A universal halal standard will come a step closer this month when the first draft of an international standard is put before a committee of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference. The draft - outlining precisely how an animal is to be slaughtered, for example - will be considered by the standards committee on March 25 before going to the Islamic Chamber of Commerce and Industry general assembly for discussion in mid-April. Then, all being well, it would be made public in May at the World Halal Forum in Kuala Lumpur.
It is particularly relevant in the UAE, which is a major industry hub for an estimated Dh550 million (US$150m) in halal products every year - and not just food: cosmetics, pharmaceuticals and clothing companies are getting in on the action, too. Although Islamic law specifies halal requirements for food and the ingredients in food products, differences in interpretation have dogged the development of a unified standard, which first was envisioned in the 1990s.
Wahid Kandil, the general manager of Prairie Halal Foods, a Canadian consortium of farmers and processors that began shipping high-end beef and bison to the UAE in November, said the differences were minor, but significant. Some countries require an animal to be facing Mecca when it is slaughtered, others do not. Some allow the animal to be stunned with a knock to the head, so it does not become agitated at the sight of the knife that is to slit its throat. More conservative interpretations do not.
The UAE follows guidelines set by the Gulf Standards Organisation and requires companies bringing in food to present a halal certificate from a designated body - in Canada one of those organisations is the Islamic Society of North America. Some countries also regularly send delegations abroad to check that exporters are adhering to their halal expectations. "In Egypt, for instance, they want to send a government committee every time you slaughter an animal to make sure you are slaughtering it properly," Mr Kandil said.
As a result, although Egypt is one of the biggest potential markets, the situation "makes it almost impossible for us to deal with Egypt". At Al Islami Foods in Dubai there is no confusion about halal. The company has incorporated the principle both into practical aspects, such as the slaughter, and into less tangible areas, including corporate philosophy and management style. In the process, and over the course of three decades, it has become a benchmark for halal across the Emirates and into the Middle East.
Saleh Abdullah Lootah, Al Islami's chief executive said the company owed its progress to a vision that did not wait on "debatables". "We are exactly what the Quran and the hadith says. We don't want to be in a grey area." The only global set of guidelines in existence was drawn up in 1997 by the Secretariat of the Codex Alimentarius Commission, a joint food standards programme under the UN's World Health Organisation and Food and Agriculture Organisation.
Before they are even introduced the guidelines point out the "differences in opinion in the interpretation" according to different Islamic schools of thought. Tom Heilandt, a senior food standards officer with the secretariat in Rome, agreed that the kind of global agreement required to resolve those differences would be difficult to achieve. "When you have different philosophies, you find it very hard to find consensus. It's a religious issue, it's a philosophical issue. It goes deep."
Darhim Hashim, chief executive of the International Halal Integrity Alliance, a non-profit organisation of halal manufacturers and service providers, also acknowledged that agreement would be difficult. "People are averse to change," he said, "even if it's for the better." firstname.lastname@example.org