Ready for take-off

While forward-thinking processors are blazing a trail in the burgeoning halal meat sector, confusion and trepidation around the Muslim practice of religious slaughter are preventing realisation of its full potential.

ACCORDING TO Mintel, halal meat accounts for 11% of all UK meat sales - a figure which all in the meat industry should be alert to, because the percentage of Muslims in the country is only 3%. Estimates of the UK's Muslim population range from 1.5 to 1.9 million, but consumption of halal is not restricted to followers of Islam. Many other demographic groups are also taking to the meat because of perceptions about its freshness and hygiene. So even though the sector has been battered in recent years by conflicting certification schemes, import frauds and highly-publicised attacks from animal welfare groups, many established industry names are joining the sector, creating new opportunities and categories such as organic and value-added meats. However, before the sector shifts up a gear, certification still needs to be clarified.

"All the major players around the world are using a similar standard, with the exception of the UK," says Naved Syed of the UK Halal Corporation. Aiming to achieve government backing for his scheme, he claims the wider meat industry bodies have acknowledged the size of the sector, but insists that a lack of understand-ing has hampered any real effort to promote or capitalise on halal trade. British Meat Foodservice Trade Sector Manager Tony Goodger concurs: "I know - from speaking with HM Prisons, the NHS and school meals inspectors - that there is a real need for a government-backed halal assurance scheme to cut through the myriad of existing schemes," he says. "At the moment, there's a lot of confusion."

Media coverage of fraudulent halal claims has cast a further cloud over the sector, from the Food Standard Agency's exposure of imported Dutch poultry impregnated with beef and pork proteins, to the more recent case of pork products mistakenly offered up to Muslim pupils at a Cardiff school.The latter incident, at Mount Stuart School in the city, resulted in an apology from Cardiff City Council, citing a 'lapse in supervision' by school catering staff. And meanwhile, the Farm Animal Welfare Council (FAWC) is among animal rights groups continuing to call for an end to religious slaughter, which prohibits the prior stunning of animals. Both halal and kosher meat production require slaughter by a single cut to the throat. FAWC claims it can take up to two minutes for the animals to bleed to death; an allegation countered by organisations such as the Muslim Council of Britain. Back in 2004, the government rejected FAWC proposals for a ban on religious slaughter, with Defra Animal Welfare Minister Ben Bradshaw saying: "We will not ban the production of halal or kosher meat. A ban could simply result in kosher and halal meat being imported. We would, therefore, be exporting the problem, resulting in no overall improvement in animal welfare."

According to Halal Food Authority (HFA) president, Masood Khawaja, the animal rights lobby's opposition to halal slaughter is weakening, as more transparency about the practice is achieved. "We would like people to understand that it is not cruel to animals," he says, citing a recent conference in Egypt where academics and animal welfare representatives engaged in less contentious discussion on halal production.

"Stunning is not the issue," says Khawaja. "It's the presence of a Muslim slaughterman that is important. Our aim is for everyone to understand what halal is."

For Khawaja, the meat industry is beginning to realise the potential of halal, with many mainstream manufacturers, wholesalers and retailers signing up. Those endorsed under HFA certification range from Aldi, Asda and Sainsbury's, casings manufacturer Devro, the Faccenda Group, Hamer International, Lloyd Maunder, HM Bennett, Linden Foods, RWM Dorset and Welsh Country Foods. "The halal market is thriving, not just for local clientele here but also for export," he says. "It is much better understood now by slaughter houses and cutting plants. It's not only trade for them but a service to the community as well. And the general masses are realising that halal can also be eaten by non-Muslims."

There is plenty of room for UK halal production to be stepped up, says Khawaja. Increasing exports would ben-efit the farming and processing industries, while allowing some displacement of some questionable imports. At the retail end of the trade, a count of British halal butchers' conducted by the Authority proved inconclusive. "One shop would close and two more would spring up," Khawaja says. However, around 3,000 shops are estimated to exist across the country, although Khawaja says this is probably an under-estimate, and notes that there are 31 halal butchers' on one East London street alone. Halal ranges in the multiple retailers have also come on in leaps and bounds, he adds. "We find them to be of good quality, nicely packed and priced, and of good appearance."

Manufacturers of additives and colours are increasingly producing to halal specification, including Scottish firm Macphie, which supplies sauces, marinades and butters to the meat trade. Progress on the manufacturing side is allowing the development of halal foods beyond traditional Arabian and Oriental dishes to more western-influenced fare.

"There is a lot more to be done," says Khawaja. "Now halal food is available in chilled and canned products. This generation of Muslims is looking for convenience meals, provided with full traceability and certification."

One such provider is MFA Cash and Carry, which supplies the Robert halal meat range - including frankfurter sausages, luncheon meats, canned, chilled and frozen chicken, turkey and beef products. Halal-certified by the Islamic Cultural Centre and the Muslim World League, the range was showcased at the London Halal Exhibition during the World Food Market last November. Another emerging halal sub-sector is organic, continues Khawaja, with a fully traceable and halal-certified organic range set for launch later this year.

Halal catering is also growing. Chefs are ringing the HFA for advice daily, and British Airways now serves HFA-approved meals. Halal is still a niche market, but is certainly moving away from Mintel's 2002 profile of the sector, which painted a picture of fragmented supply through a network of inde-pendent retailers. While older Muslim consumers are expected to remain faithful to their trusted butcher suppliers, the multiples are picking up trade from the younger generation. Budgens, for instance, stocks Tahira chicken in 10 of its stores. "To reach these household shoppers of the future, suppliers should now look at targeting this group with inexpensive promotions to various Muslim groups, such as students," advises Mintel.

"This will foster brand- and store-loyalty, and establish shopping patterns for the future." The majority of British Muslims originate from Pakistan, Bangladesh, India and the Middle East, and this offers opportunities for diversifiying products to match the tastes of each nation - Middle Eastern food, for example, will not be as spicy as Indian. A market is also emerging for halal fast food and western-inspired convenience options, especially for younger generations of British Muslims."Chilled ready-meals are expanding faster than frozen, as they have a premium and more authentic image," says Mintel. "Halal ready-meals are well placed to exploit this, as they can claim to be prepared from authentic ingredients, namely halal meat, and are based on traditional dishes.

It adds: "There is substantial latent demand for halal processed and convenience foods that remains untapped, for both meat- and non meat-based products.' Ready meals manufacturers could also capitalise on the popularity of Indian food in Britain to reach a wider, non-Muslim pool of consumers. Convenience categories such as pizza are also ripe for expansion in the halal sector, according to Mintel, as are functional foods with health benefits and organic options.The research body also believes the sector would benefit from more nationally-recognised brands - Tahira and Maggi are among only a handful. Many other brands operate regionally only. "The development of nationally recognised and trusted brand names will be essential in growing the market, both to Muslim consumers and beyond,' says the report.

Meanwhile, multinational companies such as Nestlé and McDonald's are being urged to use their experience of trading in Muslim countries to promote halal fare in the UK. In the foodservice sector, UK halal kebab shops are thought to number well over 2,000, in addition to many halal burger and chicken fast-food restaurants and takeaways."These outlets will influence the market for food bought for in-home consumption, in that consumers are likely to want to replicate meals eaten out at home," according to Mintel. "Trends in the types of halal fast-food outlets will provide manufacturers with a source of future NPD. For example, there are a number of pizzerias emerging that offer halal-meat toppings. Chinese food is another example, with the emergence of halal Chinese restaurants in London and Birmingham."Given the potential size of the halal market, there is a surprisingly small amount of advertising to support it - opportunities available across all media are relatively untapped, compared to non-niche markets. Improved labelling could go some way to redressing the balance, says Mintel, as would the adoption of a halal food symbol "that can reassure Muslim purchasers".

Halal: What is it?

ACCORDING to Mintel, halal means 'lawful and permitted'. In food terms, products are not halal if they contain alcohol, any part of a pig, carrion, carnivorous animal meat, or blood. Sometimes prawns and other scavenger seafood are included here. Foods are also not halal if the meat contained has not been slaughtered according to Islamic law. Gelatine, which is a by-product of a mainly non-halal slaughterhouse industry, is also not halal.

Crowning glory: East Anglian satis?es market for halal chicken

EAST ANGLIA-BASED Crown Chicken expects to increase its halal production to two thirds of total trade within the next few years. Currently processing a third - 100,000 birds - to halal speci?cation weekly, the company has built up the trade over three years. "It's a small niche market but it was the right size for our company and it was an available niche," says Crown Chicken head of sales & marketing Dennis Manley. Only minor alterations were needed to convert the site for halal production and, in terms of staf?ng, "our operation ?tted into it fairly well," he says. Crown Chicken already employed Muslims among its 180 workers. "It just required a reorganisation of what people were doing," says Mr Manley, to ensure the slaughter line was manned by Muslims. A vertically integrated operation, Crown Chicken controls its whole chain from the manufacture of feed to chicken production.

Certified by Assured British Chicken and the Halal Food Authority, and carrying EFSIS higher level accreditation for its plant, it supplies retailers, wholesalers and the foodservice sector. Offering a full range of whole and portioned chicken, its produce is stocked by Lidl, Netto and Booker, while supplies under the Tahira Foods brand go into Budgens and the Co-op. Halal does attract a small premium, says Manley, and further expansion into value-added halal products is certainly under consideration. Bird flu has not hurt business to date, he says, with the company experiencing one of its busiest days to date last week despite the emergence of a second case in Britain. "Crown is one of the only producers of British farm-assured-halal chicken," he says. It is also the only fully integrated halal chicken producer in the UK, he claims.

Looking for assurance

THE PROFUSION of assurance schemes and quality marks in the wider meat industry has often come under fire for leaving consumers dazed and confused. In the halal meat sector, the issue appears to be compounding the element of mystification still surrounding religious slaughter and production. Among bodies vying to certify halal status are the Halal Food Authority (HFA), UK Halal Corporation (UKHC), Islamic Cultural Centre, Muslim World League and Muslim Food Board, to name a few. Spokesman Naved Syed claims UKHC is responsible for the first written standard for halal production in the UK, which equates to standards currently recognised around the globe but lacking uniform application in Britain. He hopes to achieve government backing for the scheme, which has been in operation for two years and is certified by EFSIS and Law Labs. Birmingham City Council commissioned the written standard. HFA President Masood Khawaja, meanwhile, works with certification bodies in other countries to ensure their specifications are on a par with the authority's. "We are very happy to work with the other endorsing bodies in the promotion of halal," he adds.

HALAL SPECIFICATIONS for minced and diced lamb, scheduled for release towards the end of this month, are the latest sector-specific offering from British Meat Foodservice. For use in the public sector, the specifications relate to both fresh meat and produce going into manufacturing including ready-meals, and have been developed by British Meat Foodservice Trade Sector Manager Tony Goodger. British Meat Foodservice's latest initiative follows on from its publication of a halal-orientated public sector catering guide and recipe supplement.

The halal edition of its Catering in the Public Sector booklet focuses on halal beef and lamb and is endorsed by the Islamic Cultural Centre in London. Offering information to caterers, food buyers and menu planners in the sector, the publication also features advice on marketing opportunities, religious festivals and the nutritional merits of halal meat. The recipe supplement, in English and Urdu, centres around halal lamb with nutritional tips aiming to achieve healthy, balanced menus. Both publications are available free of charge to caterers dealing with halal products.