Following a series of scandals, industry experts call for more regulation and harmonised standardisation as new technologies emerge to combat consumer deception.
London – Fraud in the halal food sector is emerging as a widespread problem. A series of scandals have rocked the industry worldwide, shining a light on the difficulty of eliminating non-halal practices from increasingly large and complicated food supply chains.
In Thailand, the Agriculture and Cooperatives Ministry investigated a suspected widespread scam of pork coated in oxblood that was sold off as beef in the halal food markets of Bangkok in the summer of 2020. This followed analysis of dozens of samples by the Halal Science Centre at Thailand's Chulalongkorn University. More than a year after the allegations surfaced, no convictions have been reported, however livestock and consumer protection officials have since pledged to increase monitoring of food quality and sourcing and to investigate anyone suspected of violating laws controlling the slaughter of animals or the certification of meat for sale. Under Thai law, offenders could face imprisonment of up to one year and a fine not exceeding Thai Baht THB100,000 ($3,000).
In Malaysia, a cartel was accused in December 2020 by anonymous whistle-blowers speaking to Malay-language daily Sinar Harian of allegedly bribing customs officials for 40 years to import frozen meat (including kangaroo and horse meat, although these claims were subsequently played down by the Malaysian government) from China, Ukraine, Brazil and Argentina. It was declared as halal but was not slaughtered according to Islamic customs or sourced from approved stakeholders before being repackaged as halal beef. Three executives of Syarikat LY Frozen Food Sdn Bhd, the company implicated in alleged fraud, were subsequently charged with money laundering offences and violations of trade descriptions legislation. The trial continues and an arrest warrant has been issued for a fourth executive, who remains at large.
Other high profile examples have included the conviction in 2015 of the owner of a US-based meat exporter, Midamar, found guilty of fraudulently misrepresenting beef sold to Malaysia and Indonesia as halal. In Australia, whistle-blowing reports of abattoirs revealed exploitation of workers and failure to follow halal practices for poultry and other meat destined for Malaysia.
Rising demand equals more scams
According to the UK-based Halal Monitoring Committee (HMC), practices such as mislabelling and contamination have increased with growing consumption of halal products. The certification organisation was established in 2003 to uphold standards for halal food produced and sold in the UK
"There are a lot of imported products in the UK that come in from the global supply chain, the majority of which are from non-majority Muslim countries. Nobody has visibility on those products and whether they conform to the UK Muslim community's expectations," said Nadeem Adam, HMC operations director.
Because demand for halal products outstrips supply, and because halal meat is more expensive than non-halal (due to labour, inspection and certification costs), unscrupulous suppliers have the opportunity to introduce haram products into the halal supply chain, Adam said.
Other contributors to the problem, according to Ali Abdallah, independent scientist and halal fraud expert based in Bari, Italy, are the "multiplicity of halal standards, (and) disagreements between halal certification (and accreditation) bodies" about what constitutes halal.
This means a product that has been produced to halal standards in one country may not be considered halal by a different country. And while "these circumstances are more about consumer expectations than actual fraud," explained Adam, the grey areas they create can be exploited by scammers.
Fraud issues in the USA and UK
In the USA, where there is no federal regulation of halal food production, the certification process is performed by third-party certifiers based on differing requirements and their own interpretations of religious tenets, said Melissa McKendree, assistant professor at the Department of Agricultural, Food and Resource Economics (AFRE) at Michigan State University. McKendree is supervising a research project supported by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) to help the US meat industry improve halal certification and pinpoint potential anti-fraud solutions.
In the UK, much of suspected fraud occurs at the point of slaughter. HMC does not endorse any form of stunning (where the animal is rendered unconscious, by electric shock or other methods, before it is killed) as part of the slaughter process. However, HMC believes meat produced using various stunning (as well as non-halal compliant non-stunning) methods are being labelled and sold as halal in the UK.
Other non-halal practices occur further down the supply chain. In recent years, there have been reports from across the world of traces of pork DNA reportedly being found in meat (and even confectionary) products labelled as halal. Meanwhile, analysis of halal-marked poultry products has shown the water used in “pumping-up” chickens contains proteins of porcine origin.
HMC attempts to combat fraud by only certifying products that meet its halal standards. It uses a patented certification mark, distinct from the generic halal 'logo' (the word ‘halal’ written in Arabic and presented as a symbol), that its more than 1,000 member shops, butchers and takeaways display as a sign to consumers that their products conform to HMC's ‘farm to fork’ halal criteria.
But while such measures may help consumers make informed decisions about what to buy, they do little to tackle malpractice.
Challenges to curbing fraud
A major barrier to stamping out fraud is the difficulty of enforcing halal standards. The problem arises in non-majority Muslim countries like the US, where the sector is not legally regulated and halal and non-halal supply chains have many opportunities to merge, according to Kelsey Hopkins, who is leading the AFRE research project into halal meat production.
HMC similarly admits that in the UK, where halal meat makes up approximately 7% (according to HMC estimates) of the country’s combined beef, lamb and chicken supply, it does not have the power to take action when there is suspected crossover with the overwhelming majority of non-halal meat.
"The UK does not have a halal standard, so if somebody suspected that a store was selling something that was not halal-compliant, there is very little we can do," Adam said.
In countries without halal food regulations, the industry usually has to rely on other consumer protection and trading standards legislation to prosecute anyone suspected of fraud or misrepresentation. "EU countries actually contain all the instruments required to resolve most of these problems," said Abdallah. He also notes the existence of "ethical/moral fraud," where products which do not require halal certification, such as olive oil, are labelled halal to take advantage of gullible consumers. This is different from "legal fraud" where a product is misrepresented, he said.
But legal halal food fraud is extremely difficult to detect, due to the challenge of testing products and inspecting practices at every stage of intricate and increasingly international supply chains.
Fraud issues in Muslim majority countries
Even in Muslim majority countries, where the halal food sector is typically regulated and governments have powers to take enforcement measures against fraudulent producers and retailers, fraud is still a major issue.
In Malaysia, responsibility for halal certification is governed by the Halal Hub Division, a special department set up by the Department of Islamic Development Malaysia (JAKIM). It is an offence in Malaysia to label products as halal without authorisation from JAKIM, and accredited enforcement agencies are authorised to suspend or revoke business licences of those who misuse or falsify halal certifications. Those found to have breached the rules may be prosecuted.
But the recent revelations about a long standing fraud cartel shows that regulations are only as good as their implementation. Media reports at the time the scandal was discovered linked JAKIM officials to the corrupt practices (although this was denied by the authority) and Abdallah cites the "weakness of the authorities in ensuring the integrity of halal certification, and involvement with politics and religion" as factors undermining the successful policing of halal food standards.
In recognition of the difficulty of policing halal food standards in a globalised world, efforts have been made to internationalise standards.
According to Abdallah, the international halal standard involving the greatest number of Muslim countries (57 in total, with a combined population of 1.6 billion) is the OIC/SMIIC 1:2011, containing the general guidelines on halal food. The SMIIC standard is a joint initiative between the Saudi Arabia-based Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) countries and the Turkey-headquartered Standards and Metrology Institute for the Islamic Countries (SMIIC).
In May 2011, this standard defined the basic requirements at any stage of the food chain, such as receiving, preparation, labelling, processing, packaging control, transport, distribution, storage and service of halal food based on Sharia rules.
Other attempts to harmonise the halal market include the efforts of the World Halal Food Council (WHFC) and the International Halal Accreditation Forum (IHAF).
Technology to the rescue?
To support these standards, technology is increasingly seen as the key to detecting and stamping out halal food fraud.
Following the December 2020 cartel scandal, Malaysia's JAKIM announced plans to improve the recognition of foreign halal certification bodies by adding on-pack QR codes and digitising halal certificates to reduce the risk of duplication.
A team at China's Sichuan University is evaluating a DNA sequencing technology known as clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats (CRISPR) to replace unreliable protein testing and expensive quantitative polymerase chain reaction (qPCR) DNA testing in food authentication.
Elsewhere, researchers at Thailand’s Chulalongkorn University's Halal Science Centre have developed a chromatography-based strip test that can detect DNA from forbidden meats.
In the Netherlands, researchers at Wageningen University & Research and a separate team at Iran's Islamic Azad University Tehran Science and Research Branch are investigating the possibility of using infra-red technology, which can be deployed using hand-held devices, to check meat. Also, food supply chain technology specialists, such as Singapore-based digital B2B platform OneAgrix, are introducing blockchain solutions to track meat from slaughter to the point-of-sale to the consumer.
With the mounting purchasing power of younger, larger generations of Muslim consumers, and growing competition between retailers, from supermarkets to fast food services, more attention is being paid to what influences consumer choice in the halal food sector.
One of the aims of the AFRE project at Michigan State University is to establish whether demand to know the provenance of halal products is strong enough to warrant additional investment in fraud prevention.
"This project can help supply chain members deduce if consumer willingness to pay for halal certified foods outweighs the potential costs of adopting new traceability and verification technology to ensure proper certification,” said Hopkins.
For HMC, the issue is to do with education and awareness, rather than any question over the willingness of consumers to pay for genuine halal products. "From a consumer perspective, it's about a journey," Adam said, pointing to a July 2020 study by the UK's Bristol University that surveyed the buying behaviours of 250 Muslims and found that 70% of those questioned preferred to buy non-stunned meat.
"When people start to think about this issue, they do some research and want to learn more about how to choose genuine halal products. We get calls from people who want to understand what the risks are, what to look out for and how to make choices that meet their expectations," he said.
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