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The Halal Report is Precedent-setting, but…

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THE recently published report of the Independent Halal Review Panel (IHRP) on the Cape Town-based Muslim Judicial Council (MJC) Halal Trust is a precedent-setting one.

This is because there is no record of Islamic judiciaries anywhere in the world in modern history allowing themselves to be publically audited on procedural and governance issues. It’s definitely a first for the Halal industry in South Africa, the IHRP describing it as a “milestone”.

The Halal Trust, which operates under the MJC, was in the limelight earlier this year when Orion Cold Storage – a local importer – was caught re-labelling non-halal (impermissible) products as halal (permissible), with the MJC Halal Trust identified as having been a halal certifier of certain of Orion’s imports.

Whilst the Halal Trust was not involved in the re-labelling episode (featured on YouTube), the incident caused outrage in the Muslim community with regards to the process of halal certification.

This outrage boiled over when the Halal Trust – patently unable to deal with the media – raised suspicions due to its procrastination and then prevarication in the face of some withering interrogation from Deborah Patta of Third Degree.

What further makes the IHRP report unique in the Muslim world is that whilst the MJC (established in 1946) is not elected by the community, it was the power of community that forced its hand.

In the South African context the IHRP report is a constitutional and institutional triumph. It should serve as a warning to any organisation that sets up shop in community interest, and then who betrays that interest. Democracy works at many levels of society.

And whilst the MJC undeniably had an omelette on its face after the Orion scandal, it must be given credit for allowing an independent investigation in February this year. This was after concerned community members approached the MJC executive to look at its Halal Trust’s processes and structures, and to make recommendations.

Its accession to this public enquiry was a very welcome break from the MJC tradition of closing ranks in troubled times. For decades the books of MJC Halal Trust had been a taboo, journalists being chased away by MJC leadership when requesting documents.

The IHRP report – which is less than 60 pages – is admittedly not a massive tome, but it does raise a number of critical issues, the central one being that a halal ombudsman should be appointed to monitor the burgeoning multi-million rand local halal industry.

However, according to Imraahn Ismail-Mukaddam of the National Consumer Forum, the IHRP report falls short of the mark. Despite its noble intentions, it doesn’t address the question of multiple regulators (there are four in South Africa). This makes the appointment of an ombudsman problematic due to varying standards applied by these regulators, he says.

Mukaddam feels that the report fails to address exactly how halal costs are determined, and avoids the issue of non-Muslim consumers having to pay the price for halal goods. Halal certification is a form of “religious taxation”, he argues.

His biggest criticism of the IHRP report is that it ignores the Orion saga, the root cause of the investigation in the first place, and neglects to recommend disciplinary action against Halal Trust officials.

Whilst the IHRP report does admit to not being comprehensive – its thrust was essentially procedure – it is nevertheless comprehensive enough to suggest areas of concern, and to make broad-based recommendations.

What jumps off the pages of the report is that the Halal Trust, in the face of its biggest crisis ever, had no mechanism for dealing with the media. The IHRP also alludes to indistinct line management being a problem in decision-making – and the Halal Trust’s way of communicating.

The report says: “There is no systematic written delegation of (sic) authority framework. This results in decisions being either delayed or approved after the fact…compromising governance, accountability and authority”.

This leads to the question of “authority framework”, or corporate governance in the Halal Trust, being questioned by the IHRP.

The Halal Trust had no rotational policy with regards to trustees, who it said were appointed on an ad-hoc basis to the governing body. The IHRP intimated that there was a fossilisation of command, and a blurring of the edges if not conflict of interests, when it came to executive powers.

The IHRP also noted that there was no database for halal products, ingredients or judicial opinions on halal matters. It suggested that this database, together with a list of the Halal Trust’s clients, be available on the MJC website in the public interest.

Of concern to the IHRP was that as an employer the Halal Trust had no HR committee, or risk and audit oversight. Part of the recommendation here was that more halal inspectors than the current 18 nation-wide be employed and trained, and that minimum basic education standards be applied.

The IHRP also recommended that clients of the Halal Trust should not be allowed to appoint their own in-house inspectors, and that there should be uniform and consistent standards with imports. Imports should be locally certified, and not offshore, as had sometimes controversially been the case.

The IHRP also questioned, without mentioning specific cases, the dubious practices of some wholesalers and retailers in the meat industry to avoid scrutiny on the halal nature of their products.

With regards to finances, the IHRP deemed the MJC “overly dependent” on monies from the Halal Trust, and recommended it seek other sources of income. The IHRP raised questions about institutions associated with the MJC, saying:

“There are many institutions associated with the MJC and the Halal Trust …the financial and contractual arrangements between the Halal Trust and these institutions are blurred making it difficult to promote good governance and accountability”.

The IHRP concluded that whilst documentation was being followed in halal certification, there was scope for “improving documentary control”. It suggested a formal documentary control policy be implemented, and that there should be a comprehensive and standardised manual on halal procedures.

In conclusion, I’ve already mentioned that the MJC’s agreeing to an independent investigation on its Halal Trust is a welcome decision. But what still needs to happen if true precedent is to be set, is that the Halal Trust must act upon the IHRP recommendations.

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