a service or good and forces some consumers to pay for a service that they do not personally require.

Advertisement
Why do food laws carry a special significance for Muslims?
03
8

Muslims hold a wide range of attitudes and beliefs regarding towards food regulations, and different schools of Islamic thought have established different sets of halal regulations – for example, some maintain that all seafood is halal while others believe that fish are the only halal seafood.

Following a halal diet in a Muslim majority society is relatively straightforward, since this is the default dietary option. In Australia, some Muslims find that following a strictly halal-regulated diet is a way of staying connected to their faith on a day-to-day basis in a society where they do not receive other such regular reminders, like the sound of the call to prayer from a local mosque.

Other Muslims may observe dietary restrictions because of deeply engrained cultural attitudes, rather than religious piety. Even some atheists of Muslim background continue to exclude pork from their dietary preferences out of a sense of personal distaste – similar to the feelings that might deter many Australian travellers from eating dog, rat or guinea pig meat when visiting locations where those are regarded as normal fare.

Why do manufacturers in Australia have products certified as halal?
04
8

Various Australian manufacturers and retailers who have obtained halal certification have stated that their decision to do so was taken on strictly commercial grounds in order to expand their market and obtain export deals. While halal certification is helpful for Australia’s Muslim population (604,000 according to the 2016 census, or about 2.6 per cent of the population), they are not the main consumer base for Australia’s halal-certified products, which are primarily intended for the export market, which is estimated to be worth $13 billion dollars a year.

Most Australian Muslims feel able to make their own judgement as to whether or not a particular product is halal, rather than relying on a halal certification symbol on the label.

Companies that have used halal certification range from small producers such as Byron Bay Cookies and Bega Cheese to leading brands such as Vegemite, Cadburys and Nestlé.

Advertisement
How are halal products certified in Australia?
05
8

A number of different bodies provide halal certification in Australia. Seyfi Seyit from the Islamic Council of Victoria (ICV) explains that “there are four major halal certification bodies: the Islamic Coordinating Council of Victoria (ICCV), Australian Halal Authority (AHA), Sichma (Supreme Islamic Council of Halal Meat in Australian) and Australian Federation of Islamic Councils (AFIC)”. There is no central regulation of halal certification for the domestic market – in theory, it can be undertaken by anyone. However, the export market for halal meat is overseen by both Australian government regulators and the halal regulators of the importing country.

In the case of goods such as dairy products and bakery items, halal certification involves an inspection of the premises to check that the goods are not cross-contaminated by contact with alcohol or pork products.

Halal certification of abattoirs requires a higher degree of oversight and is therefore more complicated and expensive. However, it also generates higher profits by opening the door to lucrative markets in the Asia and the Middle East.

The fees raised from halal certification have been an important source of funds for establishing community facilities. According to Seyfi Seyit, “most of the funds go back to the mosques in building projects, repairs, maintenance, youth programs and paying their staff. Sichma puts 100 per cent of funds back into the mosques in New South Wales. AFIC uses its funds to pay staff, administration and support various mosques around Australia. ICCV may by request support various community groups and sometimes overseas charity projects. AHA donates to selected charities like Human Appeal.”

Why is halal being discussed more and more? And why are some people so angry about it?
06
8

In Australia, concerns about halal certification have been raised by campaigners such as Kirralee Smith of Halal Choices and Mike Holt of Restore Australia. Leaflets distributed by Holt in 2015 alleged that halal certification was an “extortion racket” that funded terrorism. Smith made similar allegations on her Facebook page which campaigns for a boycott of brands that have obtained halal certification.

As the debate grew ever more heated, the head of one of Australia’s halal certification authorities lodged a case for defamation with the New South Wales Supreme Court, claiming that statements by various anti‐halal activists about halal certification had damaged his reputation. Mohamed El Mouelhy explained his decision to SBS News: “And me personally, my integrity is being questioned, and I don’t like that. I’m an honest man.” 

Halal certification chairman sues Q Society
The head of a Sydney-based halal certification body has launched legal action in the NSW Supreme Court against the anti-Muslim organisation, the Q Society.

While much of the debate over halal certification has played out over social media, the fight over halal has turned physical at times. In April 2015, police in Sydney broke up fights between anti-Sharia and anti-racism protesters outside Australia’s first halal food expo.

Protests at halal food expo turn violent
Police broke up fights between anti-sharia and anti-racism protesters on Sunday afternoon, outside Australia's first halal food expo in the western Sydney suburb of Fairfield.

Does halal certification make the products I buy more expensive?
07
8

Retailers obtain halal certification in order to increase sales and profits. While obtaining certification is an extra cost, that cost should in theory be compensated for by increased sales – especially exports. The companies concerned would not be forced to raise their prices as a result: The Australian Food and Grocery Council says that “the costs of certification are highly unlikely to influence product pricing, and so consumers do not end up paying any more for certified products”. Some retailers have stated that the higher volume of sales generated by halal certification has allowed them to provide lower prices to all customers. Keith Byrne from Byron Bay Cookies, for example – a company that faced strong criticism for its certification – has described halal certification as a low-cost investment similar to obtaining gluten-free or vegan certification and says it has helped them to keep their prices stable.

Does halal certification fund illegal activities?
08
8

A 2014 statement from the Australian Crime Commission noted that “the Australian Crime Commission is not aware of any direct links between the legitimate halal certification industry and money laundering or the financing of terrorist groups”. However, this statement did not reassure politicians such as Senators George Christensen, Jacqui Lambie and Cory Bernardi, with Bernardi successfully proposing a Senate Inquiry to examine the issue more closely. While the terms of reference for the Senate Inquiry into Third Party Certification of Food also mentioned kosher, organic and genetically modified foods, the vast majority of the submissions received by the inquiry related to halal certification and most media coverage has focused on that angle. 

In August this year, in response to the 2015 inquiry, the federal government flagged possible changes to the way Australian halal meat destined for overseas is certified.

No halal link to terror, inquiry told
The government's anti-money laundering watchdog Austrac has told a Senate inquiry there is no link between halal certification and terrorism financing.

Allegations have also been made regarding the circulation of forged certificates, as well as inflated fees paid to halal “gatekeepers” in overseas markets. However, these types of breaches occur across all types of commercial activity and do not arise from halal certification as such.

Given the rich food traditions of Muslim societies ranging from Morocco to Indonesia, food has been a prominent feature of community harmony events in the turbulence wake of events such as the events of September 11, 2001 and the Cronulla riots. President of Australian Muslim Voice Diana Abdel-Rahman says that during the month of Ramadan “we take the opportunity to hold large iftars (fast-breaking dinners) and invite the members of the public to join in our festivities. After fasting all day, no food or drink, we wait for the time when the sun sets to feast on a large array of food, all halal, so that the broader community can enjoy the food and company.” This has generally been considered an invaluable way to win friends and influence people, so veteran Muslim community leaders like Abdel-Rahman are perplexed to find that all of a sudden, offering the neighbours a kebab or a slice of baklava may only heighten their suspicions.

 

Shakira Hussein is a writer and researcher based at the National Centre for Excellence in Islamic Studies, University of Melbourne. Find her on twitter