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U.S. caters to Muslim tastes
Islamically permitted food, goods being sold in mainstream stores
NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. | In the ballroom of an upscale hotel a short train ride from New York, advertisers, food industry executives and market researchers mingled — the men in dark suits, the women in head scarves and Western dress. Chocolates made according to Islamic dietary laws were placed at each table.
The setting was the American Muslim Consumer Conference, which aimed to promote Muslims as a new market segment for U.S. companies. While corporations have long catered to Muslim communities in Europe, businesses have only tentatively started to follow suit in the U.S. — and they are doing so at a time of intensified anti-Muslim feeling that companies worry could hurt them, too. American Muslims seeking more acknowledgment in the marketplace argue that businesses have more to gain than lose by reaching out to the community.
There are signs the industry is stirring: Faisal Masood, a Wall Street executive who organized the gathering, had attracted only 200 or so attendees when he started the event last year. This year, he had to close registration at 400 to keep from going over capacity.
The worldwide market for Islamically permitted goods, called halal, has grown to more than half a billion dollars annually. Ritually slaughtered meat is a mainstay, but the halal industry is much broader, including foods and seasoning that omit alcohol, pork products and other forbidden ingredients, along with cosmetics, finance and clothing.
Corporations have been courting immigrant Muslim communities in Europe for several years. Nestle, for example, has about 20 factories in Europe with halal-certified production lines and advertises to Western Muslims through its marketing campaign called “Taste of Home.” Nestle plans to increase its ethnic and halal offerings in Europe in coming years.
In the United States, iconic American companies such as McDonald's (which already has a popular halal menu overseas) and Wal-Mart have entered the halal arena. In August, the natural grocery giant Whole Foods began selling its first nationally distributed halal food product — frozen Indian entrees called Saffron Road.
Along with new customers, however, the companies draw critics and can become targets in the ideological battle over Islam and terrorism.
Abdalhamid Evans, project director with the World Halal Forum Europe, which works with the global halal industry, said a recent backlash has prompted some mainstream businesses in Europe to keep a lower profile about their halal products or scale back their offerings.
In the United Kingdom, after KFC rolled out halal menu options in several dozen stores, the restaurant chain pulled the items in a few locations in the face of protests. Critics dubbed the menu “terror chicken.”
Last September, the Daily Mail of London reported that many British supermarkets, fast-food chains, hospitals, schools, pubs and sporting arenas such as Wembley Stadium, were serving some halal meat and poultry without notifying the public. A large share of meat sold in Britain comes from New Zealand, where the slaughterhouses have expanded halal production as they try to boost their already robust exports to Islamic countries.
In the uproar that followed, Barnabas Aid, a group that fights Christian persecution worldwide, started a petition in Britain against what it called the “imposition” of halal. It “may be interpreted as an act of Islamic supremacy,” the group said.
U.S. companies have also faced some resistance, although on a smaller scale.
Last year, Best Buy Inc. was inundated with calls, e-mail and letters complaining that the company was anti-American after acknowledging a Muslim holiday — Eid al-Adha, or the Feast of the Sacrifice — for the first time in a national advertisement. That year, Eid al-Adha came around Thanksgiving, so the ad, a small bubble at the bottom of the page, appeared in the company’s Thanksgiving flier. Critics seized on the timing in their complaints.
“They used very abusive language,” said Nausheena Hussain, a marketing manager for Best Buy in Minnesota. “It was pretty sad.”
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