Fred Marques is the first to admit that he knew almost nothing about halal food back in 1990. But that changed after he met with officials from the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), Canada’s leading halal certification agency. “They asked us to consider a halal slaughter,” recalls Marques, vice-president of Marketing for Maple Lodge Farms, a Canadian success story built by an Ontario farming family in 1834 and now the country’s largest independent poultry processor and one of the top three in the field. “We looked at it and realized that it wouldn’t take a whole lot of production changes to make it happen. So we did.”
Seventeen years later, Marques is an expert on the production and marketing of halal food in Canada, and Maple Lodge, now the nation’s number-1 supplier of halal meat, is once again a pioneer on a new food frontier that is emerging on Canada’s multicultural landscape.
According to a report issued in June by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, consumers of all stripes across North America are increasingly turning to halal and kosher foods, which are prepared and processed according to strict sets of guidelines stemming from Islamic and Jewish laws and tradition. The report, The United States Ethnic Food Market: Opportunities for Canadian Agri-Food Exporters, notes that the kosher food industry, which has been around for decades, continues to expand from its base of more than five million Jewish consumers across North America into the mainstream market.
Driven by a variety of factors – from public fears over food safety and the growing popularity of the green movement, to humanitarian concerns and vegetarian needs – that demand has led to the introduction of some 100,000 kosher-certified food and beverage products in the U.S. over the past 20 years, including 2,500 new ones last year alone. It has also meant the creation of a market that was estimated to be worth more than US$7 billion in 2006. “Some industry experts,” wrote report author Ben Berry, “have even suggested that nearly 50 per cent of all packaged food produced in the United States is kosher, and that most major brands are certified kosher as well. Many grocery retailers are now devoting entire sections of their stores to kosher food. Kosher bakeries, delis, meat departments, frozen food sections, general merchandise aisles and even sushi bars can be found in many of Supervalu’s 13 grocery banners’ locations, as well as in Wegmans, Shop Rite and Tops Markets outlets among others. Mass merchandisers like Wal-Mart and Kmart are also continuing to expand their kosher food product offerings [and] the number of grocers offering kosher food sections is likely to expand as retailers continue to place more importance on ethnic food merchandising.”
Berry also notes that demand for kosher food “is even being met in the foodservice sector, with many fast-food chains such as Dunkin Donuts and SUBWAY now operating kosher franchises,” and that institutions such as hospitals, hotels and universities offer kosher food. The result is that one third of the kosher food industry is driven by the foodservice sector.
That demand, of course, has created tantalizing market opportunities for the many Canadian food firms that have taken advantage of both a weak Canadian dollar in recent years and our strong international reputation for the production of top-quality agricultural and food products. “We’re not missing work, that’s for sure,” says Rabbi Levin, an official with the Kashruth Council of Canada, one of the country’s biggest and one of the world’s best-known kosher (or “kasruth”) agencies. According to Levin, it costs “just pennies” for most food companies to make their goods kosher, a process that depending on the type of food involved, usually involves occasional supervision and reviews of processes and ingredients to make sure they comply with agreed-upon rules. Tellingly, some 900 Canadian retail and commercial facilities and more than 45,000 food products bear the agency’s symbol, meaning they have met “the highest level of kosher supervision using the latest scientific technology.”
Though less well known, halal products are beginning to loom large on the radar for many Canadian food manufacturers. In addition to the U.S., where a growing Muslim population of some eight million people plus another three million consumers spend an estimated $12 billion a year on halal products and services, the world’s Muslim community of about 1.5 billion people – about one-quarter of the Earth’s population, a proportion that is expected to rise to one-third by 2025 – spend an estimated $600 billion a year on goods that meet halal standards. That amount includes roughly $80 billion in global trade of halal food, or roughly five per cent of the total value of agri-food products now shipped around the world each year. It’s estimated that that figure could rise to 20 per cent in the coming decades.
David Hunter is the executive director of the Toronto-based Canadian Halal Export Alliance, which was formed six months ago with help from Ag-Can to represent food processors and industry service providers and help build export markets for Canadian food products targeted to the specific needs and desires of Muslim consumers. Hunter says the demand for certified halal food – everything from uncooked chicken parts to shelf-stable processed foods – is being driven by both oil-rich, farmland-poor Muslim nations in the Middle East and countries around the world with large Muslim populations, notably Indonesia, Malaysia, China, Russia, India, Pakistan, Turkey and even France, which is home to six million Muslims. “It’s pretty much across the board,” says Hunter.
Hunter also cites statistics and figures from both the recent Ag-Can report and the website of the Halal Exchange – a joint venture between Vancouver-based web company vLinx and a ruling family member in the United Arab Emirates – that is working to develop international standards and procedures that will ease access to often fragmented markets governed by a dizzying array of regulations emitted by various governments, certification agencies and religious bodies. “The world halal food market is tricky to navigate,” adds Hunter. For instance, he says, a recent World Trade Organization report suggests the average import-export halal deal involves 20 to 30 parties, 40 documents and the seemingly endless re-keying of data, a long and frustrating process that also adds as much as 15 per cent in administrative costs to each transaction. “But it’s also huge [and] it’s insatiable,” says Hunter.
Despite the risks, many Canadian food makers have decided to invest a lot of time and money in the development of halal products for the export market. “It’s a fascinating field with tremendous possibilities,” says Steve Hahn, a partner in Al Safa Halal, a Cambridge, Ont.-based company that has produced frozen, value-added halal meat products – everything from chicken patties and beef strips to falafels and pizzas – through major retailers across North America since 1999. A spin-off from MGI Beef Packers, a mid-size slaughtering house that converted its facility to halal standards in the early 1990s to supply the Malaysian government, the company is now negotiating with an offshore partner to export its best-selling halal chicken nuggets to Trinidad. “There are apparently a lot of Muslims there,” says Hahn. “You should see the face of Muslim kids who have never tried chicken nuggets before.”
At the same time, the one million Muslims in Canada provide a lucrative home market for halal producers. In addition to exporting its products to a dozen countries, Maple Lodge Farms’ Zabiha Halal label, for example, offers a wide range of halal chicken, including fresh, frozen, processed meats and pre-sliced deli, in regions with large Muslim populations in Ontario, Quebec and Western Canada. “As a group, Muslims eat twice as much meat as other Canadians [and] most of that meat is chicken,” says Marques. He added that only a few changes, including increased bleeding time and the presence of practicing Muslims who pray continuously at the beginning of the slaughtering process, were required to earn halal certification for the company’s Brampton, Ont. plant, which processes some 350,000 chickens a day. “But they’re not your average consumer. You need to work with their community and to understand their specific needs in order to do well. And I think we’ve done that.”