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Businesses seek ways to tap Muslim market

Jack Acree, executive vice president with American Halal Co. (left) and Adnan Durrani, chief halal officer, show their products at a Whole Foods store in Darien, Conn. Jack Acree, executive vice president with American Halal Co. (left) and Adnan Durrani, chief halal officer, show their products at a Whole Foods store in Darien, Conn. (Craig Ruttle/ Associated Press)
By Rachel Zoll
Associated Press / December 27, 2010

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NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. — At 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 headscarves and Western dress. Chocolates made according to Islamic dietary laws were at each table.

The setting was the American Muslim Consumer Conference, meant to promote Muslims as a new market segment for US companies. Corporations have long catered to Muslim communities in Europe, but businesses have only tentatively started to follow suit in the United States — and they are doing so at a time of intensified anti-Muslim feeling.

American Muslims seeking more acknowledgment in the marketplace argue that businesses have more to gain than lose by reaching out to the community.

“We are not saying, ‘Support us,’ ’’ said Faisal Masood, a graduate of the University of Illinois and management consultant. “But we want them to understand what our values are.’’

Masood, a Wall Street executive who organized the gathering, attracted only 200 or so attendees when he started the event last year. This year, he had to close registration at 400.

The worldwide market for Islamically permitted goods, called halal, has grown to more than $500 million 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 a 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 companies such as McDonald’s (which 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 battles 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.

In the United Kingdom, after Kentucky Fried Chicken rolled out halal menu options, 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 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 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.

US companies have also faced some resistance, although on a smaller scale.

Last year, Best Buy Inc. was inundated with calls, e-mails, and letters complaining that the company was anti-American after acknowledging a Muslim holiday, Eid al-Adha, or the Feast of the Sacrifice, in a national advertisement. That year, Eid al-Adha fell 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.’’

Best Buy executives stood by their decision. The company saw the holiday greeting as part of a larger goal of reaching consumers from different cultures. Soon, Muslims started calling to thank Best Buy and set up a Facebook page honoring the company.

“It’s a very viable customer segment,’’ said Zainab Ali, senior marketing manager with the money transfer company MoneyGram, which ran a special Ramadan promotion this year for Muslims in the United States, Europe, and elsewhere. “You just need to get over some of the fear and look at them as just another consumer.’’

The potential for profit is drawing more companies to the idea. This year, for instance, Ogilvy & Mather, the global advertising firm, started an international Islamic branding consultancy called Ogilvy Noor that includes an emphasis on US Muslims. (“Noor’’ means “light’’ in Arabic.)

Manufacturers entering the field hope they can appeal to non-Muslims as well.

Jack Acree, executive vice president of American Halal Co., emphasizes its foods are not only halal, but all-natural, humanely farmed, and free of antibiotics.