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The history of the halal market in the West

The market for halal food is a recent phenomenon. From the 1960s onwards, as immigrant Muslim populations began to settle in the West, especially in France, demand for halal meat increased. The 1990s saw the emergence of ‘Muslim consumers’ mindful of what they put on their plate. Specialist butchers began to develop locally, then the product range diversified and globalised within the agri-food business. Halal became a commercial quality label.
Halal – histoire - certification
© Getty Images - AFP - Martin Bureau - Halal sweets in a supermarket in Paris, 2013

Emergence of the Muslim consumer in the West

As a socio-economic phenomenon, products bearing the halal stamp were, originally, specific to non-Muslim countries. Within the population of immigrants from North Africa settled in France, for example, popular tradition tended to take precedent over Islamic doctrine. First-generation immigrants were especially keen to preserve customs and food traditions of their home country (Rodier, 2014). Although the Quran does not forbid eating the meat prepared by ‘People of the Book’ (Jews and Christians), the food eaten by Christians was considered as questionable and potentially ‘contaminated’ by coming into contact or being mixed with unlawful products such as pork. The first Muslim immigrants therefore bought their meat from Jewish butchers. As their standard of living in the host country improved, their consumption of meat increased. Until then reserved only for special occasions (such as the Eid al-Adha festival), meat became a marker of social and financial success and began to be served on a daily basis. Such new eating habits triggered a boom for Muslim butchers’ shops. In the 1970s in France, they were mainly owned by families and the majority culture pigeonholed them as ethnic and exotic shops. The personal reputation of the butcher, a member of the community, was enough to guarantee that the meat was halal. Little by little, ‘Muslim consumers’ were seen as able to control their bodies and their sense of belonging to a community through what they put on their plate (Rodier, 2014).

Industrialisation of standards

In the 1990s, health crises such as mad cow disease and foot-and-mouth disease forced the meat processing industry to focus more on ritual slaughter, under pressure from a public demanding more guarantees. The price of meat fell, quality improved and abattoirs were equipped to produce halal meat. The arrival of halal in the industrial chain was not without consequence as a simple religious slaughter practice became a controlled process subject to hygiene and quality standards. The number of halal certifying agents has increased to several hundred today. Demands for an international halal standard have grown, partly due to the international import-export economic ties between non-Muslim and Muslim countries that are inflexible regarding food product guarantees.

Halal certificate and the FAO

Given that Islamic law is incompatible with secular commercial law, Malaysia, the organiser of the World Halal Forum, which brings together stakeholders from the halal food market, secured a pledge from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) to include guidelines for the use of the term halal in the Codex Alimentarius, to protect it from being used inappropriately. By becoming an international standard, halal has now extended beyond meat products, to water, sweets, cosmetics and pharmaceuticals etc. It essentially concerns anything which may come into contact with the body, as control over the body forms part of the act of faith.