McDonald’s, the largest fast food chain to offer menu alternatives designated for observant Muslims, is removing the items from its menu, suggesting that preparing food exclusively to suit individual religious tastes is problematic for restaurants involved in mass production food services.
The fast food giant had limited the items to just two stores in east Dearborn, Mich., which has a large Arab American population. The stores offered Halal chicken McNuggets and Halal McChicken sandwiches for 12 years. Halal foods are prepared in accordance with Muslim dietary laws.
In April, the company reached a $700,000 settlement in response to a 2011 lawsuit that alleged the restaurants were advertising items as halal that were not, in fact, prepared according to custom. According to The Detroit News, the company did not admit wrongdoing.
Kassem Dakhlallah, the attorney who filed the lawsuit, called the McDonald’s decision, which it announced on Monday, to stop selling halal food “disappointing.” He told The Detroit News that the chain should have tried “to ensure that all products sold were halal as advertised,” adding that, without that guarantee, “ceasing to offer halal products was probably the best decision.”
Part of the difficulty for restaurants selling halal items is that Muslim groups differ regarding what constitutes correct preparation. Some groups focus exclusively on how the animals are treated and raised, while others are more concerned with how they are slaughtered. Even regarding methods of slaughter, there is debate: Some say killing the animals by hand is the only way to observe halal, while others say certain forms of mass slaughter are acceptable.
“It’s a very fragmented market when it comes to the authentication of halal,” says Shahed Amanullah, founder of Zabihah.com, a Washington-based website that tracks and reviews restaurants across the world that offer halal food. “Sometimes it’s hard for even me to get answers.”
The debate has created roadblocks for the market to grow. Many agree the potential is certainly present: Mr. Amanullah says that when he started his website in 1998, he identified only 200 restaurants across the US that would qualify as serving halal items; today there are more than 7,000.
The Association of American Halal Certifiers, an advocacy group in Bolingbrook, Ill., estimates that, with the approximately 7 million Muslims living in the US, the annual market potential is between $30 billion and $40 billion.
For fast food chains that source its meats and ingredients from a variety of suppliers through systems that are often incredibly complex, being able to prove certain items adhere to halal custom is tricky.
“The nature of food production, the cross-contamination issues, the separating of equipment and utensils is a concept aiming for consistency and speed, not accommodating a halal customer menu,” says Mary Chapman, director of product innovation at Technomic, Inc., a Chicago-based food and food service research and consulting group. “Looking at the big picture and where they’re going to please the most customers, if [fast food chains] don’t have to jump through hoops or take extra steps, they won’t.”
While Amanullah says that the next step for the market to grow in the US is to establish set universal guidelines for halal, he also says the market would benefit from emphasizing elements of preparation that would appeal to non-Muslim consumers invested in the health benefits of meat that is locally produced from stock raised on free range farms.
One example of a company doing just that is Elevation Burger, a 35-unit US chain operating in 10 states that promotes its products as grass-fed and free-range. In February, the company opened a single location in Dubai, which is its sixth location in the Middle East. The others are in Kuwait, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia. Amanullah says the company’s emphasis on grass-fed beef, among other ingredients, made it naturally appealing to Muslim consumers, which aided in its expansion efforts overseas.
Another chain, Outback Steakhouse, also is friendly to customers seeking halal food because it happens to outsource its lamb products from halal-certified suppliers in New Zealand, earning it a certification of halal accreditation from The Federation of Islamic Associations of New Zealand.