Can Malawians Trust the Halaal Department?

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The Competition and Fair Trading Commission this week issued a Press Release in which it is requesting Bowler Beverage Company Limited to recall Aqua Pure bottled water from the market following certification by the Malawi Bureau of Standards that the water is unfit for human consumption.

According to the Press Release that is published on the commission’s website, the Malawi Bureau of Standards found that “Aqua Pure bottled water failed to comply with minimum standard requirements on total plate count and coliform bacteria.”

Aqua Pure bottled water is certified as ‘halaal’ by the Halaal Department of the Muslim Association of Malawi.

This revelation has prompted many questions than answers especially whether the Halaal Department has the capacity to enforce its own standards or whether it can be relied upon when it announces that a particular product has been certified halaal.

Of course, Bowler Beverages Company Limited has since clarified that it is not the whole Aqua Pure bottled water that has been contaminated.

In a story published in The Nation of March 13, 2015, the company explained that there was a breakdown of their purification equipment in Lilongwe due to power outage that resulted in two batches BB Dec 15 and BB Feb 16 not meeting MBS’s certification standards.

When defining what halaal is; the Halaal Department’s website says that halaal “also encompasses all aspects of food hygiene and quality.”

However, the question that arises is, how then can a product that has been certified as unfit for human consumption by the Malawi Bureau of Standards still be halaal for Muslims’ consumption?

Does the Department’s supervisors understand or care that inspection of hygienic factors are also part of their terms of references?

There is one shop in Blantyre whose meat products was certified halaal by the Department. During our investigations, we were shocked one day to see a van with meat carcasses on its bare floor; without any coverings whatsoever and the workers carrying the carcasses on their shoulders into the shop.

This has forced many Muslims to stop buying any meat products from that shop and prefer to buy relatively expensive pre-packaged products from another shop just a block away.

The complainants are not only Muslims, this website has found that non-Muslims too complain about the same unhygienic handling of fresh meat products at that shop.

But this is not the only nightmare for the Halaal Department.

As investigations continued, we also organised a day to enjoy a sizzling freshly grilled chicken at one of the halaal certified popular restaurants in Blantyre – we came back disappointed. We noticed that fresh blood is literally oozing in the joints of your mouth watering grilled chicken piece.

Isn’t the process of Islamic slaughtering significantly designed to drain blood from the animal? Or is it to do with just the poor preparation of the food?

Another halaal meat outlet up Blantyre’s Sclatter Road even stocks products that have outlived its short-lived shelf life and you know how rotten chicken smells after the ice crust melts.

Then they are some stories of some halaal butcheries who smuggle uncertified meat into their shops away from the prying eyes of Halaal Department inspectors.

It is only the Malawi Bureau of Standards that we hear condemning some shops for stocking expired foodstuffs and they confiscate them as per their legal mandate. But have we ever heard of  the Halaal Department reproaching shop owners for stocking expired products that themselves had earlier certified as halaal?

But what does the Halaal Department say about these observations?

Sheikh Shoaib Mzoma who is the National Coordinator (Operations) for the Halaal Department admitted that (in the case of Aqua Pure bottled water) the Department only looks at the ingredients that go into the water purification process and has no technical capacity to assess whether the product is a health hazard or not. He explained that the Department therefore relies on government machinery to carry out those technical assessments but that cannot stop it from certifying a product as halaal.

“People drink a lot of bacteria infested water in their homes and they do not complain (about it) as not being halaal, so we cannot (temporarily) withdraw a halaal certification from Aqua despite it being certified as unfit for human consumption due to the presence of the bacteria,” he argued.

He further added that if a product is unfit for human consumption, like in the case of water which is naturally halaal, then it becomes automatically forbidden to consume it and therefore does not need a special announcement from the Department informing the public that the product is now haraam.

On unhygienic handling of fresh meat products, Sheikh Mzoma explained that they have never received a complaint of that nature but was quick to mention that where the shops are owned by Muslims, the inspection regime is not as rigorous as on non-Muslim owned shops because “we expect the owner being a Muslim to be more knowledgeable on halaal requirements than Muslims.”

On smuggling, the National Coordinator said that they managed to curb this problem by introducing a marking system so that the source of the meat can easily be identified.

However, Sheikh Mzoma conceded that the Halaal Department does not have enough resources to deploy inspectors to every halaal certified facility at every corner of the country and that it has no technical competence to carry out extensive research into the products that they certify as halaal for Muslims’ consumption; “therefore it is a responsibility of every Muslim to ensure that whatever they are consuming is indeed halaal,” he said.

He further admitted that the Department does not engage government agencies like the Malawi Bureau of Standards to work hand in hand during the certification process because of perceived prejudice against Muslims by those in authority.

“Malawi is not an open minded society….so we fear that if we approach them, they may deliberately not want to cooperate with us as they may feel that we want to influence their decisions (that we are trying to islamise the country.)”

The wisdom in labeling products as halaal or haraam is two-fold, one is that haraam food destroys our faith (eemaan) and secondly, haraam products are harmful to our health. What kind of certification standards does the Halaal Department follow that ignores its own definition and still maintains a halaal certification on a product that poses a health risk to the community?

It does therefore not make sense to proceed to declare to the community that a particular product is halaal without investigating whether the said product is also safe for our health. Faith and health goes hand in hand.

It is also suicidal to ignore government agencies like the Malawi Bureau of Standards and the Ministry of Health during the product certification period as cooperating with them will not only bring credibility to the Halaal certificate itself but also creates confidence in the community that the certified product that is before them has passed a rigorous certification process.

We must commend the Halaal Department that it is doing an excellent job in Malawi by bringing awareness to Muslims about the significance of consuming halaal products. What the Department has achieved during the years that it has been operating is quite remarkable and unprecedented.

But looking at what is happening in the country and hearing the responses that we got from the Department, one is left with a strong impression that Muslims are still vulnerable to consuming haraam products that are still labeled as halaal.

Of course the Muslim community has a responsibility to play by promptly informing the Halaal Department of any knowledge of malpractice so that they can make thorough investigations, but then the Department also has a mandate to organize regular workshops for certified facilities on the handling of halaal products.

But if the full responsibility is now pushed back to us as Muslims to disregard the Halaal certificate displayed on windows and conduct our own investigations that the facility is indeed offering halaal products, then how can we trust the Halaal Department?

May be the Halaal Department should now add under its logo, a tagline that says: “Certified Halaal – Buy at Own Risk.”