Answering the question, “What’s for dinner?” unvaryingly leads to more questions. The modern food culture web is continuously branching and growing in complexity as dietary preferences of consumers worldwide are being influenced by geographic location, protein choices, lifestyle trends, ethnic backgrounds, seasonal availability, and a factor that directs one’s inner compass—religious beliefs.
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With over 4,000 (and growing) religions being observed, several sects and doctrines bridge food with faith and spirituality. Devout followers of influential religions such as Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Hinduism, to name a few, make intentional food choices to satisfy their nutritional requirements and respect the religious laws. This impacts food safety and quality management systems from harvesting, slaughtering, or sourcing to food packaging and labeling.
There is a growing need for food businesses to ensure religious compliance, apart from meeting established health and safety standards. A few revered religion-based dietary labels include the following.
Halal. Followers of Islam observe two broad food categories, namely halal (Arabic for those that are permitted) and haram (those that are forbidden). While halal and haram are universal terms that apply to all facets of a Muslim’s life, this categorization is commonly used in relation to food and beverage products, food contact materials, cosmetics, and pharmaceuticals. Haram foods include pork and porcine byproducts, alcohol, and products that may contain enzymes or emulsifiers made from haram animal fats such as lard, porcine gelatin, or fats derived from animals not slaughtered following the Islamic laws. Food products fermented by yeast and that contain hints of alcohol also fall under the haram category. The way in which an animal is slaughtered prior to processing is pivotal according to religious guidelines and needs to be carried out by a skilled and trained Muslim slaughterer. In addition to this, meat, poultry, and seafood need to be derived from animals and fish fed vegetarian feed for them to be certified as halal. According to the report released by the World Halal Forum in 2015, halal foods account for 16 percent of the global food industry and this number is expected to grow significantly by 2020.
Kosher. Jews recognize certain types of food products as permissible (kosher, Hebrew for pure) and prohibited (treif). Kosher food certification and labeling is slightly more complicated as it branches out further based on elaborate Biblical regulations. Moreover, it is prohibited for meat and dairy products to mix with each other, from farm to fork. The three sub-categories of kosher food include meat, dairy, and pareve—food products that are neither meat nor dairy. Cleaning activities, production utensils and equipment used, preparation steps, processing, and food packaging procedures need to adhere with the religious requirements as well. Kosher food products that are neither meat nor dairy may lose their pareve status if they are processed in meat or dairy production facilities that lack a physical separation from the rest of the operation or when additives have been employed—meaning, the purity has been compromised.
This rule is meticulously practiced by observant Jews even when it comes to handling cooking utensils, food contact surface, and food storage containers. Some may run the extra mile of following separate cleaning cycles for utensils used to prepare dairy products and those utilized in cooking meat and poultry products.
When it comes to wine, a separate set of guidelines dictate production and processing. Even if all the ingredients in the produced wine are of kosher origin and the equipment used is kosher compliant, it will be certified and endorsed as kosher only if the production was carried out solely by Torah-observant Jews.
Jain. Jains or the followers of the ancient Indian religion, Jainism, presumably observe the most stringent diet. The core philosophy of Jainism is to respect all living things—including microorganisms and practice non-violence or “ahimsa.” This limits their dietary options to a strict vegan diet that excludes dairy, meat, seafood, poultry, and vegetables such as onions, potatoes, and garlic as they grow beneath the ground. Followers of this faith also find themselves cooking each meal fresh, as they refrain from consuming food that is a day old or older and may be harboring other living beings such as microbes. Staunch followers don’t eat before sunrise and after sunset to ensure what they eat is “visible” to them. This practice dates to pre-artificial light days when it was difficult to navigate in the dark.
A common predicament most Jains face is the permissible levels of insect fragments or rodent hair, described as insect filth and rodent filth respectively, highlighted by the U.S. FDA and other international food safety agencies. Per FDA an action level is required only if an average of 30 or more insect fragments per 10 grams of food product is detected. In an ideal environment, there ought to be zero presence of any extraneous substances in food products. However, keeping realistic scenarios and risk levels in mind, foreign contaminants such as bug parts and microbes are bound to enter the food system. This explains why devout followers of Jainism find it hard to choose reliable and trustworthy dining options or purchase food and beverage products.
Although there isn’t a formal inspection or certification agency in place to validate food brands that offer Jain-friendly dietary options, a few sectors of the hospitality industry such as the aviation sectors have taken proactive steps to include these options as a part of their in-flight offerings.
Hindu. Hinduism is a religion based on co-existence and interdependence of sentient beings. The Hindu diet also is predominantly vegetarian-based to reflect the community’s belief in non-violence. Higher Hindu castes such as Brahmins follow a strict vegetarian diet with rigor and discipline. Traditional Orthodox Brahmins may choose to clean the entire household and engage in a cleaning ritual should they learn that one of their guests had consumed meat or poultry products prior to entering the household. Clarified butter, or ghee, is of importance to the Hindus as it is rich, flavorful, and is often associated with a sign of prosperity.
Depending on the level of adherence, beef is forbidden for the most part as cows hold a sacred status and are revered as well. Pork and pork byproducts may be prohibited, depending on the caste or sect. This is why Hindus around the world are pressing for more transparency when it comes to food ingredients and nutrition labeling. Bovine and/or porcine gelatinous additives cannot be a part of a typical Hindu diet.
Religious Food Labeling Challenges
Food codes established by federal food safety agencies around the world primarily focus on public health and safety—the approach is unbiased and universal. While countries that are governed by religious laws, such as nations within the Middle East, find it easier to mandate food labeling requirements and parameters, other countries that are more secular cannot stipulate similar, if not the same, ingredient labeling criteria. Although voluntary efforts are being made by certain food brands to reduce this gap, a few challenges still exist.
Lack of cultural and religious understanding. The world is more interconnected now than before. Ethnic and cultural diversity is becoming more common and is influencing food culture globally. Efforts need to be made to understand the needs and wants of the current demographic. This can be augmented by investing in data analyses to understand the current population and economy better. The four major religion-based diets previously mentioned illustrate that we are simply scratching the surface when it comes to understanding cultural differences on a global level, and the various diets they follow.
Disjointed global compliance systems. Enhanced international trade regulations and import/export tariffs have made it easier to source ingredients from around the world. While the commercial side is benefitting from this, communication and compliance are two other major areas of improvement. Food brands that engage in major export activities need to be mindful about their customers overseas and ensure the language is translated, if needed, with each ingredient specified, where possible. Unfortunately, food labeling requirements of one country may not necessarily match that of another. In addition, more efforts are usually made to meet the minimum export compliance requirement versus maximizing communicating information pertaining to the product to the end user.
Religious food processing standards are more rigorous. Both halal and kosher slaughtering processes require time, manual labor, and more operational space to effectively and accurately carry out the religious requirements. The standards set in place are based on ancient, traditional religious texts that emphasize on caring for the animal prior to slaughtering it and treating the carcass with respect during and after the slaughter. These labor-intensive processes are hard to sustain nationwide and are more expensive to maintain.
Food security gets negatively impacted. When ingredient and/or nutrition labeling requirements are not met by the point of export, the point of import must temporarily hold the product before choosing to dispose of it or return it to the supplier. With costs involved, supply chain regulations, and customs requirements to consider, most countries choose to dispose of food products that do not match the local food labeling requirements. This adds to the problem of food wastage and negatively impacts food security.
Opportunities for Improvement
Analyzing quality data surrounding dining and food purchasing patterns of the current demographic will help food brands gauge what their action items are to gain a competitive edge. Though labeling every ingredient appears to be the obvious solution, there are certain limitations as complex compounds may be a derivative from two or more sources.
Religious-based food product certification and accreditation bodies could introduce economical certification programs to support small-scale food businesses that usually are founded by people who have identified a specific need of an ethnic community.
Regulatory authorities need to make an intentional decision to include the needs of other ethnic groups, especially if their population size is significant. For example, gelatin can be obtained from meat, poultry, and pork products and is often used in food, cosmetic, and personal care products. Forward-thinking food brands are voluntarily disclosing ingredients such a pork- or beef-derived gelatin. One might make the argument that this disclosure may negatively impact sales. The other perspective that often gets missed is consumers can recognize brands that are transparent and therefore feel safe trusting them.