MEETING THE HALAL TEST
You might think of Nestle as the least likely company to venture into such a ticklish market as religious food. The Swiss multinational has, after all, attracted more than its share of protesters with other product lines (namely, infant formula and chocolate). But far from shying away from the halal market--food that passes muster with Islamic authorities--Nestlé has jumped in with both feet.
For centuries the men who decided whether food was halal were bearded and worked in mosques. But Othman Yusoff--not a mullah but a clean-shaven Nestlé executive--has forged a career as a halal expert. He's in charge of Nestlé Malaysia's halal lines, making sure they're free of alcohol, pork or any product from an animal not slaughtered according to Islamic guidelines. This covers everything right down to KitKat bars that are free of flavorings that have traces of alcohol.
Yusoff, 45, was a food engineer in Groupe Nestlé's R&D headquarters in Switzerland more than a decade ago when he was asked to help figure out how to keep some of his employer's supply lines halal. It proved to be a good career break. Nestlé has become the biggest food manufacturer in the halal sector, with more than $3 billion in annual sales in Islamic countries and with 75 of its 481 factories worldwide producing halal food. "Nestlé's set the pace on halal for multinationals," says Abdulhamid Evans of KasehDia, a Kuala Lumpur consulting company.
Nestlé is tapping into a vast market. With 1.6 billion Muslims worldwide and Islam the fastest-growing religion, halal food sales are now worth $580 billion annually, according to Malaysia's Halal Industry Development Corp. "Food companies are not going to be global unless they're halal," says Joe Regenstein, a professor of food science at Cornell University. And an increasingly affluent and savvy base of Muslim consumers means that the halal industry is growing in sophistication as well as size. Well beyond being just about meat, it now embraces products from lipstick to vaccines to savings accounts. In 1990 the Islamic Food & Nutrition Council of America had only 23 clients paying for its halal certification services. Last year it certified products for 2,000 companies worldwide.