A RECENTLY-LAUNCHED consumer website designed to verify whether or not a sample of red meat has been processed under Halal conditions is already generating more than ten thousand hits each week.
Targeted at both domestic Australian Muslim citizens as well as visiting holiday makers from Muslim countries, the new website is removing a lot of uncertainty around meat purchases for people of Islamic faith.
Besides word of mouth, up to now the only channel available for consumers to try to verify Halal sourcing has been Google or social media platforms, which have been notoriously unreliable and often inaccurate.
Statistics show the majority of beef and sheepmeat in Australia is processed under Halal conditions, primarily to provide flexibility in trading options, should demand for a certain product arise from a Muslim export country. For example, Australia’s single largest (and best paying) market for beef livers is Egypt. In a large Halal export market like Singapore, an Australian Halal leg of lamb can retail for up to $180 in a premium retail outlet.
While the new website platform was originally designed for use within the Australian market, it is already attracting traffic from international countries where Australian Halal-processed beef is sold.
The business behind the verification program, Matjar (Arabic for marketplace) has a vision to eventually take the project global, incorporating data on Halal-licensed meat processors across the world.
One of the people behind the project is Australian-born, Perth-based Mohammed Iskander, who told Beef Central the original target audience for the website was overseas Muslim tourists visiting Australia, who often had difficulty finding restaurants and food service outlets using Halal supply.
But with the onset of COVID and travel restrictions excluding overseas visitors, as well as restaurant closures, the greatest traction is now being seen among the Muslim population living in Australia (one estimate suggests there are 1.2 million people living in Australia of Muslim faith), looking for local retail meat purchases or sourcing from local food service outlets.
To further complicate matters, the Halal certification process in Australia is fragmented, and does not operate under a uniform standard, or sharing openly information on who is Halal Certified. There are more than 25 certifiying authorities in operation in Australia, ranging from larger certifying organisations focused on export meat, through to local individuals who issue Halal Certificates for a localised market.
“The challenge for an overseas Muslim tourist in Australia is often trying to determine which authority has certified a product as Halal, let alone whether it is a suitable authority, in their eyes,” Mr Iskander said.
“Halal certifying authorities themselves provide very little in the way of searchable data or support to identify Halal products in the Australian marketplace – often asking consumers to submit requests based on the status of a Certificate issued by them. So we realised there was a real need for a reliable, comprehensive reference point for Halal consumers online – one where people can easily identify Halal status of a product and know who the Halal authority is,” he said. “This gives a great deal of transparency for all consumers.”
Social media unreliable
His group did some research during COVID, finding that up to 2000 social media inquiries were being posted daily over Halal status, either through social media groups, or direct to customer support sites for meat suppliers like Woolworths or Coles.
“Some of the Halal social media groups have up to 40,000 members. Users were posting a picture of a retail pack of meat, and simply asking, Is this Halal? Responses from other group members would often vary, be vague, or contradict each other.”
Mr Iskander said while all major Australian cities had dedicated Halal butchers, habits and buying patterns had changed this year, because of COVID movement restrictions and lockdowns.
“They could no longer go to a Halal butcher on the other side of Melbourne, but had to source locally – and did not know how to identify Halal product,” he said.
“Everybody was asking, Is this meat product Halal?”
“So while our original focus for the reference guide project was restaurants, it has quickly grown into butchers, supermarkets and other meat providers, including home-delivery.”
Since March – just as the COVID impact started to take hold – the team behind the project has contacted abattoirs and further processing plants across Australia to verify Halal status, and in cases where it is practised, the certifying body involved. This was cross-referenced with lists of meat suppliers in importing countries.
The list (Halal-certified, and equally importantly, non-certified) currently includes more than 540 Australian establishments (slaughter, boning and further processing), covering beef, lamb, mutton, chicken, goat and even exotic meats like camel meat and kangaroo.
The challenge, however, in taking the list international is enormous. There are almost 7000 establishments in the US, 2000 in Canada, and 1300 in the UK, alone, for example.
“We’re making progress overseas, but it is a huge task,” Mr Iskander said.
Building meat consumption
“When we first touched base with Australian plant managers, general managers or quality control managers, they were understandably wary about what we were trying to develop. But once they understood the concept, and how we are supporting Muslim meat consumers, 99pc are now very much on side,” he said.
“This project is about building Australian meat consumption – not undermining it in any way.”
The website is now being contacted by large customers in Muslim countries overseas wanting to identify Halal meat supply chains out of Australia.
“We have also established a searchable database including species, grass/grainfed, Wagyu, Angus, aged beef and many other Halal categories to help narrow down their search for products.”
“We had a large pie manufacturer recently contact us looking for a Halal supplier of lean camel meat, and we were able to provide three referrals.”
Mr Iskander said one of the keys that would help underpin the program in future (in the supermarket retail space) would be the continuation of printing of Establishment Numbers on supermarket retail-ready packs.
“The old days of the butcher out the back of each supermarket is pretty much dead,” he said. “Today, it is mostly taking retail-ready packs produced at a dedicated plant somewhere, and stacking them on the shelves. If the packs include an establishment number in the back, it provides an unbroken link back to the abattoir which processed it – whether it be Halal, or non-Halal.”
To complicate matters, some large retailers, like Woolworths, are supplied by both Halal and non-Halal practising abattoirs with the same product. In those cases, the reference site says it cannot verify Halal status.
Some large retailers are now starting to phase-out establishment numbers on packs, replacing them with license numbers or vendor numbers, which the Halal verification project is responding to with more research. In some examples, Muslim consumers in supermarkets have been simply asking staff to go out the back and find the master carton end-panel, and see if it carries a Halal reference.
But preserving Establishment Numbers on retail ready packs remains the key to reliable future tracing on Halal status, Mr Iskander said.
For example, the Aldi supermarket chain in Australia gets its beef supply (retailed under the same brand) from both Bindaree Beef at Inverell (non-Halal) and Harvey Beef WA (Halal), adding to potential confusion. Currently, separate Establishment Numbers (218 and 648, respectively) are included on retail packs, which the website can distinguish between.
Some of Australia’s largest further processors of value-added food products, like Carmen’s Kitchen and Alliance, have also embraced the website concept with appropriate labelling, because up to now they have had to manage consumer support related queries over Halal status themselves.
Mr Iskander said consumer traffic to the site had now grown to 10,000 unique browsers per week, up from just 500 when the program started back in August.
“Thursday to Sunday, when meat trading is at its busiest, website visitor numbers are now regularly 2000 per day,” he said.
Traffic has also grown rapidly in overseas countries where Australian beef is sold – especially in Muslim-dominant markets like Singapore and Malaysia.
Like Beef Central, Sheep Central and Grain Central, the Halal reference website is free access to all users, meaning the developers make their income only from paid advertising or promos on the site. Currently this includes promotion of Halal restaurants, the promotion of Halal chilled meat packs for home-delivery, and other services provide to the Halal community.
In a somewhat perverse outcome, the website also provides a useful channel for the handful of people who ‘on principle’ do not wish to purchase meat from a processing plant which practises Halal slaughter. Using the search facility, it is equally easy for those people to confirm that a product is NOT derived from a Halal facility.
Once a plant establishment number is punched into the website search facility, the site simply confirms that ‘yes’, the product is Halal, or ‘no’, it is not Halal, and the name of the Halal certifying body involved, if it is.
Neither the name of the processing plant that produced the product, nor its location, is identified to the user. In just 6pc of recent searches, the search function was unable to definitively determine the Halal status of a product.
To visit the Halal verification website go to https://www.halalfood.com.au/halal-meat