JUST before the beginning of Ramadan, the month-long Muslim fast which ends this weekend, an unusual advertisement appeared on French television. Panzani, a pasta-maker, was touting its Zakia line of halal ready-meals. In a secular nation it seemed like “a little revolution”, as Le Parisien, a newspaper, put it. The French can presumably take it in their stride. The trade in halal food is growing fast, and is likely to continue to do so.
Big food producers have long catered to Muslims, a market worth some $630 billion globally according to KasehDia, a consulting company that specialises in the trade. Nestlé has produced halal goods since the 1980s; 75 of its 456 factories now have a halal certification. But only recently have big European shops followed suit. Carrefour, the world’s second-largest retailer, launched a new range of products just in time for Ramadan. Casino, a French supermarket chain, has a halal line, and British outfits Tesco and Sainsbury’s carry halal products. KFC, an American fast-food chain, is conducting a trial of halal food in eight of its British restaurants. All its French ones are already halal certified.
The main reason for growth is demographic. Although many European countries do not tally Muslims or any other religious group (estimates in France range from 4m to 7m) it is clear that Muslim populations have grown quickly as a result of immigration and higher birth rates. Many of the people who sought asylum in Western Europe in the first half of this decade were Muslims from Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia. Mohammed, Muhammad and Mohammad were all among the 100 most popular baby boys’ names in England and Wales last year.
Although Muslims are disproportionately poor, they spend plenty of money on food. Islam is associated with a strong tradition of communal feasting. Antoine Bonnel, who runs the Paris Halal Expo, reckons that the average French Muslim spends a quarter of his or her income on food, compared with 12-14% for non-Muslims.
Nearly a third of the money goes on meat. That demand, which contrasts with a drop in meat-eating among health-conscious Christians and godless folk, has helped transform the global livestock market. The slaughtering of all lamb and goat meat in Australia for export is now done in accordance with halal custom, which involves killing animals with a single cut and draining their blood. A tenth of Australia’s total meat exports, worth about $570m a year, is halal. Brazil dominates the global market with a 54% share of exported halal meat, according to KasehDia.
As the halal market grows, two problems are emerging. The first is the lack of broad standards. Halal regulations vary widely both between countries and within them. In Australia, all slaughter for halal meat is regulated by the government. In France, by contrast, there are over 50 certification bodies, all in competition with one another. Mr Bonnel describes it as “a huge nightmare” that can lead to charges of impurity. The Malaysian government’s Halal Industry Development Corporation has tried to create a global standard, with little success so far.
The second problem is squeamishness among non-Muslims. Animals slaughtered according to halal custom are supposed to be alive when their throats are cut, a practice that animal-rights groups condemn. Switzerland, Norway, Iceland and Sweden forbid it outright. Some governments have reached a compromise that allows for animals to be partly stunned before being killed. But not all Muslims are happy with this. The halal market may be buoyant, but the waters are choppy.