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Food industry bites back at anti-halal groups

What do Vegemite, Byron Bay ANZAC Cookies and a lot of Aussie beef have in common?

They are all halal foods and part of a growing trend of local food manufacturers to expand their business to both diverse communities in Australia and export markets.

Halal, which means ‘allowed’ and is based on Koranic law, dictates that foods are free from pork, alcohol and any product from an animal that underwent a torturous death or wasn’t blessed in accordance with the Islamic faith while being slaughtered. Food that is not halal is haram, or ‘forbidden’.

The halal food market trend has given rise to vocal protests by online groups, with bizarre claims that halal certification imposes a ‘religious tax’ and funds terrorist organisations.

The claims are entirely unsubstantiated. A spokesperson for the Australian Transaction and Reports Analysis Centre (AUSTRAC), the federal agency that monitors international money transfers, said, “AUSTRAC does not have any information that indicates there are links to terrorism financing from halal certification fees.”

The Facebook page Boycott Halal in Australia has gained almost 40,000 likes; while the website Halal Choices, led by founder Kirralie Smith, has listed all halal-ceritified foods and called for consumers to boycott them.

In the wake of the Sydney siege, the pages have called on their followers to prefer Lindt chocolate - the company that had its cafe held captive is not halal-certified - over halal-certified Cadbury products.

 

“Why do any foods have to be restricted to Australian markets?”

– Keith Byrne, of Byron Bay Cookies

But some businesses are caving into the pressure. The South Australian-based Fleurieu Milk and Yoghurt Company made a “decision on the run” to remove the halal certification - which cost the company $1,000 in fees – from its products, and jeopardises a $50,000 supply contract with international carrier Emirates Airlines.

“We had enough of the negative nonsense that was being said,” the company’s sales and communications manager, Nick Hutchinson, said.

“Tens of thousands of opinions (were) being unloaded all at once,” he said, but the pressure groups had “produced no evidence” and were “looking silly”.

He said their decision to bow to domestic pressure, which could cost the company their export market, had “brought to attention the damage these boycott pages are doing to Australian businesses.”

Hutchinson said it was disgusting that “Australia’s getting a reputation for this kind of thing” and the company’s products remain halal, although without certification, and Fleurieu was open to reacquiring halal certification in the future.

The anti-halal lobby groups also targeted Byron Bay Cookies, who produce a halal-certified version of the nation’s iconic ANZAC biscuit, but the company stood firm in the wake of abusive phone calls and hate emails. Keith Byrne, chief operating officer at the cookie company, said “it’s (now) turned around for us,” and they’ve “had an outpouring of support.”

Halal certification has opened up foreign markets, allowed the company to increase its volume of production, provided 65 locals with employment and stabilised the product price, Byrne said.

The prices of certification are low and much the same as gaining gluten-free or vegan certification, he said. The $1,400 certification that guaranteed the product was free from alcohol (found in vanilla essence) and gelatine, which is an animal by-product, as well as being hygenic was “money well-spent”, he said.

“Why do any foods have to be restricted to Australian markets?”

“If there was any link (to halal funding terrorist organisations) our federal government would be investigating it – those funds would be monitored,” Byrne said.

Dr Muhammad Khan, chief executive officer at one of 21 domestic halal certifying authorities, Halal Australia, said online campaigns were “anti-Muslim and have nothing to do with halal.”

“It’s damaging Australia’s reputation."

Halal certifiers are regulated by both a federal body in Australia (such as the Department of Agriculture) and also bodies specific to the export destination, as various overseas governments have different halal requirements, he said.

Indeed, many consumers are eating halal foods – whether they realise it or not. Andreas Dubs, executive director of the Australian Chicken Meat Federation, said “about half” of the chickens in Australia are halal. Ingham chickens, the country’s main chicken processor, has some plants certified and others not. KFC lists which shops customers can be assured they are consuming halal products.

“If a plant is halal certified, all products are halal, even if they’re not sold as such,” Dubs said.

All birds in Australia are stunned and rendered unconscious before their head is cut off by a machine, he said, so they don’t go through torture. The difference is having a practicing Muslim as one of the slaughterers to bless the animal, as this is a halal requirement.

Dubs is “not surprised” by the social media reaction to halal as “I’ve had a lot of difficult phone calls on this subject. People have strong views.”

The Australian Meat Industry Council declined to answer questions by The Point Magazine on this issue. Many beef exporters are dependent on the certification to open up big markets in Indonesia, Asia and the Middle East.

There are 123 abattoirs in Australia that are halal certified, and the price of certification is higher – up to around $10,000 - as the inspection is more complex.

Locally, supermarket shoppers at Coles delicatessens are buying many fresh halal meats. A Coles spokesperson said, “Australian beef, chicken and lamb processors often prepare their product to halal specifications to ensure their product is available to a wide domestic customer base, as well as for the export market. By increasing their overall market, suppliers are able to reduce their costs of production, resulting in lower prices for Coles customers.”

“We have reviewed our policy on meat labelling and can confirm that our products are labelled in line with all legal and regulatory requirements,” the spokesperson said.

Online groups who wish to boycott halal emphasise that food should be labelled as halal, so if they wish to consume non-halal meat, for whatever reason, they can.

Online website Halal Choices has shut down its comments section due to the large volume of correspondence they were receiving.

Mohamed El-Mouelhy, of Halal Certification Authority Australia, said the $10 billion halal export market (a third of Australian food exports) in Australia is booming. Bega Cheese has gone from employing 100 locals to over 500 locals after their certification. The dairy farmers' cooperative-owned factory is now exporting food around the world, he said.

As the hate campaign gathers in Australia, other companies that his organisation certifies overseas are catching up.

But most food manufacturers in Australia are trying to remain halal-savvy. “I’ve never suggested to any company they should be halal – they come with their own feet,” he said.

“Everybody’s benefitting from halal.”

The Point

Big business is biting back at lobby groups who are running smear campaigns against the halal food industry

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