Regulations and Compliance

Int’l Halal Accreditation Forum seeks greater inclusivity, raises concerns on industry practices

| 05 April, 2017 | Interview
Emmy Abdul Alim
Int’l Halal Accreditation Forum seeks greater inclusivity, raises concerns on industry practices
Photo: International Halal Accreditation Forum (IHAF) secretary-general Mohammed Saleh Badri speaking at the Global Islamic Economy Summit (GIES) 2016 in October in Dubai, UAE.

The year-old International Halal Accreditation Forum (IHAF) now counts 20 members from 23 countries and its presence this week at a global accreditation meeting ensures valuable face time with more than 50 other states that can help the Dubai-headquartered IHAF expand its base to achieve its global remit.

On March 31, the International Laboratory Accreditation Cooperation (ILAC) and the International Accreditation Forum (IAF) started their annual week-long mid-term meetings in Frankfurt. While not formally included in the agenda, IHAF is an attendee, its Secretary-General Mohammed Saleh Badri told Salaam Gateway.

IHAF has the advantage of opening its pitch by stressing its credibility by association—most of its 20 members are part of one or both ILAC and IAF—and its organisational structure, relative to its size and level of maturity, mirrors that of the two global bodies.

At some point, the conversation with other accreditation bodies must highlight the organisation’s differentiator: the Shariah Advisory Committee. IHAF’s insistent narrative on this is that while halal is a religious obligation for Muslims, it is fundamentally a process that is grounded in science.

How is IHAF new for the halal industry?

IHAF is a first-of-its-kind organisation both in the Islamic economy and in the wider accreditation ecosystem, for two key reasons:

1. For the halal industry: The current halal ecosystem is made up of various accreditation bodies and conformity assessment bodies that work in silos or have minimal engagement with one another. IHAF gathers these accreditation bodies from Islamic and non-Islamic countries to harmonise standards, practices, and procedures related to halal accreditation and conformity assessments.

2. For the wider accreditation ecosystem: IHAF takes the halal conversation to the world beyond the core Islamic economy and brings non-Islamic accreditation bodies (and other interested parties) to the halal table. For example, most of IHAF's members are also part of international accreditation bodies ILAC and IAF, which currently do not have a recognition system for halal. IHAF brings halal to their attention. 

What IHAF doesn’t do: 1. It does not draft or issue new halal standards. 2. It does not monitor accreditation bodies. 3. It does not monitor certification bodies, but works towards harmonising the practices of member accreditation bodies that do.

Badri points out that there is an imbalance and non-inclusivity in the way the halal industry has been approaching accreditation. “Up to now, Western organisations have claimed that they have done a lot of studies and research on halal but they have not involved the decision-makers from religious groups. Each doesn’t speak the other’s language and it’s like they’re talking in different languages.”

A division such as this echoes the wider frustrations of the different stakeholders in the halal industry, where market players shoulder most of the economic risks, technologists contend with complex science, and yet too often, religious scholars and groups are not included to understand the others’ constraints.

BRIDGE

While it does not set out to be the all-inclusive multi-sector platform for the world’s complex halal ecosystem, Badri says that IHAF bridges two key parties. “IHAF has members from all over the world, Muslims and non-Muslims, and they can sit together to discuss and agree on halal issues in terms of how to verify the products.”

In the halal industry today, standards-setters and certifiers based in Islamic countries have the upper hand as gatekeepers of a substantial majority of the world’s Muslims who spend around $1.1 trillion on food, an estimated 35 percent of which is halal-certified.

But while the 57-country Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) is home to 80 percent of the world’s Muslims, almost 80 percent of their food imports come from non-Islamic trading partners. Badri’s point is that exclusion of non-Islamic countries from the halal oversight process is not practical.

“From the beginning, we wanted to attract the big players for halal, and particularly the countries that are producing halal to assure the source of halal products are controlled and verified as per our agreed standards and practices,” he says.

IHAF’s founding members include accreditation bodies from the big food exporters to OIC countries—U.S., Australia, New Zealand—as well as smaller but influential OIC trading partners—the United Kingdom and Spain. Six months after IHAF’s launch in May last year, 10 more bodies signed on, including those from the top three food exporters to the OIC—Brazil, India, and Argentina. As it stands, there are more non-Islamic countries—13 versus 10.

Badri refers to the recent Brazil food fraud scandal as a good example of the need for an organisation such as IHAF. “I don’t think the way it is done now (by halal certifiers and regulators) is accurate. They travel to Brazil once or twice a year at maximum to check on the compliance of food processing plants. If you have somebody in Brazil who knows everything and who is part of our organisation then we can have eyes and ears on the ground. It is more accurate and comprehensive, cheaper, and output is more reliable.”

To reach this point, accreditation bodies must agree to recognise one another’s oversight processes, what the industry calls a mutual recognition arrangement (MRA). IHAF members have only just started this dialogue but Badri believes MRAs are not far off.

“In the very near future what will happen is that if we have any case in any country that is our member, we should hear about it and address it immediately before the situation escalates. This is one of the purposes of creating IHAF.”

MUSLIM-OWNED, SMIIC

When news broke in January 2016 that Dubai was establishing what it was then calling the International Forum for Halal Certification Bodies, there were rumblings in the industry about a clash with the Standards and Metrology Institute for the Islamic Countries (SMIIC).

Established in 2010, SMIIC describes itself as a “mechanism for harmonisation of standards among the OIC countries” and says that it shall “establish certification and accreditation schemes”. SMIIC, which has 33 OIC members, allows non-OIC states to participate as observers and there are currently three: Bosnia & Herzegovina, Thailand, and Turkish Cypriot.

At the ceremony in Dubai to kickstart the freshly-named International Halal Accreditation Forum, the Emirates Authority for Standardisation and Metrology (ESMA), an IHAF founding member, said: “IHAF’s primary objective is to build and maintain confidence in products carrying halal certification and halal marks worldwide through harmonising conformity assessment practices in the domain. IHAF will also help ratify multilateral recognition agreements between the members.”

Badri says that IHAF and SMIIC have different roles. “SMIIC’s job is to create and issue standards and we are the body that makes sure people are working to those standards. In the end, we complement each other. We are trying to work with SMIIC standards, which are meant to represent all Islamic countries, as our base.”

But he admits there is still confusion. “Hopefully we’ll reach a point this year where everyone sees each other’s roles, that there are no overlaps.”

The sentiment is not new for the halal industry stakeholder. An International Organization for Standardization (ISO) proposal for a Technical Committee on Halal was rejected at its voting session in January 2016. The wider thinking behind the rejection was that duplicative work and individual approaches to halal standards under different platforms should be avoided, as SMIIC’s efforts representing Islamic countries were duly recognised.

Within IHAF, says Badri, there is a committee responsible for harmonising standards. “We have UAE standards, we have SMIIC standards, we have Malaysian standards etc. Our Technical Affairs committee is to come to an agreement as to which standards IHAF members will follow and how we want to coordinate with the standardisation bodies to come up with the one unified standard that everyone will accept.”

“Hopefully within this year we can have an agreeable standard, not necessarily in detail but the overall aspect of the standards, maybe those details that are common between all Muslims. As for the differences, they could come later for discussions and agreement,” says Badri.

He is quick to quell any disquiet that IHAF members will bow to Dubai’s or UAE’s wishes and says that all members have a voice. “They have a choice. It’s not that what UAE says is the one. No. We can contribute, we can say yes, we can say no, we can agree with others. This process will give members ownership of IHAF. This has become the big thing that is making people trust us.”

MISSING KEY MEMBERS

Yet, there is a gaping hole in IHAF’s membership list where accreditation bodies from key Islamic economies should be. “We have already invited Malaysia and Turkey to come as observers as a first stage. They don’t need to commit but they can join us at this point and listen to the other countries’ opinions on the practices.”

Other big economies are also in IHAF’s sights. “I met the Germans myself and they are very keen. They accept IHAF as a concept but they want to make sure there is no conflict with laws in the European Union, especially laws for discrimination. We’ve discussed these with the UK, Spain, and Italy and they are comfortable being members. Germany and France are thinking about it and consulting with the other EU states in IHAF.”

There is a relatively fresh EU context that could possibly explain Germany’s and France’s hesitation. Halal standards came to the agenda of the European Committee for Standardization (CEN) in 2015 and the technical committee was disbanded. According to the Codex Alimentarius Commission, the attempt failed due to the fact that Islamic fiqh issues may create challenges while deciding on the critical issues in the technical process.

The French will remember how CEN’s plan received intense backlash from angry local Muslim communities who “forcefully denounced” its proposal, saying: “No standards for halal procedures used by the Muslim community may be owned by a non-Muslim organisation.”

Treading conservatively sounds like a prudent strategy to avoid inflaming western Europe’s biggest Muslim populations living in Germany and France. For IHAF, its stance to use SMIIC standards has, to date, side-stepped this sensitive issue, as is the fact that the organisation is ‘owned’ by a Muslim country.

IHAF Member Country(ies) Region ILAC member IAF member
American Association for Laboratory Accreditation (A2LA-USA) USA Nth America Y Y
Dubai Municipality and Dubai Accreditation Centrer (DAC-UAE) UAE GCC Y Y
Egyptian Accreditation Council (EGAC) Egypt MENA Y Y
Entidad Nacional de Acreditacion (ENAS-Spain) Spain Europe Y Y
GCC Accreditation Center (GAC-GCC) KSA GCC Y Y
UAE
Qatar
Oman
Bahrain
Kuwait
Yemen
Joint Accreditation System of Australia and New Zealand (JAS-ANZ-Australia-New Zealand) Australia Oceania Y Y
New Zealand
Pakistan National Accreditation Council (PNAC-Pakistan) Pakistan South Asia Y Y
Saudi Accreditation Committee (SAC-KSA) KSA GCC    
United Kingdom Accreditation Service (UKAS-UK) UK Europe Y Y
National Accreditation Board for Certification Bodies (NABCB) India South Asia Y Y
American National Standards Institute (ANSI) USA Nth America   Y
Italian National Accreditation Body (ACCREDIA) Italy Europe Y Y
Entidad Mexicana de Acreditacion Mexico Sth America Y Y
National Bureau of Agricultural Commodity and Food Standards Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives Thailand Southeast Asia    
National Accreditation Authority (NAH) Hungary Europe Y  
Argentine Halal Acreditation Agency Argentina Sth America    
Jordanian Accreditation System (JAS) Jordan MENA Y  
Emirates National Accreditation System (ENAS) UAE GCC Y  
Federacao das Associacoes Muculmanas do Brasil Certficacao-Halal (FAMBRAS) Brazil Sth America    
Philippine Accreditation Bureau (PAB) Philippines Southeast Asia Y Y
Source: ILAC, IAF websites. Correct as at Apr 4, 2017

THE 3 TS

To facilitate trade, a high level of harmonisation reduces cost barriers, including cutting costs of verification and work done by individual accreditation bodies, says Badri. If production costs can be lowered, there is a higher chance of businesses scaling up faster, and consumers benefiting from a bigger basket of halal products from a more diverse supply pool.

Accreditors, certifiers, and standards-setters work to achieve a high level of the three Ts: trade, transparency, and trust. Transparency and trust are more difficult to achieve.

Speaking just two weeks after the Brazil food scandal, Badri says: “Right now there is a lack of trust. Even if you say this is Malaysian, how should I know they are checking it thoroughly and properly? There is no doubt that their standard is good, UAE standard is good, every standard is good. But the problem is not the standard. The problem is implementation of the standard.”

“We aim for our practices to be very transparent such that what you practice in the UK, we practice in the UAE. What we are doing is minimising risks, across the complex halal value chain, in a way that at least we have 95 percent confidence that we have the right product. But there will be that 5 percent that is out of our control and that nobody can assure,” says Badri.

While he acknowledges the increasingly educated consumer, Badri still sees a need to raise consumer awareness on halal as another way to foster engagement among market players, regulators, and the general public. “We are preparing materials for awareness and education. We don’t expect people to thoroughly study and understand the technicalities of what they want to eat.

“We have to come up with a mechanism that makes it easy for consumers to accept or reject a product. This is why I am proposing a unified mark. Not a UAE mark, not a Brazilian mark, but one unified mark that is an assured mark. A trust mark that will be known internationally.”

“If we can achieve this I think that we would have achieved a lot. For everything, there will be a first step and for everything there will be the ‘impossible’ that will eventually become routine.”

EXPLAINER: What is the link between halal standards-setters, certifiers, and accreditation bodies?

There is currently no universal halal standards (in the plural to refer to the need for different standards for foods and non-foods).

For example: The UAE’s halal standards are set by Emirates Authority for Standardisation and Metrology (ESMA). ESMA approves accreditation bodies, which include the 7-member Gulf Accreditation Council (GAC) and the Emirates International Accreditation Centre (EIAC, formerly Dubai Accreditation Council).

In turn, accreditation bodies accredit halal certifiers to ensure that halal products and processes keep to ESMA’s standards. Accreditation of halal certification bodies is a formal declaration that the body is competent to certify halal products or services.

The oversight of accreditation bodies goes beyond Conformity Assessment Bodies (certifiers) and can also extend to Inspection Bodies and Laboratories. Accreditation bodies should be independent and free from commercial influence.

In contrast, Japan, for example, does not have national-level oversight and instead has several independent halal certifiers using different halal standards. To gain access to the UAE market, a company in Japan would need to be certified by a certifier that is recognised by ESMA. This means the certifier would need to work with UAE’s halal standards.

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