The news suspended forks on their way to mouths, and sent supermarkets rushing to pull goods from shelves. Last month, the website Débat Halal claimed it had evidence that a popular brand of halal-certified poultry sausages marketed in France by a giant international food producer actually contain pork, rendering them forbidden or haram to Muslims. The accusation led many French Muslims to question how they can be sure that any of the halal food they buy meets certification standards only to discover that no single set of standards exists for determining which products are halal and which aren't. Now, some observers are hoping that the haram hubbub may finally push France's Muslim leaders to agree upon a united code for the halal food sector one of the biggest-booming niche markets in the nation.
The stir began when Débat Halal published a Jan. 16 report saying that tests had detected pork a substance forbidden under both halal and kosher rules within halal-branded poultry sausages produced by Herta, a unit of global food giant Nestlé. Counter-tests revealed by Herta a week later found no traces of pork in their Knacki Halal poultry sausages. Nevertheless, on Feb. 1, one of France's largest supermarket chains, Casino, removed the sausages from its stores to run its own test to "guarantee the strictest respect of halal certification." Still, the entire episode led Muslim consumers to wonder about the reliability of all the halal food they buy.
And for good reason. The flap over Herta's poultry sausages is only the latest controversy involving halal-certified food in France. In recent months, revelations of mechanized slaughtering by some industrial poultry Producers rather than the manual culling and bleeding halal requires have led some experts to estimate that up to 90% of poultry products labeled as halal in France don't meet even the most basic, generally recognized standards. While trying to find out exactly what the national norms are for halal certification, French Muslims have found there is no unified set of criteria or inspection procedures to verify a product as being halal. Instead, food companies work along differing standards overseen by rival factions of France's Islamic community. For Muslim consumers paying a premium to make sure that what they're eating is compatible with their religious Beliefs, it's an upsetting revelation.
"Questions of halal in France are overseen by the [country's] three most influential Mosques in Paris, Evry, and Lyon and they each have their own criteria, inspectors, companies and products they approve and endorse," says Abbas Bendali, director of the Paris-based Solis Conseil marketing consultancy, and an expert on France's halal food sector. "France's Muslim community is a mosaic of national origins, customs, tastes and habits to begin with, but unless rivalries can be overcome and a unified system regulating halal food can be created, the French halal market will remain splintered."
That's bad news for halal food producers who want to build on the booming sector, currently worth $7.6 billion in annual sales in France. Though that only accounts for a tiny slice of the estimated $655 billion global halal market, experts say its growth in France has consistently been in double digits for nearly a decade. Until recently, the vast majority of that activity has traditionally come from fresh meat sold by halal butchers, which still accounts for about 85% of France's total halal market. But more recently, the fastest-growing niche in France's halal food sector has been halal-certified cold cuts, soups, sauces, ready-made dishes, baby foods, and other processed products marketed by international companies who had previously focused distribution to the Middle East and Africa. Recently, Muslim shoppers also find they have a wider choice of diverse, innovative and more convenient, ready-to-eat goods than they've been used to most of them produced by multinational groups like Nestlé, Panzani, Fleury Michon, and Unilever.
"Many of the halal products these groups are selling in growing Numbers whether it's foie gras or turkey "ham" represent a real cultural revolution in Muslim tastes and consumer habits," says Bendali. "I think everyone would like to see that built upon, but that'll be harder to do if halal rules in France remain stratified and hazy."
Reaching a consensus on halal standards will be difficult among France's diverse, disparate Muslim population. Lacking an international structure like the Catholic Church to replicate at the national level, French Muslims remained largely unorganized until 2003, when government authorities helped found the French Council of the Muslim Faith as the representative of France's "official Islam." However, the organization has continually been undercut by rival factions and clashing loyalties that have made uniting French Muslims under a single structure or unified halal Code impossible.
That may change, however, as shoppers and companies start demanding clear halal criteria verified by inspectors that France's entire Muslim community can trust. If that happens, it will mark another revolution alongside France's growing halal boom: the rise of the French Muslim consumer as an economic force both marketers and officials must reckon with.