KUALA LUMPUR - “We shouldn’t be trying to certify the whole world,” said Dr Muhammad Munir Chaudry, on the wings of the Halal Certification Bodies Convention in Kuala Lumpur. “But some countries believe everything is doubtful unless it is certified.”
The president of the Islamic Food and Nutrition Council of America (IFANCA), a Chicago-based certification body, was remarking on possible excesses in halal certification, a matter that had been exercising some of the certification bodies attending the convention.
The flames of debate are fanned by publicity from companies that have recently gained halal certification for diapers, sanitary napkins and reusable gloves, items which many people would not consider to require halal certification.
Isa Chao, vice-secretary-general of the Taiwan Halal Integrity Development Association (THIDA), believes certifiers have gone too far in awarding halal marks to products that don’t need them.
“There is overreach,” he told Salaam Gateway at the industry event in Kuala Lumpur. “For many, many years, there was no halal certification, and it’s only been around over the last few decades. Now we are asked for halal certification for some weird things. As a CB (certification body) we turn down a lot of these requests.”
Salaam Gateway’s enquiries have revealed cases of certification bodies being asked to audit the halal credentials of items ranging from ceramic wall tiles and copper valves to cotton socks, snails and condoms. Chao himself cited a request to certify car tyres, which he kicked into the long grass.
“There are many things we don’t need to certify because people have generally judged for themselves what they think is halal or not,” he said.
He believes some CBs’ desire for “expansion” is behind the rising instances of halal certification being granted in new categories.
“Some businesses want to get all this certification; they think the more certification they get, the better they are. So they give halal certification to all sorts of things,” Chao added.
By contrast, Fazil Hamid Marican, principal halal consultant and director of Simply Halal International in Singapore, believes opening up these segments is good for manufacturers and will ultimately benefit consumers.
“It is positive for the industry because somebody is taking the initiative to get new halal products certified,” Marican told Salaam Gateway.
He acknowledges that the first company to get certification for a new category will be able to charge a premium, but says consumers can still buy non-halal products if they are price sensitive. But eventually competitors will also have their products certified, creating competition.
Moreover, regardless of whether there is no intrinsic need for something to be certified halal, the process of having an organisation audit the materials, processes and ethics relating to it provides an extra layer of assurance for Muslim consumers.
“The premium the consumer pays for a halal-certified product will come down in due time, but at least somebody has taken the initiative in providing a halal option,” he said.
Dr Barbara Ruiz-Bejarano, director of international relations at the Instituto Halal in Spain, believes that free markets will over time weed out the goods and services that consumers don’t believe need to be halal.
Speaking to Salaam Gateway, she said it was clear that brand owners have been using halal as a marketing tool, but the market would eventually impose limits to this, based on demand.
“Whatever product that is reasonable and marketable will work, and anything that is not reasonable and marketable will not work,” she said.
Consumers will always vote with their feet, she believes. Observant Muslims will only opt to pay more for a halal-certified product if they are not fully convinced that the product is permissible.
“At the end of the day, consumers make their own choices; they have a budget and their beliefs and they balance all that before deciding what they will buy,” Ruiz-Bejarano said, adding that exploiting a product’s halal-ness over ease and convenience to the Muslim consumer could be seen as an ethical grey area.
“Let’s imagine a guy applies for halal certification and passes the cost of this on to the product. In the end, this product is going to be more expensive than the next product but the quality will be the same. So consumers are going to have to make a choice. Maybe it’s not so ethical, but it’s up to the market to decide this.”
Yusuf Aboobakar, chief executive of UK-based Halal Certification Europe, takes a similarly pragmatic view about bringing halal certification to new products. He says it’s only natural for businesses to seek to make a profit, though most non-Muslim-owned companies fail to understand the religious importance of halal products to their market.
“Companies in Europe don’t operate on a religious basis,” Aboobakar told Salaam Gateway. “They’re not serving any community in particular, but they can see there could be a market in some product that is halal-certified.
“Sometimes it’s not necessarily to be halal-certified, but people do buy things they don’t really need to buy. They are creating this market.”
Much of the time, product manufacturers are only passing on the wishes of their customers when they request halal certification, believes Aboobakar, as evidenced by an application he received from a wall tile supplier.
“We were surprised by that. Normally, this sort of thing is not halal-certified. We don’t have any specific standards for tiles, so if we had to, we would apply general food and external use standards to certify them,” he said.
In the end, he successfully managed to persuade the tile company to explain to its customer that there was no need for halal certification.
“Getting the certification would have made the product more expensive to consumers. Halal isn’t there to make things more expensive, it’s to make things easier for Muslims,” he added.
Another certifier, Alep Mydin, agrees that CBs are often asked to grant halal certification not to satisfy a desire for profits, but to accommodate public demand.
Recalling a request by a honey manufacturer for halal certification, the president of the Islamic Association of Katanning in Western Australia stressed this was to satisfy consumer demand. Without a halal logo, the company feared it might lose Muslim business.
“As a halal certifier, we have to be very cautious to protect the sanctity of the halal logo. We should grant certification only when it is required and not when it comes out of a company’s greed,” Mydin told Salaam Gateway.
“The greed side of certification must be extracted. But often it’s not the manufacturers themselves that specifically want halal certification. It usually comes from the demands of Muslims.”
Though Taiwanese certifier Isa Chao feels “very strongly” about the growth in what he believes is unnecessary certification, he understands that not everybody in the CB community would agree with him—openly at least.
“It’s a very sensitive subject and people will not tell you directly what they think,” he said.
“As certifiers, THIDA has always been trying to discourage those things that do not need halal certification. We don’t see it as good business, but there are others who may think differently. So I don’t see any effective way for us to temper this.”
(Reporting by Richard Whitehead; Editing by Emmy Abdul Alim firstname.lastname@example.org)
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