It’s a tough time to be a Muslim in America. Forget politics: Just finding foods produced in accordance with Islamic dietary laws outlined in the Quran is a challenge. “The number of available halal products in the U.S. is miniscule,” says Jack Acree, president of Stamford, Conn.-based American Halal Co., which manufactures Saffron Road products, one of the few lines of all-natural, certified-halal packaged foods. The demand for halal products is so great that retailers and manufacturers who carry it stand to benefit greatly, he suggests.
Estimates of the number of Muslim Americans vary widely, but Acree and other informed observers peg the group at between 6 million and 8 million. Two-thirds of U.S. Muslims are under age 40, have at least a bachelor’s degree and make $50,000 a year or more, according to Allied Media Corp., an ethnic outreach and advertising firm based in Alexandria, Va. Collectively, U.S. Muslims spend about $20 billion a year on food, says Maria Omar, spokeswoman for the Islamic Food and Nutrition Council of America. And they don’t spend it indiscriminately: An astonishing 97 percent of Muslim Americans say their religion influences nearly every single purchasing decision they make, according to a recent report by Ogilvy Noor, an international Islamic branding agency.
Those decisions are constrained by the market, however. IFANCA, the largest halal certifier in the world, has approved 23,000 products globally since its inception in 1982—just a fraction of the 75,000 kosher products available to America’s 6.5 million Jews. (See “What is halal?” below, for certification details.) Only 30 new halal SKUs were introduced in the U.S. in the first 11 months of 2010; 20 were launched in 2009, 11 in 2008 and five in 2007, according to Datamonitor, a market research firm based in Canandaigua, N.Y. Even though those numbers seem small, that’s 500 percent growth in four years.
Halal for all?
Omar thinks young Muslims are driving the increase. “It really appeals to the organic and sustainability part of their world viewpoint,” she says. Acree agrees: “When one looks at halal, it’s a much more holistic approach to the animal’s entire life cycle. How was it raised? Was it treated with respect along the way?” Halal dictates that animals should be slaughtered in the quickest, most humane, stress-free manner possible—and that includes not witnessing other animals being killed. Interpretations of Islamic law vary, but many Muslims believe it implies that animals should be raised on small farms, without antibiotics or hormones, and that food manufacturers should be socially responsible.
Some consumers are also attracted by halal’s third-party certification. “Jewish and non-Jewish consumers seek out kosher-certified foods as an additional marker for safety and quality, especially given recent food-safety scares. Halal-certified foods also appear to benefit from this trend,” says Tom Vierhile, director of product launch analytics at Datamonitor.
However, a certain group of people will always shun anything labeled halal, Omar says. “It goes along with the general Islamophobia that the American public has.” But if the food tastes good, the issue of halal doesn’t generally come up, she notes. And that’s exactly what Acree is counting on with Saffron Road products, which currently include frozen Indian entrees like chicken tikka masala and lamb vindaloo. “Our number-one goal is to make great-tasting food that people can enjoy. As a subset of that, it happens to be halal,” he says.
Naturals consumers, like most Americans, need to be educated about what halal is. “For example, our chicken comes from a farm that’s certified humane,” Acree says. “To us, it’s part of being a halal product. A natural foods consumer wouldn’t know that without doing the research, so we call that out on our package. It’s those messages that help us attract natural foods consumers.”
While conventional giants like Kraft and Cargill started certifying halal products in the 1990s, Coleman Natural meats and Tom’s of Maine personal care products (which adhere to the same halal standards as food) round out the short list of natural halal items. Without access to those brands, the majority of halal consumers find their food at ethnic neighborhood butchers or on websites like Halal Healthy, Green Zabiha and Zabihah.com.
“This consumer is basically starved for attention. The second that someone gives it to them, they become really very loyal; they finally feel validation,” Acree says. Adds Omar: “The American Muslim consumer is out there. They’re going to keep asking for halal; it’s just a matter of which company steps up and provides it.”
What is halal?
Halal laws are, in some regards, more lenient than kosher regulations. Halal guidelines are rooted in both spiritual and health origins, and dictated by the practices of the prophet Muhammad, says Maria Omar, spokeswoman for the Islamic Food and Nutrition Council of America, a leading certifier of halal foods.
The basic tenets include:
1. All foods in their natural state are permitted. Anything that is processed or packaged should undergo certification, Omar says, to ensure that none of the prohibited ingredients have cross-contaminated the product.
2. Consumption of pork or pork byproducts, including gelatin, is prohibited.
3. No alcohol is permitted, even in extracts like vanilla.
4. A Muslim slaughterer must invoke the name of God for each animal killed. “You acknowledge that you have no place taking the life of a living being,” Omar says, “and are only doing so because God is allowing you to, for sustenance.” Slaughter must be performed as quickly and humanely as possible, and all of the blood drained from the animal.