EXPLAINER: The intricacies of certifying food as halal

Kristine Sabillo, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Nov 27 2019 08:22 PM | Updated as of Nov 27 2019 10:35 PM

Even before the official opening of the 2019 Southeast Asian Games, arrangements for the food and accommodations of athletes have become a controversial issue. Among the complaints raised is the inadequacy of halal options.

This is an important concern, considering that Islam is the most widely practiced religion in Southeast Asia, home to more than 200 million Muslims. Indonesia, Brunei and Malaysia are predominantly Muslim, while a substantial number of Singapore’s population practice Islam.

WHAT HAPPENED

The issue of halal food first came up when Singaporean news website The Straits Times reported that Singapore’s football team had been served “very limited” options for halal food at the hotel they were billeted in. During one dinner, the team was reportedly served only rice, pita bread and brinjal (eggplant) lasagna.

The National Commission on Muslim Filipinos subsequently said that while it offered to assist the Philippine Southeast Asian Games Organizing Committee (PHISGOC), it was never officially tapped to help out. 

ABS-CBN News later learned that the PHISGOC instead coordinated with the Department of Science and Technology (DOST) to train staff preparing food for athletes. However, this was limited to the New Clark City venues. 

In a press conference on Wednesday, Athletes’ Village head chef Bruce Lim said his staff prepared full halal menu at New Clark City but that not all hotels were halal-certified. Instead, he said they brought in third-party suppliers to help them.

It was also later revealed that Malaysian journalists were also having difficulty sourcing halal food for the SEA Games. Because of this, the Association of Sports Writers of Malaysia has resorted to eating canned food from a halal-food manufacturer.

DTI PREPARATIONS

In an e-mail on Wednesday, the halal section of the Department of Trade and Industry’s export marketing bureau also said it coordinated with the PHISGOC. However, it is not clear if suggestions were followed.

DTI senior trade-industry development specialist Raison Arobinto said in an e-mail that his office even held a Philippine National Halal Conference in Clark last July to prepare the establishments for the SEA Games. They also set up a “halal zone” at New Clark City despite the high cost of the booths “to make sure that we have halal supply.”

“We informed them (PHISGOC) the need to have halal certified food/products and services and proposed to them our services to make sure that we have Halal offerings to our Muslim spectators. As to how they responded to us, it's a different story. What is important is that we have insisted and kept on insisting the urgency of this particular concern,” Arobinto wrote.

WHAT IS HALAL?

NCMF executive-director Tahir S. Lidasan, Jr. said the term halal simply means “permissible.” “The food has been prepared and has no ingredients considered forbidden to Muslims,” he said. 

Most people know that Muslims cannot eat pork but there are other considerations as well.

“Cow or chicken has to be slaughtered in accordance to Islamic ritual,” Lidasan said.

People preparing halal food also need to be careful in ensuring there are no pork products in the dish they are serving. These include gelatin and shortenings, said Dr. Mary Jane Alvero-Al Mahdi, who is the chief executive officer of the Prime Group of Companies, a halal certification body based in the United Arab Emirates.

Also prohibited are GMO (genetically modified organism) food and those with alcohol content.

Datu Shariff Pendatun III, who is a chef and culinary consultant, added that they cannot eat dog meat and double dead meat, which is sometimes found in local markets.

“It is important to eat halal food for us Muslims because it is the order of Allah. Muslims believe that if the food is halal, it is prepared in the name of Allah and it complies with the requirement of Shariah (Islamic law based on the teachings of Quran),” Alvero-Al Mahdi said in an e-mail to ABS-CBN News.

She quoted a verse from the Quran, which states: “Prohibited to you are dead animals, blood, the meat of pigs, and that which has been dedicated to other than Allah, and [those animals] killed by strangling or by a violent blow or by a head-long fall or by the goring of horns, and those from which a wild animal has eaten, except what you [are able to] slaughter [before its death], and those which are sacrificed on stone altars” (Quran, 5:3).”

She explained that food will only be considered halal if “the method of slaughtering was performed as per the Shariah requirement causing minimum pain to animals with respect and compassion.”

FOOD PREPARATION

Because of this, meat suppliers and slaughterhouses also need to be certified halal.

Pendatun said among the sanitary requirements is not having blood on the floor.

“Aside from that, there’s this method (called) Zabiha,” he said. “It’s the ritual manner of slaughter. The jugular and the carotid artery of the animal is slit thrice. And then there’s also a prayer that they say.” Afterwards, “the blood has to be drawn out.”

Pendatun said Muslim scholars believe that it is the most humane way to slaughter an animal.

He said because halal food also needs to be prepared in a kitchen devoted only to halal.

“For instance, pork and alcohol — if it’s prepared in that same kitchen then (the rest are) no longer halal,” he said.

CERTIFICATION

Because it is hard to tell if a prepared dish is halal or not, having halal certification is important.

“Halal foods need to be certified to ensure that the whole supply chain, from farm to fork, shall comply to the requirement of Halal standard and Shariah requirement,” Alvero-Al Mahdi said. 

“If the food is certified Halal, Muslim consumers are confident that what they eat conforms, aligns and permissible to their culture and beliefs. Halal is more than just a brand, it signifies obligation and commitment towards not only to the Muslim but to everyone patronizing it.”

Among the things checked by certifying organizations are the method of slaughter of the animal, the source of meat and ingredients, additives, utensils and equipment, the processing and storage of the food.

Alvero-Al Mahdi said facilities are checked to if they are clean and if the personnel have halal awareness and food safety training. Laboratory analysis for halal integrity tests and microbiological examination are also done in some cases.

INTERNATIONAL EVENTS

Both Pendatun and Alvero-Al Mahdi said international events should be able to cater to participants requiring halal food.

“It’s not exclusive to halal,” Pendatun said of dietary restrictions in international events. “You have some kosher restrictions. A myriad of vegetarians.” He said catering to all these requirements are important when holding an “international level that’s multi-cultural and multi-religious.”

Reacting to the complaint of the Singapore team about halal options being limited, Pendatun pointed out that “any cuisine can be prepared in the halal way.” 

He said suppliers should realize that halal food can be high protein or high carbohydrate since most foods can be prepared in the halal way.

Meanwhile, Alvero-Al Mahdi said the best strategy for international events would be to have a central commissary for halal food.

She also pointed out that “halal food is not only for Muslims.”

“It is also being consumed by the non-Muslims because of its freshness, safety, dietary, nutrition benefits and wholesome foods free of harmful ingredients such as pesticides, toxins, pollutants and filth,” she said.

2019 SEA Games