Unified Halal Certification Standard Remains a Dream
By Mohammad Abdullah
While most young Muslims know that halal foods are a good thing, not all understand the Islamic concept of halal.
According to a June 6, 2023, Kerry Group report, “global product launches with halal claims jumped by 19% from 2018 to 2020, from 16,936 products to 20,482. The report stated that developments in the halal food industry and a large fast-growing young Muslim population across Muslim-majority countries, who are looking for products aligned with the Islamic way of life, are playing a part in the increased product launches.”
Other media reports have said more or less the same thing. For example, in 2016, The Jakarta Post noted that, “The young Muslim population is undoubtedly a potential market for food producers. Young Muslims are cool, tech-savvy, confident, creative, dynamic, energetic, and proud of their identity as Muslim. They believe their faith is helping them in making the world better. One of the ways is through consumption of products that they feel will help them to live a better, modern, Muslim life.” Obviously, it includes “Sunna foods” that Prophet Muhammad (salla Allahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) used to treat diseases or recommended for maintaining overall good health.
What is Sunna?
The Islamic concept of halal includes the limits set upon our lives by God. The Encyclopedia Britannica defines Sunna as the body of Muslims’ traditional socio-legal customs and practices that contains many blessings and much wisdom, especially in terms of health. The prophetic Sunna teaches us that “The son of Adam [and Eve] does not fill any vessel worse than the stomach. It is sufficient for him to eat a few mouthfuls, to keep going. If he must do that, then let him fill one third [of his stomach] with food, one third with drink. and one third with air” (al-Tirmidhi, 2006).
A great deal of this advice and nutritional habits have substantial support in scientific literature, such as eating whole foods. A study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (Oct. 14, 2021) found that ultra-processed food consumption grew from 53.5% of calories in the beginning of the period studied (2001-02) to 57% at the end of (2017-18). In contrast, the consumption of whole foods decreased from 32.7% to 27.4% of calories.
In the current industrial food environment, most foods marketed in the U.S. are industrial formulations that cannot be considered whole foods. Given this growing intake of ultra-processed foods and mounting evidence of their linkage to chronic diseases, the researchers recommend implementing policies to reduce their consumption, such as revised dietary guidelines, marketing restrictions, package labeling changes, and taxes on soda and other ultra-processed foods.
The Quran and the Prophet have highlighted some foods, such as dates (16:69), olives (23:20 and 24:35), figs, pomegranates, grapes, olives, honey, and black seeds. “Use black seeds regularly, because it is a cure for every disease except death” (al-Bukhari, 2002).
According to the National Institute of Health (NIH), prophetic recommendations are remarkable for their prescience, as they came centuries before research was conducted on healthy diets and their bodily benefits. According to researchers, these foods have an abundance of super-concentrated and nutrient-rich elements in their natural state that work together. The Prophet’s recommended foods have now become today’s superfoods due to their powerful healing properties. However, these benefits can only be achieved by following his advice in this regard. It isn’t enough to consume food with a “Halal” logo unless his advice is truly followed and the desire for junk food is controlled. Halal certification also has its challenges. Diseases like diabetes metabolic syndrome and dementia due to excessive consumption of food, especially fast food.
Increase in Sunna Product Launches
The demand for halal products comes from Muslim consumers, numbering 1.9 billion in 2020, one of the world’s fast-growing consumer segments. Halal food is the second largest sector after Islamic finance. The global halal meat market, valued at $802 billion in 2021, is estimated to reach $1.66 trillion by 2030 (according to Straits Research report on July 16, 2020).
In a bid to tap into this vast market, the industry started producing foods, snacks, and supplements containing black seeds, honey, pomegranates, and other ingredients and marketing them as Sunna foods. Snacks and supplements are found in many forms, such as pills, tablets, capsules, gummies, soft gels, liquids, and powders. While the primary contents of vitamins and supplements are the vitamins and the minerals themselves, other ingredients help bind the products together or preserve them, such as gelatin from both halal and non-halal sources.
Producers promote these products via innovative marketing techniques and using proofs derived from the Quran and Hadith. The updated Nutrition Facts Label on packaged foods, which was updated in 2016 to reflect scientific information about the link between diet and obesity, heart disease and chronic diseases makes better food choices easier.
Making Informed Decisions
During the Prophet’s time, halal and haram applied mainly to meat, because food was generally natural: no chemical additives, but vegetable oils or olive oil, unrefined grains, and grass-fed animals. Today, most commercial food is exposed to chemicals and pesticides. Commercial genetically modified (GM) crops and products are common in processed foods, which also contain coloring agents, preservatives, flavors, and synthetic nutrients, refined sugars, and synthetic sweeteners. Commercially raised animals are generally fed GM corn diets and antibiotics to prevent sickness. And now meat is even being grown in the laboratory.
Muslims are to consume only food deemed halal (16:114). However, today food production companies hire a Muslim-owned halal certification organization to get their products certified. Among other things, Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) has been accused of intervening to help North Jersey businessman Wael Hana’s IS EG Halal — established in November 2017 with no prior experience in halal certification or pre-existing ties to the American beef industry — win an exclusive multimillion dollar contract to certify whether food exports to Egypt met halal food standards or not (Michigan Advance, Oct. 12, 2023). Certification fees range from $200 to over $5,000 per container (30 tons).
A well-policed certification authority is also required. In 2014, Iowa’s Cedar Rapids-based Midamar Corp. exported at least $4.9 million in beef products to Malaysia, Kuwait, the UAE and elsewhere. The company’s president was later jailed for not following the halal practices promised in its labeling and advertising.
Beyond the Halal Label
As consumers find little more than the “Halal” logo on the product’s label, the OIC recently published, in the aftermath of its 5-year strategic plan’s (2016-20) failure, its 10-year plan for uniform standardization and accreditation.
To protect consumers, in 2019 Indonesia introduced the Halal Product Law, which states that all consumer products and related services must be halal certified to meet market needs and consumer trust. Similarly, in Malaysia, food, goods or services can be labeled halal only if Jakim, the regulatory body, certifies them as such. Malaysian laws adopted the concept of halalan thoyyiban, which is supposed to provide adequate protection. However, the rampant manipulation of halal laws reflects the weaknesses in the laws’ implementation (https://food.chemlinked.com/foodpedia).
On Sept. 18, Amy Fleming stated in The Guardian that most pork products, such as bacon, are made with nitrates that WHO has rated as carcinogenic since 2015. These additives are also used in sausages and other products, some of which are halal certified. Cooking and eating such meats cause carcinogenic compounds such as nitrosamine to form. The protein myoglobin, found in meat, naturally turns red and then brown as it oxidizes. These additives both stop this from happening and give meat a pink color and fresh look.
Today, numerous simple- and nutritious-looking products with attractive packaging, among them halal-certified gelatin, jellies, ice cream, yogurts, cheeses, deli meats, snacks and supplements — compete for consumers’ attention, boasting convenience, taste and environmental friendliness. Yet behind all of this may lie a list of unhealthy ingredients, such as saturated fats, cholesterol, sodium, artificial stabilizers and additives.
A recent study published by “The PLOS ONE” reported that: (1) halal certification organizations use different halal standards, which makes it hard to determine which standards are being applied; (2) many halal foods and ingredients are produced in non-Muslim-majority countries, which possibly increases the likelihood of being contaminated by pig-derived common ingredients (e.g., gelatin, enzymes, glycerin, lecithin, L-cystine, and mono- and diacylglycerols) due to the non-awareness of their haram status; and (3) harmonizing the OIC’s countries’ halal standards is important to ensuring the smooth implementation of uniform halal standards.
This harmonization is needed, for it is in all the stakeholders’ best interests (“Harmonize Halal Certification Regulations,” Islamic Horizons, Jan./Feb. 2022). Young Muslims’ interest in Sunna foods is commendable. Many of them are tech-savvy, confident, and creative. We look forward to their expediting the OIC’s development of uniform halal food standards.
Mohammad Abdullah, who retired after serving 29 years with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, the agency that regulates the meat industry, is the author of “A Closer Look at Halal Meat from Farm to Fork” (2016).