Dr John Lever is a Senior Lecturer in Sustainability in the Department of Strategy, Marketing and Economics and a member of the University’s Centre for Sustainable and Resilient Communities. Here, he talks about halal and sustainability and that it is no longer enough for producers to focus solely on what type of food is produced but how food is produced should be seen as just as important.
“The industrial food system faces many challenges. In recent decades the increasing production and consumption of high calorie, cheap processed food has undermined food security and contributed to a rapid increase in obesity and diet related ill health worldwide (Carolan 2013). The overuse of antibiotics in industrial animal agriculture provides a good example of the issues involved. Many global food companies use antibiotics to prevent rather than treat disease on factory farms and this is now recognized as a major contributory factor in the increase of antibiotic resistance worldwide (Akhtar, 2012). This is hugely significant for animal, environmental and human health and a number of studies have shown that antibiotics in the human food chain contribute to diet related ill health (Collins 2012; Lam et al 2012). Not surprisingly, a backlash against antibiotic use is emerging and there is an embryonic movement for factory farm divestment (Levitt 2016).
To some extent, the global expansion of halal can be linked with concerns and anxieties about industrial food production. The halal food industry is estimated to be worth around $700 billion and with the Muslim population expected to increase from 1.6 billion to 2.2 billion by 2030 the opportunities on the horizon are vast (Bergeaud-Blackler et al 2016). In Arabic, the word ‘halal’ literally means ‘permissible’ or ‘lawful’ and in relation to food in particular it signifies ‘purity’ and is protected by certain Islamic practices. A number of Muslim requirements have been met in the global food industry, including injunctions to avoid substances where there is a threat of cross contamination from unacceptable ingredients, yet it has also been argued that the halal certification industry must make it easier for halal consumers to chose healthier food options (Tieman 2016). Much as the UK food industry is under pressure to shorten supply chains and improve sustainability in the aftermath of the horsemeat scandal of 2013, so there is a focus in Malaysia – a leading player in the global halal industry – to incorporate thoyyib into all stages of halal production and assurance.
Halal assurance first emerged in Malaysia in the 1980s and Malaysia has since become recognised as a major halal hub in Southeast Asia through cooperation with states such as Indonesia, Brunei and Australia. Instrumental in the development of internationally recognised halal standards, Malaysia has been particularly successful in bridging Islamic traditions with the demands of international markets though its state led certification scheme overseen by JAKIM (Department of Islamic Development of Malaysia) and Nestlé Malaysia. This has added a new dimension to the global production and consumption of halal and Malaysia is pursuing plans to become a global halal hub by improving all aspects the global supply chain. A better understanding of the notion of thoyyib is now seen to be central to this process.
What is thoyyib?
Little understood, thoyyib is an integrative concept that relates to food safety and quality-produced food and a number of links can be made with sustainable food production and consumption. There has been growing Muslim interest in organic halal food in Europe for a number years and London recently hosted the UK’s first Halal Food Festival, which attracted many consumers from beyond the Muslim community. The links between organic food and thoyyib are evident in the shared focus on a hygienic, nutritious and healthy way of life and it has recently been argued that the certification of nutritionally deficient halal products is therefore misleading (Tieman 2016).
Halal and sustainability are now both seen as opportunities. It is no longer enough for producers to focus solely on what type of food is produced – how food is produced is just as important. As well as product ingredients, consumers everywhere are increasingly concerned about farm animal welfare, transport, packaging and waste management, and many are demanding nutritious and quality food options that allow them to lead a healthier lifestyle. Thoyyib provides an opportunity, if better understood, to improve the many aspects of halal production in line with these issues, thus contributing towards a more sustainable and secure food future. Halal is no longer simply an expression of contested forms of production and consumption. It is part of a rapidly expanding, globalized market that is starting to bring the concerns of Muslim and non-Muslim consumers closer together.”
Akhtar, A. (2012) Animals and Public Health: Why Treating Animals Better is Critical to Human Welfare, Palgrave Macmillan
Bergeaud-Blackler F., Fischer, J. and Lever, J. (2015) Halal Matters: Islam, politics and markets in global perspective London, UK: Routledge.
Carolan, M. (2013) Reclaiming Food Security, Earthscan: Routldege.
Collins, N. (2012) Livestock antibiotics ‘could have contributed to human obesity’, The Telegraph, 22 August
Lam, David W., and LeRoith, D. (2012) “The worldwide diabetes epidemic”, Current Opinion in Endocrinology, Diabetes and Obesity 19.2.
Levitt, T. (2016), Factory farming divestment: what you need to know, The Guardian, 3 March
Tieman, M. (2016) Halal diets, Islam and Civilisational Renewal, 7 (1)
 “Halal alone won’t take you far. Food must also be “thoyyiban”. Statement by the President of the Nestlé Halal Committee Regulatory Affairs of Malaysia, published in a Department of Standards Malaysia newsletter http://fr.scribd.com/doc/25463489/SH-Nestle-Malaysia (consulted on January 24, 2014).