By Imogen Watson, Senior reporter

May 20, 2020 | 7 min read

After Tesco unveiled its Ramadan film, hoards of disgruntled shoppers took to Twitter to proclaim they would ‘boycott’ the supermarket for daring to advertise halal meat. While the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has put a stop to further action, the backlash highlights an underlying racial bias against halal advertising.

The ad in question was created as part of Tesco’s Food Love Stories series. ‘Not Quite’ Aunty’s Sumac Chicken sees three men stuck in lockdown, trying their best to recreate their aunt's Ramadan iftar dish.

In 2017, Tesco's Christmas spot got criticised as a 'lazy attempt at representation' because it featured a Muslim family celebrating Christmas, alongside the tagline 'we've got a turkey for you. Everyone's welcome at Tesco' – despite the supermarket not offering a halal turkey.

This time it has ensured that the product it was pushing was actually able to be eaten by those it was targeting. As the men take on the chicken dish, onscreen text reads ‘halal chicken available in selected stores.’

Since the advert aired, thousands of people have taken to Twitter to fuel their frustration, despite the fact that Tesco has been selling halal meat for years.

The ASA received a number of complaints that objected to the halal products or raised objections on the ground of race.

"Given halal products can be legally sold and advertised, and people of non-Anglo-Saxon heritage can, rightly, appear in ads, there were no grounds for an investigation," an ASA spokesperson confirmed.

Tesco has since clarified that in the UK, all its Tesco branded halal meat is stunned and the only difference is the prayer before slaughter. Otherwise, some shops do sell branded unstunned halal meat, which is labelled as such.

Yet while it is legal to advertise and sell halal products, the backlash peeled back the curtains on one segment of society that thinks it shouldn’t be.

Indeed, animal welfare bodies like Peta and the RSPCA have been outspoken for years on their issues over the cruelty imposed by the Muslim ritual slaughter, where the general practice means animals cannot be stunned before their throats are cut.

Though - despite the animal-welfare complaints - some commentators have highlighted that the criticism is largely racial, given halal is a Muslim practice.

"It's quite common for Twitter to revolt when they see Muslims being catered to by mainstream brands,” explains Asad Dhunna, founder of the consultancy The Unmistakables.

Dhunna claims it is a common reaction, pointing to the criticism Warburton’s faced when a man noticed its bread was halal-certified and when Nando's was found to be using halal chicken.

“Part of the problem is that people don't always understand what halal is, but more often than not its underlying bias or racism that plays out in social media,” he explains.

As Islam is the second-largest religion in Europe, after Christianity, and the third-largest in the US, brands have been steadily catering their products for a halal audience. For second or third-generation Muslims, food can be a way to have closer bonds to their heritage.

Whole Foods and its parent company Amazon now stock the organic halal brand Saffron Road, while halal baby food brand For Aisha can be bought in UK supermarkets Asda and Sainsbury’s. Some fast-food giants, meanwhile, now not only offer halal food in Muslim-majority countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia, but have brought it to a number of their restaurants in the west, with KFC supplying 110 of its UK restaurants with halal chicken and Nando’s putting it on the menu at 74 British outlets.

“A lot of Muslims care about food more than you’d expect,” contends professor Jonathan AJ Wilson, a founding partner at strategy firm Dragonfly Black and author of the book Halal Branding.

“It doesn’t necessarily follow that the person who prays five times a day, doesn’t drink alcohol and fasts during Ramadan is the only one who cares about halal. The recent phenomenon over the past couple of decades or so has been overtly labelling something as halal in non-Muslim-majority countries, because people are concerned over contamination,” he claims.

Despite an increasing number of brands moving into the halal space, the Muslim population is currently underserved with choice, and there are gains to be made by companies able to fill the market gap and it's rare that you will see a brand openly advertise its halal products.

Anti-Muslim rhetoric has done nothing to encourage brands to embrace and capitalize on the hunger for halal is proof that brands are not immune from racist, and ultimately damaging, attacks from the far right.

A recent study conducted by The Unmistakables found 52% of Muslims believe that major food brands do not target them at all, and 56% wish major brands would create special products around times like Ramadan and Eid, proving the Muslim market - which consists of 3.4m people in the UK - is vastly underserved.

"Hats off to Tesco for making the ad and extending the food love stories to the Muslim community," Dhunna insists. "They've clearly made it their business to be diverse and will reap the benefit from the Muslim pound."

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