More meat for the Muslim world
New Zealand has been exporting halal meat since the 1970s - for the most part with little government involvement, but times have changed. How did the meat industry asked for more regulation to prove the "halalness" of its products?
It's peak season for the meat slaughter industry in the South Island, with about 100 workers ensuring that any cuts destined for overseas are suitable for Muslim markets.
Back in the 1970s, halal slaughtermen had to - of course - be Muslim, but they did not need qualifications. After all, the practice of halal slaughter has been largely the same, and enshrined in sharia (Islamic law), for hundreds of years.
But today, halal slaughtermen in New Zealand must be trained to New Zealand Qualifications Authority (NZQA) standards, and the companies that export halal meat - more than 50 of them - are required to be registered with the Ministry of Primary Industries (MPI).
Ali Al-Kawaji, who carries out audits in the South Island on behalf of the Federation of the Islamic Associations of New Zealand (FIANZ), supports increased regulation.
Al-Kawaji says it would be great if auditing was extended to the treatment of animals on farms before they are slaughtered, "but that would be really hard for farmers to accept".
However, if a big Muslim country wanted "a huge amount" of meat, audited right back to the paddock, then it could happen.
NZQA data shows that 118 people achieved a standard proving their knowledge of sharia in the production and certification of halal meat last year, and more than 65 people achieved a standard proving they could produce it.
Meat Industry Association (MIA) chief executive Tim Ritchie says the standards have been in place since 2009, before the introduction of the Halal Notice in 2010.
There are just over 240 halal slaughtermen employed in the industry, "and this number has been relatively steady over the last decade".
New Zealand has been exporting halal meat since the 1970s, and for the most part has been doing it with minimal government involvement in the halal process. "However, in recent years consumers and regulators in many Muslim markets have increasingly been looking for official assurances of the ‘halalness' of the food that they are eating," Ritchie says.
Al-Kawaji, who is originally from Jordan, worked as a halal slaughterman after arriving in New Zealand with his Kiwi wife in 1997. The plant he worked at in Timaru had already been doing halal slaughter for 30 years, exporting "a huge amount of meat" to Iran.
Al-Kawaji, a trained lawyer, never imagined working as a slaughterman, but "they needed someone to do the job".
It was hard and physical work, but after four years he became a supervisor - and now, as an auditor for FIANZ, he visits plants throughout the South Island.
He says many supervisors and managers gain the NZQA qualifications "just to at least know what it's all about".
"It's good to have knowledge rather than to be in the dark."
Ritchie says the Government, via the New Zealand Food Safety Authority, brought in the Halal Notice in 2010 as a result of market pressure.
In 2005, Malaysia delisted most New Zealand meat processing plants on ambiguous halal-based grounds. The implementation of the Halal Notice helped to overcome these restrictions, with 17 plants now approved for export to Malaysia.
MPI director animal and animal products Mat Stone says only halal premises that export meat are required to be registered with the ministry. However, "it's quite possible that some premises may produce halal meat for domestic sale only".
"When halal processing began, it was purely a business decision on behalf of the companies."
BY THE NUMBERS
Nearly 20 per cent of New Zealand's total exports of red meat and edible co-products were halal-certified
Halal products were exported to 66 countries
75,000 tonnes of halal-certified exports, worth $392 million, were sent to Muslim countries
The remaining 115,000 tonnes of halal-certified exports went to other countries
– In the year to September 2013.
Source: Meat Industry Association