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Chasing Halal

May 20, 2010 by  


By Sumayyah Meehan, MMNS Middle East Correspondent

gelatin

Finding foods that are halal, or meet Islamic food standards, are relatively easy to come by in the Middle East. Most restaurants have ‘halal certificates’ displayed proudly near the cash register to assure Muslim customers that the meat served is not pork based and was slaughtered according to Islamic values. The governments of most Middle Eastern countries go one step further to keep pork out of its border by completely banning pork food items, and pork byproducts in other food items.

However, the system is not foolproof and in some countries has completely broken down. One of the most problematic places for distinguishing between halal and haram food is at western-style grocery stores.

In Kuwait, for example, foodstuffs that contain pork byproducts are rampant on grocery store shelves. The most notable ingredient present is ‘gelatin’ which is a byproduct made from boiled animal skin, bones and blood. Everything from imported American breakfast cereals to dessert mixes often contain gelatin.  All it takes is a quick email to the manufacturing company to learn the animal derivative of the gelatin, with pigs being the primary source used by American manufacturers.

For the less savvy non-label-reading Muslims in the Middle East it can often be hard to detect which foods are halal and which ones are not, especially when the consumer does not read English well. What’s even more troubling is that a series of American, and even European, countries have tried to mask the ingredients of the products that they export to the Middle East. On many products, the ingredients list does not even contain words but rather a series of “E” codes. On a typical box of imported cereal a consumer might find some of the ingredients to be “E420” or “E460” which are Sorbitol and Cellulose, respectively.

There have been several cases in Kuwait where pork has not been the problem, but rather alcohol has been found to be an ingredient in an imported food item. Salad dressing and prepared mustard sauces are notorious for containing either red or white wine. Other unexpected places that alcohol has turned up on a product label have been in prepared pasta sauces and even some readymade desserts. The assumption that ‘halal rules’ in most Muslim countries is exactly just that, only an assumption. Buyers in the region must be aware shoppers when adhering to a halal diet.

And in some Middle Eastern countries, especially the ones who cater to foreigners for the big tourism bucks, pork is a welcome guest on some store shelves. In both Oman and the UAE, pork meat can be found in a scant few western-themed supermarkets right alongside halal meats. However, finding pork can be somewhat like looking for a needle in a haystack as there is not a viable market for “the other white meat.”

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