Speaking at last week’s World Halal Forum in Kuala Lumpur, Washington, DC-based Lisa Mabe, founder of Hewar Social Communications and recognised expert in the fields of multicultural marketing and speciality foods, said that halal brands have the ability not only to reach Muslim consumers but also those who don’t traditionally or culturally reach for Sharia-compliant products.
While acknowledging that the average non-Muslim consumer would not naturally care—or even necessarily know—about halal food, Mabe stresses that when packaged correctly, such products could attract a new line of consumer.
“Whether it’s in the United States, the UK or elsewhere in a Muslim-minority country, a lot of people have no clue about what halal is,” she explains after the conference.
“But I must say it is pleasantly surprising to see how there is an increasing number of conscious consumers—ones in the foodie category, as it were—who do know what halal is and who actively purchase halal food because they see it as being higher quality, purer and more wholesome, much the same as why non-Jewish consumers will consume kosher products.”
Sending the right message
To market such ranges, she says, manufacturers must play up their brand attributes through their messaging and packaging to focus on their natural and even exotic properties.
According to Mabe, many communities around the United States are beginning to visit local halal butchers for their meat because they know where it’s coming from.
“They know he’s local, they understand he has a farm, so they trust him,” she explains. “And they think of it as a better alternative to meat they can buy from a supermarket that is often super-processed. Consumers understand halal when it is done right, especially when it comes to the humane aspect of protein or livestock; if done correctly, halal is a much more humane way to slaughter an animal.”
This, however, brings up the issue of certification, which has been a perennial issue for halal producers. There is still no global—or even cross-regional—standard for halal production, and according to Mabe, the industry still has a long way to go.
“It needs to organise, co-operate and co-ordinate a lot more within itself. There’s the dilemma of each country having all sorts of different scenarios of who certifies products as halal. There is a lot of discrepancy between different certification bodies over what is halal and what isn’t.”
Malaysia taking leadership
Malaysia stands out as one of the few countries with a standardised structure and one governing body that is managed by the government, an approach that Mabe advocates. But elsewhere it differs dramatically with some certification bodies requiring livestock to be stunned before slaughter, for example, whereas others outlaw this practice. Malaysia, however, is not alone in devising a strong and co-ordinated approach to certification, and its single-tier policy is now being copied elsewhere—and in some cases far from Southeast Asia.
“Malaysia is currently known as the Mecca of halal products and the halal industry, to borrow an Islamic term, and there are other countries that see themselves as leaders and are looking to come to the fore—even small Brunei,” adds Mabe.
“What’s more, there is some development going on with the UK, which is seeking to take a leadership role among the Muslim populations of Britain, Germany and France. I’ve learnt of a halal business park being built in Britain, much like similar parks that are being developed in Asia, and that one will focus on accommodating the needs of the growing Muslim populations of Europe. So there is a bunch of different nations rising up to take leadership of this field.”
Limiting the negatives
She acknowledges that there will always be some people who have a negative impression of this development, but says once again it all boils down to the correct approach to labelling in these non-Muslim-majority countries.
“There are some people who may have a negative impression of [this growth in halal food]; perhaps they have interpreted it as Sharia Law coming into their country, and found it intimidating. But at the end of the day, halal is just another choice in the marketplace, much the same as kosher is a choice. If you don’t want to consume it, you don’t have to.
“Therefore, we try to encourage food brands, no matter what type of food they have, to label their products properly so consumers can make an educated choice. Certainly, if someone has a stance where they do not want to consume halal food, they should be able to identify what is halal. But for the most part, consumers are largely unaware of what it is.”
Have your say: Do you think that more halal food companies can break into the West? And what are your views on certification? Let us know in the comments below.