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Food fraud: The educated consumer is the best means to advance progress in halal standards
Photo: Members of the Public Health Surveillance Agency collect sausages to analyse in their laboratory, at a supermarket in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, March 20, 2017. REUTERS/Ricardo Moraes
Brazil’s current investigations into alleged sanitary fraud and corruption in the nation’s meatpacking industry throws a spotlight on the immediate actions to be undertaken to protect the certified halal food and beverage industry, whose global value is estimated at $415 billion in 2015. While the world blocks or checks Brazilian imports for rotten meat, salmonella, and falsified documentation, there is recollection of other incidents of fraud that shook the confidence of halal consumers.
BRAZIL MEAT SCANDAL
The implication of two specific companies in Brazil’s “Operation Weak Flesh”—BRF, the world’s largest poultry exporter and JBS, the global leader in beef exports—is pertinent to the halal sector as both are big halal exporters. BRF controls around 45 percent of the poultry market in Saudi Arabia, UAE, Kuwait, Qatar and Oman, and its new standalone halal food unit, One Foods Holdings, is eyeing expansion into Asian halal markets. For Brazil’s $5.5 billion beef export sector, Egypt was the country’s second biggest buyer by volume last year, behind Hong Kong, and Saudi Arabia was ninth.
U.S.-based Midamar Corp., which has long been established as a major exporter and domestic supplier of meat and poultry, suffered when it was determined in 2014 that documentation and records of sources were not accurately labeled on products sold to Malaysia and Indonesia. It involved 22 shipments valued at $740,000, which identified an approved Omaha, Nebraska slaughterhouse as the source, but in fact the products came from a Minnesota slaughterhouse that had not secured approval as a halal operation in accordance with Malaysian and Indonesian standards.
In 2016, the 43-year old company was assigned heavy fines, and prison and permanent bans from industry participation for two of the primary owners, including its founder. Its halal certifying agency, Islamic Services of America was also fined. The U.S. Department of Agriculture protected the jobs of the employees by allowing the company to continue, but under strict oversight by independent agencies and mandatory training for employees in protocols, recordkeeping, and auditing procedures. At this time, Midamar Corp. is in compliance and has a U.S. consent decree that states that any lapse will result in strict enforcement of closure.
HORSE MEAT SCANDAL
In several European nations, outrage broke out in 2013 when beef products were found to be mixed with horse meat at fast food restaurant Burger King and some major grocery chains, and testing revealed pig DNA.
In the same year in the UK, halal chicken sausages and minced beef sold to school children were contaminated with pork DNA. Vulnerabilities in the traceability of the food chain were recognized and measures sought to rectify gaps in the supply chain, along with incarceration for corrupt suppliers.
Photo: Butcher Sean Basey works behind a "no horsemeat" sign at Bates Butchers in Market Harborough, central England, February 20, 2013. REUTERS/Darren Staples
China has struggled with food fraud, too, and government officials are set to crack down on mislabeled meat, not just for the 22 million Chinese Muslims, but for all consumers. With intention to spark the Silk Road “One Belt, One Road” initiative, building infrastructure and promoting travel and trade, incidents of pork contamination in halal products must be addressed.
In 2013, an amazing 22 tons of pork were sold as halal-certified beef. That critically damaged Muslims’ perceptions of China’s credibility as an honorable halal trade provider. However, the province of Gansu has trade agreements with Turkey and Kazakhstan to provide halal food products, and Wuzhong Halal Industrial Park in Ningxia, in which the area has 50 percent Muslim residents, opened over 200 companies. It has China’s first halal certification center and has 100 companies certified in accordance with Saudi Arabia, Malaysia and Egyptian standards.
That sires the question: why can an officially atheist China move forward with a functional set of standards while many other nations cannot seem to find agreement on them?
While being stymied in conjecture over if the “right way” is vertical or horizontal, machine or hand slaughtered, individually pronouncing the name of Allah or using a loud speaker, and numerous tripping points have caused a prolonged delay in progress, secular or non-Islamic businesses are getting the work done and gaining market share .
Some certifiers may be no more than people who claim to be Muslim and are happy to receive payment for their unsubstantiated declaration that products are halal. Others may be truly qualified and are outsourced on behalf of more thorough certifying entities that back up their investigations with DNA testing, but typically the end consumer just wants to eat, without questioning too much in most cases how halal is halal enough.
Now, we are seeing the dawn of an even more ethically-conscious consumer.
A large number of younger demographic Muslims seek an eco-conscious supply of products that take into consideration how animals have been treated prior to slaughter, what comprises their feed, as well as the animal’s perspective when its life is about to be ended and it becomes permissible food. This can be resolved via a transparent and tiered set of standards. In the end, the market will dictate how halal standards will be resolved.
The necessary means to advance is for the issues to be discussed, and certifiers agree to a tiered standards system of certification that provides transparency to each companies’ process via their websites and documentation.
Governments continue to have a clear and important role in establishing legislation and enforcement under consumer protection provisions, but some authorities, such as the U.S. Trade Representative (pdf), still face difficulties in exporting halal products because of differences in how countries regulate the parts of the halal value chain, from slaughtering, handling and transportation, to labeling, and certification. In the U.S., only nine states have halal laws primarily because many consumers do not know about the concept of halal, and Muslim consumers are shy to make enquiries, especially if the climate is not welcoming of Muslims or Islam.
EMPOWER THE CONSUMER
Most consumers do not have knowledge of the technologies used to produce commercial items. Certification agencies are in the position to promote research and inform the public to make them aware not just about halal but also about what is tayyib or healthy.
Increasingly, as consumers become educated and more vigilant, their enquiries have the power to reform companies’ formulations, and this is where hope lies. An educated consumer is the best means to advance the progress in halal standards, and the last layer in halal integrity comes in the form of accreditation.
Progress is being made in recognition that is this last layer of oversight that preserves the integrity of the halal industries. Several accreditation agencies that have successfully become the leaders may in fact be the only agencies the world needs, and are the guardians of halal.
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