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Halal certified products: Where the packaging industry go wrong and the way forward

All product manufacturers should agree that “Food shouldn’t or rather can’t have a religion”. Once they have clarity at thought level than on a priority basis, they need to stop the practice of putting a religious label on packaged items.

In the ancient civilisation, there were hardly any standard rules or operating principles and thus each tribe or religion had its own set of unwritten rules, which were possibly drawn based on needs or probably prejudices of those times. Halal, as a word, owes its origin to the means to slaughter an animal. Different tribes or religions must be having their own ways to slaughter for the reasons best known to them and many of them are even continuing now. 

Possibly for trade, when people started moving from one place to other, apprehension/suspicion could have also germinated and thus in the quest to ensure that religious practitioners are abiding by religion-specific rules, maybe words like Halal started appearing as labels so that host can assure the guest that the food served is conforming to the norms laid out by his/her religion.  We also need to be mindful of the fact that there was neither packaged food nor packaged food industry and thus these labels were used in very in niche corners. 

Present situation

With the massive evolution of packaged food industry and with people travelling a lot from place to place, somebody at some moment might have thought of continuing the same idea of the past i.e. placing Halal label on packaged meat item so as to assure that meat inside has been slaughtered by Halal methodology. In the early days of Halal certification, the underlying intent could have been simply to assure that the meat is slaughtered by Halal method and later on they continued with the same label on other products if it doesn’t have pork or alcohol etc. 

Where did the packaged industry go wrong?

By all yard-sticks of rules as well as common-sense, food could be vegetarian, non-vegetarian, vegan, egg-based etc. and all these labels are based on what goes into the ingredients and to make it easier for quick identification, labels like a green dot or red dot must have evolved. Add-on adjectives like “Hot”,  “Spicy” or “Mild”, “Organic”, “Pesticide-free”, ‘Cruelty-free” make sense as they denote certain attributes of the item inside. Over a period of time, many other labels have also found a place on packages, which are either linked to the country’s rules like FSSAI/USFDA or to processes followed during packaging like ISO/CMM etc. But we need to understand that all these labels are either linked to the ingredients or to the process followed during manufacturing/processing etc.

But the Halal label on the item immediately accords religious flavour as it directly conveys that the said item is good for consumption by people of a certain religion.

In this era of Internet and logic, Halal as a label and the whole underlying certification framework sounds quite illogical and misplaced as how such a certification became acceptable to the manufacturer in the first place? In today’s evolved world it would be hard to imagine if anywhere, a  consumer can demand or expect the food to have a religious identity! More so in a country like India, which is inherently secular by design/practise and the norms of FSSAI also expect the food to remain secular. for example: “Pre-packaged food shall not be described or presented on any label or in any labelling manner  that is false, misleading or deceptive or is likely to create an erroneous impression regarding its character in any respect;”

Though FSSAI guidelines are quite detailed and exhaustive if we just deeply examine one such guideline mentioned above from FSSAI, how the manufacturers could continue with Halal type labels because:

  1. The Halal certification with an intent to certify that the food is good for certain religion doesn’t automatically make it suitable for practitioners of all other religions?
  2. Or on the contrary, the Halal certification could straightway make the food immediately unsuitable for people of certain faiths who prefer slaughter by alternate methods or are ok with pork/alcohol as one of the ingredients etc;

All theories of analogies or interpretations or hypotheses defy the logic of putting a religious label on the packaged item as it would sooner or later cause uneasiness with the brand because one single label could create a divide among the product consumers. Possibly this is the underlying cause that there is so much noise about this issue on social media as well as mainstream media. For example, till yesterday everybody used to enjoy chapatis made from the same Atta but today certain % of loyal costumers just hate to eat chapatis made from same Atta. If we do a root cause analysis, the manufacturers would have to be held responsible for this divide triggered in the food we consume!

The way forward for Manufacturers who are partaking in Halal certification

All product manufacturers should agree that “Food shouldn’t or rather can’t have a religion”. Once they have clarity at thought level than on a priority basis, they need to stop the practice of putting a religious label on packaged items. All product companies should just constantly pursue a heightened focus on food quality and transparency about ingredients/process.  In this era of conscious consumerism, the consumer also has the right to demand absolute transparency. 

If a certain community doesn’t want alcohol in the food item then simply a statement or indicative label by the manufacturer that product doesn’t contain alcohol should be good enough to buy the trust of the customer. The world is already in conflict because of religion and all leading product companies should thwart or resist any effort by consumers to push religion into products.  All manufacturers should put on their thinking hats and with collective consensus should evolve uniform best practises with the underlying intent to ensure that “Food has no religion”. At least in the secular countries of the world, food should also be secular.

If the above looks difficult or challenging then the second-best option is to start labelling items for all kind of varied religions of the world till the time world has just one religion!  In that situation nobody would mind, Halal type labels, provided there are contemporary labels also like “Dharmic”, “Satvic”, “Rajsic”, “Tamsic” or maybe easy  to  comprehend types  like  ”Good for Hindus”, “Good for Sikhs”, “Good for Jains”, “Good for Buddhists”,  “Good for Christians”, “Good for Jews” etc etc

The onus is on the industry at large whether they want food to have religion or food to remain secular!

(This article has been written by Sunil Kumar Pachar, an IT professional and entrepreneur in sustainability space)

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Sunil Pachar
Humane first, animal later, Technocrat, Hungry always... for knowledge, Enterprising but grounded, Walks middle-path.. but not because is scared of edges.

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