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Halal food is more than just an article of faith,
it is an exciting cultural medium that allows humanity to see Islamic values in action
Shahed Amanullah, halalapalooza.com founder
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Halal flexes its marketing muscle

Shackled by their feet and hanging upside down, hundreds of live chickens wind past a murmuring man, one by one. In a white snap-button coat, hardhat and galoshes, he sits calm and reverent between two mechanized lines, reciting.

"Bismillah Allahu Akbar, Bismillah Allahu Akbar ..."

Just ahead, a black-treaded wheel revolves in steady motion. Bird after bird is nudged forward, necks connecting with a sharp rotating blade. In a shallow basin below, water changes from muted yellow to brilliant scarlet, littered with wispy feathers.

Amidst the wet, metallic-reeking air in Maple Lodge Farms' Brampton slaughtering room, live chickens are transformed into poultry every Muslim can eat. The bird is blessed and butchered by a Muslim's sharp knife, then drained of all its blood, making it halal.

Halal is much more than diet. And it's also subject to interpretation. Most broadly, it applies to cosmetics and pharmaceuticals; hygiene products and nutritional supplements; travel, art, music and books; even marriage and finance.

"Halal is the underlying force behind everything that is deemed permissible religiously," explains Texan Shahed Amanullah, the 38-year-old founder of halalapalooza.com. His series of Muslim websites gets 25 million page views a year and lists more than 360 halal restaurants in Toronto alone.

"A great by-product of this is there is a huge segment (of people) that wouldn't have kept halal, but now do so because it's easy," Amanullah said. "There's no excuse any more."

Halal's burgeoning popularity can be linked to religious fervour, and beliefs that it's cleaner, healthier and tastier. Some argue it's driven by consumers' urge to follow ritual or their desire for acceptance, while others see it part and parcel to another rising trend.

"The attraction to halal is the creeping of fundamentalism into the west," said Munir Pervaiz, secretary general of the Muslim Canadian Congress, which represents moderate and secular Muslims.

"The large majority of people have come (here) from Middle Eastern lands ... and under this whole indoctrination of fundamental Islam, they're making choices."

Today, some local stores report halal sales increasing by as much as 80 per cent. Various products are even found in A&P, Food Basics, Fortinos, Loblaws and Wal-Mart.

"Muslim consumers used to have to go to three to four stores weekly," said Falah Alizzi, who oversees the Maple Lodge Farms Zabiha-Halal line. "Now, it's one-stop shopping."

An average halal-consuming household will spend $1,623 annually on halal food, according to a June 2006 Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada report. It estimates the total value of the Canadian domestic halal meat market is $214 million. But this is tiny compared to trade worldwide, where it's estimated to be raking in a whopping $150 billion (U.S.) annually.

Among the biggies, Colgate-Palmolive and Procter & Gamble are courting the international Muslim market, as is multinational Nestl-, which recorded sales of $3 billion in 2005. North American car dealerships got an unexpected boost in sales when they offered zero per cent financing, prompting Muslims to snap up cars.

"Canada is way behind, as is America, with only 1,000 certified halal products for its 8 million Muslims," Toronto-born Salama Evans said from her home in Malaysia, dubbed the "halal hub."

"There are 86,000 kosher-certified products (in North America) for 6 million Jews, of which only 15 per cent eat kosher. Go figure."

But determining what is and isn't halal is fuzzy at best. Religious leaders and established certifiers - there are two in Canada - use the Qur'an as a foundation and then blend teachings from other Islamic texts to pronounce items permissible. Interpretation also varies depending on which Islamic school consumers follow.

Debate is wide, and can get heated even within one community. Some consider items made from pig suede, like shoes or purses, to be haram because they touch the skin. Others argue it's okay to consume alcohol-based medicine like cough syrup because, quite simply, it's something that could save your life - a notion referenced in the Qur'an.

Though variety can help people live peacefully in a pluralistic society, Pervaiz also sees a problem.

"The negative side of this is (deciding) where to draw the line when the interpretation conflicts."

In May, Maple Lodge Farms' Alizzi met with Evans at World Halal Forum 2007 to talk about transporting the hub to Toronto. He wants to bring the next forum here.

"I want Toronto to know the market is big, the opportunities for Canadian companies vast," he said.

Several Canadian delegations and government officials attended the forum, at which Maple Lodge Farms was awarded "most creative marketing campaign" by Malaysia's king and prime minister.

Forum organizers estimate the industry's global market is 1.6 billion people and worth at least $580 billion per year. Canadian purchasing power lies in a population of 850,000 Muslims, according to statistician Daood Hamdani. Half live in Ontario, and half of those reside in the GTA. Islam is the fastest growing religion in the country.

But numbers don't tell the whole story. Money makes the industry chirp, but adherence to its religious principles makes it sing.

And while the food market is growing like gangbusters, the potential for others - like the Muslim women's market, including makeup and toiletries - is just waiting to be tested.

In the 1970s, Shaikh Ahmad Kutty, a senior lecturer of the Islamic Institute of Toronto, would borrow a kosher butcher's knife to bless and slaughter chickens in Kensington Market, because Halal wasn't available in supermarkets. There were only about 70,000 Muslims living in Canada then.

As immigration shot up and families moved from farms to urban centres, firms realized the word halal was a potent marketing tool.

"All you need to say is we have `halal' and the job is done," said Ashwin Joshi, director of York's Schulich School of Business MBA program.

But it's opened the door for fraud.

"Most people, even within our community, (have) been misled that if it says `halal,' it's fine," Alizzi said. He's seen companies use the label as a profit-making gimmick, and he condemns it as a slight to his faith.

Aside from the population boom, no one quite knows exactly what's propelled demand for halal forward.

Kutty said there's a strong social desire to please family and friends when entertaining them for dinner. This complements Hamdani's research, that says families practising Islam in the west have tended to prioritize religious ritual over its actual substance: buying halal is an easy way to do it.

At the Muslim Canadian Congress, Pervaiz directly attributes it to puritan Islam. "The average Muslim can't avoid fundamental influences, especially with `halal, halal, halal,' stamped on every can and restaurant," he said, adding there's an element of guilt involved. "It's so subtle, but so enforcing."

"Muslims feel obliged to help and support their own kind," he said. "And they want to show that `I am a good Muslim.'"

Meanwhile, the perception Islam is "under attack" by the west might be a factor, said Joshi.

Alizzi agrees in part, seeing today's Muslim youth strain against post-9/11 media backlash to grasp something that creates identity.

Naima Alam, 18, and a second-year York University student, considers herself more religious than her parents. "Word spreads quickly about new halal stuff," she said. "If I learn something is haram, I'm not getting it."

If halal makeup and hygiene products were readily available, it would save her and friends from do-it-yourself halal: scrutinizing package ingredients and limiting shopping to mostly organic stores.

"We know there's a hunger for the product," said Canadian Ausma Khan, 37, editor of newly launched Muslim Girl magazine.

But for now, the Muslim women's market remains an unexcavated goldmine, like much of the North American halal industry.

Industry insiders predict a time will come when demand reaches critical mass, resulting in mainstream Muslim specialty lines and the explosion of halal ecommerce.

"We can't do anything overnight and we don't want to do anything overnight because that would be a half job," Alizzi said. "I have high hopes for the next generation - they will go ask cosmetic companies, and pharmacies and grocery stores for halal products.

"At the end of the day it sells. It's money."

(Tamsyn Burgmann, Toronto Star, July 22, 2007)

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