Halal certification for certain food and drink products is a tricky area and universal standards should be set to better reflect halal consumer needs and religious principles.
ASEAN is home to more than 240 million Muslims. The nation-states of Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, and Brunei share a common adherence to the Shafi’i Sunni branch of Islam. The issue of the halal certification of food, however, holds little common ground. This lack of commonality affects consumer trust and, therefore, impedes halal consumption. A significant challenge is the development in Southeast Asia of a trusted certification process on behalf of the global halal industry.
Due to the rapidly growing value of certified halal products within the ASEAN region and in the international market, which a Global Halal Food Market report estimated at US$1.978 trillion in 2021 and will be worth some US$3.907 trillion by 2027, it is important to have a unified and accepted process for certifying agencies. While these nation-states are multi-religious, multicultural, and mostly secular in government, many Muslims within ASEAN and globally choose to follow a halal lifestyle. Halal products and services are also gaining increasing acceptability among non-Muslims, particularly among those that follow vegan or vegetarian principles.
For non-Muslim groups, halal meatless edibles, cosmetics, or pharmaceutical products and services may satisfy their required lifestyle better than conventional ones, while other products such as halal beer are popular but potentially problematic relating to differing accepted levels of ethanol among regulators in Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, and Brunei.
In Singapore, non-alcoholic wine, beer, or the like are considered non-halal, according to the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore’s (MUIS) Fatwa Committee, even though these products contain less than 0.5 per cent alcohol (including products with zero alcohol content). In Malaysia, a non-alcoholic 0.0 Heineken beer is also considered non-halal — even though its marketing targets only non-Muslims aged 21 and above. On the other hand, Middle Eastern producers in Muslim-majority Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Lebanon, and Palestine brew non-halal-certified non-alcoholic beer for local consumption and for export to other regions. Years ago, prominent Saudi and Egyptian clerics issued fatwas “…declaring it [is] permissible for Muslims to drink zero-alcohol beers”. A 2013 The Economist report cited one Saudi ruling where “the key issue was whether one could get intoxicated by consuming a large amount of the drink (thereby ruling out low-alcohol beers)”.
Another product confusing to halal consumers is the disputed civet coffee (“kopi luwak”) most often produced in Indonesia. Various opinions and rulings have been published since kopi luwak first became an issue, not only within ASEAN but also in the Middle East Muslim-majority nation-states and elsewhere, where a Muslim halal-conscious consumer mentality exists. The Indonesian Ulama Council (MUI) stated in 2010 that the coffee beans excreted in the stool of the civet mammal become mutanajis (religiously impure). However, drinking this coffee is permissible if the beans are washed properly, all debris is removed, and only entirely unbroken beans are used, qualifying the drink as halal.
The primary challenge that suppliers and exporters of halal food products continually face is the glaring absence of universal certification standards.
The Department of Islamic Development in Malaysia (JAKIM) accepts MUI’s reasoning on kopi luwak. However, a contradictory ruling from the Middle Eastern religious authority Al Sheikh Ahmad Hujji al Kurdi, a member of the Kuwait National Fatwa Committee, states that drinking civet coffee is not permissible. The Shi’a ulama in Iran also declare the civet coffee as najjis (ritually unclean). On the question of the coffee being haram (forbidden), one can view a clip on Ahlulbayt TV where Shi’a scholar Sayyed-Mohammad-Al Musawi clearly states that luwak coffee is haram. In addition, Abdul Halim Abdul Kadir (former president of the Malaysian Ulama Association, PUM) stated in 2010 that drinking civet coffee is prohibited.
The animal-enhanced coffee market in Indonesia is granted halal certification, though other Muslim ulama do not agree on its halal status. Perhaps pragmatically, due to high consumer demand and profits to be made, religious authorities conduct further theological evaluations on the permissibility of these products. The global specialty coffee market is estimated to reach US$83.6 billion by 2025. The Iranian ulama did a similar fatwa-switching action with caviar back in 2007 and “…since its production and export were a state monopoly, caviar procured the Iranian treasury millions of dollars in revenue”.
The primary challenge that suppliers and exporters of halal food products continually face is the glaring absence of universal certification standards. As argued above, Islamic clerics sometimes put forward contradictory interpretations of what is and what is not halal. Indeed, an item deemed halal by one set of fatwas might be considered haram according to another. These discrepancies in religious opinion may result in a company or corporation being rejected when applying for the all-important halal certification seal. Thus, profit potential, as well as the potential risk of bribes and corruption in some cases, lies in the hands of a select and powerful few. If the product is vital to a particular country’s economy, national profit motives can override religious dictates, allowing a product’s haram classification to be changed to halal.
Faegheh Shirazi is a Professor in the Department of Middle Eastern Studies, at the University of Texas, Austin.