Halal labelling rules kick in today, but certifying organizations remain unregulated

After years of complaints from the Muslim community about companies slapping the term "halal" on food that is not, new labelling regulations come into effect today across the country, but the new rules still leave it up to religious communities to determine who gets to declare a product halal.

New CFIA rules require halal label include name of organization or individual who certified the product

New rules come into effect this week to improve the labelling of halal foods, but some in the Muslim community say regulation needs to go further 2:23

After years of complaints from the Muslim community about companies slapping the term "halal" on food that is not, new labelling regulations come into effect today across the country.

Under the new rules, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency requires that any food labelled halal has to have been certified by an organization that ensures it does, indeed, meet Muslim dietary requirements.

For animal products, those religious requirements include blessing each animal before slaughtering it by hand.

"As of April 4, all halal claims on food labels, packaging and advertising materials will need to be accompanied by the name of the organization or person that certified it as halal," the CFIA said in a notice to the food industry.

Prior to the new rules, halal labels did not have to specify the certifying organization.

'There's no unifying certifying body that certifies the certifiers. So, anyone can become a certifier.' - Salima Jivraj, founder of the Halal Food Fest Toronto

The new federal regulations do not specify which organizations are qualified to certify food as halal, and the CFIA does not oversee such organizations. Nor does the agency spell out any criteria for what constitutes halal, leaving that determination up to community and religious organizations.

Salima Jivraj organizes an annual halal food festival in Toronto and co-owns Showtime, a halal bistro in the city's Scarborough area.

She says while the labelling rules are needed to deter fraudulent halal products, they don't go far enough.

"The issue is, there's no unifying certifying body that certifies the certifiers," said Jivraj, who also edits the website halafoodie.ca. "So, anyone can become a certifier. There's no accreditation. That's really the missing link."

The term 'halal' means 'permissible' in Arabic and refers to all areas of life governed by Islamic laws. The criteria for what makes certain types of food hala varies and is sometimes open to interpretation. Iqbal Halal Foods, above, in Toronto's Thorncliffe Park neighbourhood is one of Canada's largest South Asian grocery stores and specializes in halal food. (CBC/Radio-Canada)

The halal regulation is very similar to one already in place for kosher food. Both are written in a way that ensures the government's food inspection agency doesn't need to get involved in sometimes touchy religious definitions of what constitutes kosher and halal food. 

Consumers can, however, lodge a complaint with the CFIA if they suspect that a company has labelled a product halal without having it certified.

Question of faith

At Iqbal Halal Foods in Toronto's Thorncliffe Park neighbourhood, one of Canada's largest South Asian grocery stores, which specializes in halal food, shoppers take the mislabelling of food as halal seriously.

"That would be bad because it's a question of your faith," said Salim Dalal. "If you end up eating meat that wasn't halal, depending upon how strongly you feel about it, it can have a lot of ramifications."

Canada has more than a dozen organizations that certify that a product conforms to the requirements of halal. One of the biggest is the Islamic Food and Nutrition Council of Canada, based in Mississauga, Ont., west of Toronto. (CBC/Radio-Canada)

The term "halal" means "permissible" in Arabic and refers to all areas of life governed by Islamic laws. Most food is automatically halal, but for meat to be halal, each animal has to be blessed before slaughtering and all slaughtering has to be done in a certain way by hand.

There are more than a dozen halal certifying organizations in Canada that verify whether or not producers are following halal practices. The two largest are the Islamic Food and Nutrition Council of Canada and the Halal Monitoring Authority, both based in the Greater Toronto Area.

Since the new regulations don't actually regulate the certifying organizations, some people in the Muslim community are concerned that the new system could still be abused by fly-by-night certifiers.

Omar Subedar, a Toronto-area imam who works with the Halal Monitoring Authority, is concerned that the new regulations still leave too much room for abuse. (CBC)

"Since the organizations and the bodies are not going to be regulated, that is going to be a problem," said Toronto-area imam Omar Subedar, who works with the Halal Monitoring Authority. "But the good thing is that now the community has a reference point. They can go and ask, 'Who is it that certifies it? What is your criteria?'"

Haider Kattack is on the board of Canada's other big halal certifying organization, the Islamic Food and Nutrition Council of Canada. He also expects the community and food companies to police the process and make sure the certifying bodies are legitimate.

The term halal can apply to different kinds of food, including yogurt. Religous communities do not always agree on the necessary criteria for what constitutes halal. (CBC/Radio-Canada)

"The consumers are the ones who will decide," he said. "But the food industry, actually, they look for the certification body with many years of experience in the halal industry so they will definitely do a bit of research before they contact any certification body."

The government estimates the annual market for halal food is more than $1 billion.

About the Author

Ron Charles

CBC News

Ron Charles has been a general assignment reporter for CBC News since 1989, covering such diverse stories as the 1990 Oka Crisis, the 1998 Quebec ice storm and the 2008 global financial crisis. Before joining the CBC, Ron spent two years reporting on Montreal crime and courts for the Montreal Daily News.

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.