Halal: Is It Here Yet?
Did you know that all the major restaurant chains in Singapore are halal certified? And did you also know that the Muslim population in Singapore is approximately the same as that of Muslims in Metro Chicago? Many halal products being shipped to Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia are supplied by US manufacturers. Whether it is French fries, doughnuts, ice-cream or the sauces in your favorite restaurant dish, mainstream American food service manufacturers have halal certified products. Yes, they are suppliers to chains such as Popeyes®, KFC®, McDonald’s®….overseas.
There’s little demand for halal in the US, contends the food industry.
“Usually if I want to eat meat, I go to a halal place and for fish, or other things, I go to regular restaurants,” says Lailah Zee, a halal consumer, via www.facebook.com/halalconsumer. “It would be nice to have a choice everywhere.” The handful of restaurants that claim to serve halal in the US, are not certified and could have both halal and non-halal products on sale.
Just as the food service industry caters to restaurants, it also serves airlines, hospitals, correctional facilities and more. For halal products to become mainstream first you have to increase awareness about it, says Don Tymchuck, president of Med-Diet, Inc. His company works with niche food manufactures as a distributor of their halal, sugar-free and gluten-free products.
France’s Quick, a fast food chain, knows the importance of adapting to change. Two years ago, it converted 22 of its restaurants to halal-only. Pork products didn’t sell much at certain Quick locations, fish products sold best, and come Ramadan, sales slumped during the day and increased in the evening after Iftaar. Recognizing that demand was tied to the religious observances of its sizable Muslim customer base, Quick seized a business opportunity and its restaurants in those select locations went halal. France was also the first western nation to advertise a halal product on TV.
“Generally, restaurant menus are driven by consumer demand,” says Annika Stensson, a National Restaurant Association spokesperson. “If more consumers request halal products, chances are that more restaurants would serve them. Availability and cost are also factors, of course, like with any product.”
Leila Ali is skeptical. “Here in the States, it won’t work. The Arab community in France is bigger and more concentrated than here in Chicago, for example. I see myself asking for halal in a downtown restaurant and the response would be ‘What’s that?’ I don’t think people will ask for halal in regular places anytime soon.”
Halal isn’t very common in many US mainstream restaurants, yet. “If there is a relatively significant movement to adopt halal in America, it is in places where it is mandatory to offer food in keeping with religious observances. Places like hospitals, schools, correctional facilities and universities. In addition, travelers should ask for halal at airport kiosks, and destination hotels and restaurants to make them aware of the need,” says Mr. Tymchuck.
Nonetheless, here too, the relationship between demand and supply is clear. University of Michigan, for instance, recognizes the importance of offering halal meals. Many of its students are from Dearborn, Michigan home to the largest population of Arab-American Muslims and hundreds of halal restaurants and stores.
To have a successful program, “get students who want halal involved in the process. That will lead to conversations with vendors. (We) went on tours of halal based restaurants in Dearborn. Further, Muslim students spent a summer working in our kitchen and helped develop recipes. It was a very rewarding experience for the students and for us,” says Ms. Kathyrn Whiteside, R.D., Menu Systems & Nutrition Information Residential Dining Services, University of Michigan. She recalls an incident when a student actually called his mother from the campus dining hall kitchen to verify seasonings for a lentil soup. “We really wanted to get the seasoning and recipes correct,” she laughs.
The result of all this engagement at University of Michigan is extensive halal availability, including at retail micro-restaurants / convenience stores in residential halls. “We offer menu options for religious observances of all faiths and try to be as fair as possible. The Muslim Students Association (MSA) has a strong presence on campus so it helps us to identify them,” says Ms. Whiteside.
Tufts University, in contrast, offers a limited menu. Halal is meat baked with salt and pepper, offered three times a week. Special requests are accepted for hotdogs and hamburgers. While a conservative estimate of Muslims on campus is a few dozen, only twelve students have asked for halal and utilize the service.
“We react to customer needs, there haven’t been requests,” says Julie Lampie, RD, Nutrition and Marketing Specialist at Tufts.” Could that be because of a rather simple menu? Ms. Lampie agrees there is room for more dialogue with the students. Tufts Dining Services’ capacity is stretched to the limit but, yes, perhaps if they were to learn more about students’ needs, the halal offerings would reflect that better, says Ms. Lampie.
Rosemont, IL based US Foods (www.usfoods.com), a leading distributor of more than 350,000 food products, does carry halal products. US Foods is a link between manufacturers of food products and over 250,000 restaurants and cafeteria’s in hospitals, hotels, government and educational institutions. Gordon Foods Service®, Sysco® and other distributors also carry halal foods.
“US Foods carries a wide range of products to serve its diverse base of customers, including halal products. Consumers looking for specialty products should approach their local restaurant associations and favorite restaurants with information on how the restaurants and its diners can benefit from adding halal products to menus,” said Stacie Sopinka, senior director, Product Development and Innovation, US Foods.
On that note, here’s one final thought. The next time you are there, would you ask for halal at your favorite restaurant, ice cream shoppe, fast food chain, campus dining service? Is it time for halal consumers to be pro-active?
Photos Source: University of Michigan
About the Writer: Naazish YarKhan is Director, Content Strategy at IFANCA and contributing writer for numerous media internationally including NPR, Aramco World magazine, Huffington Post and Common Ground News Service.