Halal Is Mainstream
In the past few years, the availability of halal products in mainstream venues has seemed to grow significantly.
Taking Chicago as an example, Muslim consumers have a plethora of choices: the traditional zabiha butchers available in clusters around the city, as well as chains such as a local grocery store touting a separate halal meat section with beef sausages, steaks, and chuck roasts. A French bistro even unveiled a specialty halal, alcohol-free menu with filet mignon, ribeye steaks, and classic béarnaise sauces in the past year. Around the nation, a halal chicken and beef supplier has already broken into huge superstore chain freezer sections. New York vendors proudly sell gyros from halal carts that are popular with all busy lunch-goers, not just customers sticking to religious tenets.
The concept isn’t limited to meat, either. There are halal alternatives for foods such as gummy bears, vitamins, and vanilla extract which can all normally contain pork or alcohol, two of the “forbidden ingredients” in Islam.
“We have come a long way. People from my generation, who came here back in the 70s, used to go to farms to slaughter their own goats and cows. They don’t have to do that anymore,” reflects Dr. Muhammad Munir Chaudry, president of the Islamic Food and Nutrition Council of America (IFANCA®).
The biggest boon seems to be the popularity of Saffron Road at Whole Foods groceries. The high-end retailer uses the array of IFANCA halal-certified frozen entrees—ranging from chicken biryani and samosas to pad Thai and Moroccan lamb stew—as the center of its Ramadan advertisement.
The advent of availability of halal options isn’t just retailers wanting to appeal to diversity; it’s also a sound business decision.
“There’s [over] one billion Muslims in the world,” explains Errol Schweizer, executive global grocery coordinator for Whole Foods. “It’s fun to be one of the firsts to market to them. It’s something we took really seriously.”
Adnan Durrani, founder and chief executive officer of the American Halal Co. Inc., which owns Saffron Road, started the company because he saw a gap that he could fill. “We started with the premise that the American-Muslim community is a very vibrant, affluent, educated community.” He continues, “It has dynamic demographics and traits to it that are different from any Muslim community in the world.”
Durrani was in the food business long before creating the brand Saffron Road, and he used the same principles that attracted him to the niche. He wanted to reach out to the potential two hundred billion dollar a year in buying power that he saw, and he wanted to appeal to discerning consumers. His plan was to entice educated millennials who were looking for high standards in cuisine that also just happened to be Islamically compliant.
“A lot of the discipline I got for social responsibility was from my Jewish friends; they were promoting businesses that were giving back to the community and giving back to society,” he adds. “If we were going to promote and build a halal enterprise, it needed to be socially responsible and be dedicated to ethical consumerism.”
That attention to making products organic, antibiotic-free, and hormone-free drew Whole Foods, states Schweizer, because the chain only markets items that follow its ethical outlines.
The high quality standards that Cabot Creamery puts into its cheeses and dairy is also what prompted both Cabot and IFANCA to pursue certifying items as halal.
Nate Formalarie, brand communications manager for Cabot, explains that the company didn’t actually have to change any of its practices. The farmers were already using non-animal based rennet, or enzymes, for agesold cheese recipes, so the processes IFANCA was seeking were inherent to the standards Cabot was previously following.
Plus, since the company is a cooperative of farmers, it wanted to broaden its base as much as possible to give back profits to them. “We wanted to be available to the widest group of consumers as possible,” he continues. “We’re wanting to be inclusive of all.”
However, as much progress as halal foods have made toward being in the mainstream, there’s still a ways to go to make items readily available.
Saqib Shafi, who runs the Muslim Eater website, led what can be seen as a revolutionary moment when he posted a listing of restaurants that use beef from a supplier of halal beef. This opened up the doors for those who couldn’t before enjoy certain high-end venues.
Some restaurants embraced the idea of catering to the Muslim population. “The term [halal] is now more popular,” Shafi says. “The chefs themselves have heard of it in training, and now they have this realistic diner that’s coming in. It’s something exciting for chefs to take on, a challenge for them culinarily.”
Others didn’t want to take the extra step to guarantee specific meat, since they bring in cuts from various farms. “They don’t want to jump into it; it’s just a logistical concern,” Shafi concedes.
However, Shafi would like to see more retailers taking on providing items to all its customers. “The goal and desire all of us [Muslims] have is that you can walk into a [supermarket] anywhere in the country and you can get a halal product,” he expands. This especially appeals to him because he promotes home cooking over eating out, and the ease of heading to a corner store rather than a specialized butcher would make it easier, for novice cooks especially, to create their own meals.
Dr. Chaudry agrees that it’s heartening to see the market expanding, but there’s still a ways to go. Although it’s slowly and gradually changing, especially in the last decade, Muslim-focused food in the United States is still seen as an export business, he expounds.
Ideally, Dr. Chaudry would like to see a national logo so that consumers can easily identify items that are made for them. While IFANCA provides certification to companies and products, there’s no standardized system yet.
“We still treat grocery stores as libraries; we stand around reading labels,” he laments. “If the average American takes 30 minutes to [buy] groceries, Muslim families take two hours. That will change once a logo is standard.”
There are also outstanding questions a standardization can answer, such as what producers mean when they say meat is zabiha: hand-slaughtered versus machine-slaughtered, if a Muslim is in charge of the butchering, etc.
Much of this will only happen, however, if customers take it into their own hands to stipulate what they want. “Consumers are not really forceful in demanding halal,” Dr. Chaudry says. “It’s changing, but it’s not changing fast enough for the industry to realize that there are seven, eight million of us [Muslims] that exist.”
Grocery stores, for example, want to know what their customer base is. If they’re in a neighborhood with a large Hispanic population, they will make an effort to provide fare that will be appealing. The same goes if Muslims make it clear they want to buy specialty items at their local stores. “If a supermarket realizes they are next to a big Islamic center and they have hundreds of people coming out of a mosque on a Friday and going right into the grocery store, they will carry more [halal] products,” Dr. Chaudry advises. “It’s up to us to let those stores know, ‘you’re not carrying such and such products.’ Overall, Muslims are not confronting the issue.”
Any company has customer service agents ready to handle these kinds of requests, he continues. If a shop receives enough calls and emails, those concerns will move through the chains to become an actuality. “You have to be an active consumer. Nobody is going to do that on your behalf,” he adds.
While some retailers may show hesitancy, most are willing to do the research if it means bringing in business.
Vendors are also savvier these days on how to deal with any potential issues. They have departments dedicated solely to public relations and social media. Durrani learned from others’ mistakes that not being transparent will make customers suspicious. When Saffron Road launched in 2011, Durrani went into it prepared to combat anyone who could raise ire. He gave his army of bloggers and Tweeters what they needed: the facts. Plus, they had the backing of others who also enjoyed their meals.
“A lot of non-Muslims are buying our products for the adventure,” he boasts. Additionally, if they have practicing friends they want to invite to break the fast during Ramadan, it gives them a place to begin when searching for a meal.
And while halal doesn’t necessarily correlate to organic or better quality, those concepts can go hand-in-hand if desired. “Both in halal and kosher, you may have companies that violate the high standards,” Durrani explains. “We set very high standards and very high transparency.”
He also fully believes that halal should mean expecting excellence. “It should be the purest and the most humane standard,” he says.
Nadia Malik holds a degree in journalism and is a former reporter for a Chicago-area newspaper. She has written for websites and publications and has also worked for several non-profit organizations.