Even snowy conditions couldnt keep Government officials, global meat producers, Muslim groups dealing with Halal Accreditation and other industry representatives from this special Footprint Media Roundtable to discuss the hot topic of Halal.
Its been almost two months since the Mail on Sunday (MoS) published its Halal expose: Britain goes Halal but no-one tells the public. The papers investigation was based on the vague labelling laws surrounding Halal meat. It claimed that schools, hospitals, pubs and famous sporting venues are controversially serving up meat slaughtered in accordance with strict Islamic law to unwitting members of the public.
Indeed, the MoS piece featured a series of spokespeople from companies like Whitbread to venues such as Wembley caught, it seems, responding on the hoof to the accusations. Almost overnight this became a live issue for the foodservice industry.
With consumer media only serving to heighten the confusion, Footprint was asked to bring the parties concerned together for a Footprint Roundtable. The idea? To cut through the confusion and provide guidance on how to tackle this issue head on.
Delegates battled through the snow induced chaos to gather at the Coopers Hall in the City of London, generously donated for the event by contract caterer CH&Co. The parties represented included EBLEX (English Beef and Lamb Executive), Defra, Universal Halal Agency, British Poultry Council, Freedom Foods, European Halal Development Agency (the only accreditation to be ratified by the Olympic Committee), Local Government, as well as global meat producers, contract caterers, and procurement agencies.
The timing couldnt have been better: the first authoritative study of the Halal red meat industry had arrived hot off the press from EBLEX that very morning. The report is valuable and certainly worth a read (for a copy of which please do contact firstname.lastname@example.org). For the first time its given the foodservice industry the basis for an understanding of the Halal market. Footprint Roundtable, similarly game-changing, offered the first opportunity for us all to sit down and discuss the issues at hand.
This was a chance for everyone to convene, quiz, challenge and communicate. This was a chance for our industry to face this challenge as a team. This was a chance for voices to be heard. This was also a chance for the other side of the story to be told. After all, the challenge for foodservice is not only about preventing Halal being supplied to those who dont want it, but also supplying it to those that do.
Alas, three hours, 22 people and a round table does not a future policy make. But, we got the bull running and found some UK direction. Not least, we had general agreement on what can be done to reassure foodservice customers. It all boils down to whether their concern stems from a religious perspective or through concerns over animal welfare.
The first thing to understand is the law. Halal had hit the headlines because there is no UK labelling scheme for meat slaughtered in this way. Weve already had stories about meat being labelled that wasnt actually Halal. This time, the papers used the notion of secrecy and poor labelling laws, combined it with the idea that Halal meat was from animals that were not stunned pre-slaughter, and arrived at a scare-story about lots of people unwittingly eating Halal.
Everyone agreed that the media never helps a situation like this. Theres been a plethora of coverage and comment, ranging from the radical to the (relatively) reasonable. But one thing remains constant: confusion.
Here are the facts. There is currently no UK labelling scheme for Halal. However, there is the Animals Slaughter and Killing Regulations, which require that animals be stunned prior to slaughter. There is a caveat: where there is a religious need for the animal not to be stunned that the animal be rested at the point of killing for a period of not less than 20 seconds post cut.
Some Muslims argue that only meat that is not pre-stunned can be Halal. This is a debate that those present agreed would not go away anytime soon. But supporters of no stun are fading. Many Muslim countries now slaughter using stunning, including Malaysia which has its own standard Malaysia being very much a beacon of halal best practice. All New Zealand meat is pre-stunned. The majority of Halal meat in our country is pre-stunned too the same as any other UK slaughter method.
Acceptance of pre-stunning is based on the animal still being alive when slaughter takes place. For that reason, Halal differs from non-Halal in just one way: the knife is held by a Muslim who recites a blessing as the animal is slaughtered.
So, if your customers are asking for non-Halal meat on grounds that Halal meat isnt pre-stunned, you can reassure them 100 per cent by offering to source accredited meat from schemes like the Red Tractor, EBLEXs Quality Standard Mark or the RSPCAs Freedom Foods. The animal may have had the blessing, but it will definitely have been pre-stunned.
Of course, if your customers want Halal, and they want to be sure it is pre-stunned, then you can source meat with a recognised Halal certification label alongside, say, the Red Tractor. There are sources of information that can help you develop your strategy, and a good place to start is EBLEXs video on the process (which was shown at the start of the Footprint Roundtable). Defra, the Universal Halal Agency and the Muslim Council of Britain also have information on their websites. Use those for guidance, rather than whats in the papers.
While you may be able to reassure customers concerned about Halal on welfare grounds, its trickier if they are asking for non-Halal for religious reasons. Muslims may represent only 3 per cent of the UK population, but they eat 20 per cent of the lamb, and the demand for Halal here is set to rise further. We also source from countries where Halal is commonplace (New Zealand and Thailand). Hence, buying non-Halal will probably push your costs up (one reader said by 40 per cent in their case). Equally, if your customers want accredited Halal meat, then they will have to be willing to pay the price. According to the EBLEX report, Muslims are happy to take the word of another Muslim on the issue of whether the meat is Halal or not. This lays the system open to abuse, but if Halal is requested, then your customer should either put their trust in the certification of the meat you supply or specify what they require.
Waitrose is pushing for Government to lead on a consistent approach to labelling for Halal, to include retailers, butchers, restaurants and the food production and catering industry as a whole. This would take into consideration the current situation which allows the term Halal to be used for meat that has been pre-stunned before slaughter and that which has not. A global standard for Halal would also help (as EBLEXs report concluded). But as yet there isnt one. There are discussions on labelling laws progressing in Brussels, with the European Parliament this summer voting to introduce regulations that mean meat will be labelled specifying the method of slaughter used. However, itll take some years to transpose into UK law.
For this reason Footprint Roundtable proved so dynamic. It tackled the issues head on, parking elements that have been ongoing and were likely never to be resolved (for example the stun versus no stun debate among the Muslim community).
Halal is a complex issue, of that there is no doubt and certainly within the context of foodservice. But if the progress at our first meeting was anything to go by, there is no reason for the industry to stand still. Consumer choice should be at the heart of everything you do; your customers can, after all, choose from myriad ethical labels including organic, vegan, non-GM and low carbon, so they should be able to choose between Halal and non-Halal. At the moment, it will cost the operator more to do so. However, once the situation is explained, as weve outlined, there may be less costly ways forward until universal labelling laws are agreed.