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How about Halal?


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    Picture this: You’re a student on campus who eats halal food, and with already limited host of options available to you, you enter the airy walls of Courtyard Café doubtful that you’ll be able to consume a meat-based lunch today. But, lo and behold, you see a “Pasta of the day” with “Chicken (Halal)” on the ingredient list. You order it immediately — after all, you’re a sucker for any kind of pasta. But, there’s a catch. Just underneath you notice another ingredient so laughably at odds with the “Chicken Breast (Halal)” that you have to take a photo to send to your friend: bacon. 

    This is no isolated incident. Time and again, food venues across campus lack enough halal options for students, leaving them to reluctantly turn to vegetarian, vegan, or pescatarian options. When food venues do supply halal options, there are frequent cases of mislabelling, lack of certification, and lack of knowledge among staff about halal produce, if their venue is halal certified and if the meat is prepared separately to avoid cross contamination. Coupled with the lack of student media  coverage on halal food on campus, there seems to be a bigger issue at hand. Is there a misunderstanding of halal at the University of Sydney? 

    The Arabic word “halal” comes from the Quran and translates to “permissible” – referring to something that adheres to Islamic law. In terms of food, Muslim consumers need assurance that the meat they purchase and consume has been slaughtered according to Islamic practices and completely separated from non-halal meats, pork, and alcohol. Australia currently supplies halal meat to over 110 countries, of which the Middle East is a big export partner. As such, a lot of Australia’s meat factories use systems authorised by the Australian Government Authorised Halal Program (AGAHP) which oversees meat processing, segregation, and certification. Before being exported internationally or supplied to food venues across the country, the halal meat certificate is signed by both an Australian Export Meat Inspection System officer and representative of a recognised Islamic organisation.

    Given such rigorous production and distribution processes in Australia, it is concerning that halal food remains such a mystery at the University. Part of this confusion seems to be around which places are halal certified, with some students and staff believing that all USU food venues offer completely halal products. Current USU President Naz Sharifi, a consumer of halal food, revealed that this is indeed a myth.

    The USU operates a number of food venues, including Courtyard, Manning Milkbar, Carslaw Kitchen, Manning Cantina, Hermann’s Bar, and most recently, Foodhub.  While some of these venues offer halal options, Sharifi’s presidential campaign was focused on diversifying these options for all multicultural students, encouraging explicit labelling of food ingredients, and ensuring more rigorous training for staff to accommodate religious guidelines and answer student questions. As a Board Director, Sharifi has had multiple meetings with the USU Operations Team to organise more “roundtable conversations with ethnically and religiously diverse groups such as SUMSA” (Sydney Uni Muslim Students Association) for their experiences and input on how to diversify halal options, the need for clearer staff training on the “nuances of halal” such as avoiding cross-contamination with non-halal food and alcohol in the kitchen, and the need to speak regularly with halal certifiers to confirm whether kitchens have ethical food preparation processes in place. 

    This marks a shift from before Sharifi’s campaign, when halal labelling was not clearly represented and there were confusions about certification when halal meat was being processed with non-halal products. Sharifi notes that Muslim students like herself would often have to resort to limited options such as UniBros in Wentworth food court or vegetarian food. Sharifi recounts having to venture outside campus grounds, to more expensive cafes and restaurants, to find “food that I was actually able to eat — that was affordable and had proper certification.” This level of self-assessment and lack of accessibility alienates a significant group of people at the University.

    While it would be ideal, it is unrealistic to maintain absolute halal certification for every meal option, given that this would require the creation of two separate kitchens in every existing food venue. It is simply not commercially viable. Sharifi clarifies that far from this, the USU aims to increase halal options, and create clearer labelling to “take the onus off the individual to confirm” the halal status of the food they consume. This would, in theory, reduce the awkward experience of asking staff behind the counter whether “you guys serve halal food?”, only to be met with blank stares from the other side. 

    So far, the USU has been receptive to implementing these changes. Sharifi says she has “explicated expectations about training programs and the nuances of halal food” to the USU Operations Team, who are continually working to improve both the kitchen environment and labelling process for Muslims. These training programs aim to make kitchen teams aware of the nuances of halal food preparation, for example, not cooking halal certified chicken in the same oils that bacon or non-halal beef was cooked in.  Importantly, this chain of communication should be consistent from chefs to servers, and “continual supervision and checking on these processes” is required. 

    Unfortunately, too often the marketing department tend to print and assign halal labels to food that was never intended to be halal without consulting staff, resulting in the mass-produced labelling of meals as “halal” despite being served/cooked with non-halal meat. Tightening the chain of communication between these two bodies is thus necessary. Alongside this, community engagement is important to assess progress and receive feedback which is why Sharifi says that the USU are “trying to engage with as many stakeholders: SUMSA, focus groups, religious organisations, and so on”. 

    Access to a variety of food options is an integral part of the student experience. It’s strange that it has taken so long for issues around halal, and more broadly, food and dietary options for ethnically and religiously diverse communities to be actively addressed at the University. We acknowledge the groundwork laid out so far by the USU, led by Sharifi. What we now need is more representation of minorities in positions of leadership to ensure that these strategies for improved labelling, diversified food options, and ethical food preparation are met with tangible action. Continual correspondence between minority stakeholders and the USU, coupled with comprehensive education and guidelines for kitchen staff should ensure that access to suitable and culturally sensitive food becomes an enduring aspect of the university experience. Maybe this will mean we put an end to monstrosities such as Courtyard’s “halal” chicken leek bacon pasta once and for all.

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