Sergey Nikiforov: 'One shouldn't stuff all kinds of chemicals into products and then proudly call them halal'

The manufacturer from Tatarstan — about the problem of certification of halal products and uniform standards for its production

Today, about 20 million Muslims live in Russia, and the turnover of the halal products industry in our country is about 100 billion rubles a year. But experts warn that the halal label does not always guarantee that the product is made in accordance with the norms of Islam. “There are a lot of products with this sign on the Russian market today, which in fact is an outright 'poison' for the consumer," says Sergey Nikiforov, an entrepreneur from Tatarstan, honoured economist of Russia and Tatarstan. In the author's column for Realnoe Vremya, the businessman talks about how unscrupulous manufacturers easily deceive customers and examines the main problems of certification of halal products.

There is a lot of outright “poison” on the market

There are several Halal certification committees in Russia that determine whether a particular product conforms to the canons of Islam, that is, it is halal. But at the same time, each committee has its own peculiarities of working with manufacturers, which may differ from each other. Of course, there are common approaches to product certification, but some committees can be quite loyal to the manufacturer on some issues, while others, on the contrary, treat them more strictly.

In fact, when a year ago we applied for certification to the Halal Standards Committee at the Muslim Spiritual Board of the Republic of Tatarstan, our company had no problems — we successfully passed it and received the right to place the appropriate certificate on the packaging. Unlike the existing system for obtaining a Declaration of compliance with food safety requirements, when no one is interested in whether there is a declared production in nature and how its conditions meet the requirements, the staff of the Halal Committee went to the place with a survey, studied all documentation, the composition of products, etc.

But I would like to note that today there are a lot of products on the Russian market that have this sign, but, in fact, are not very useful for the consumer, or even harmful. I have seen such products myself, permission to place the “halal” sign on the product was issued by a Halal Committee of another region. The Halal Committee has been operating in our republic for almost 20 years, it treats this issue quite adequately and very responsibly, that is, there are no problems with the safety of halal products in our republic. But this does not apply to ones from other regions.

I will return to the products mentioned above, which have a Halal certificate. Taking into account that I am a manufacturer of pastilles and other products made only from natural products, I study the products of competitors by occupation. The thing is that the products of one of the Russian manufacturers of pastilles, on which there is a “halal” sign, were recognised in Belarus as particularly dangerous to eat and prohibited from import and sale. Although in Russia it is sold everywhere.

A draft document has been created in Russia, which includes the regulations for the manufacture of halal products. It was supposed to become a single document for all manufacturers who decided to produce products in this segment, and which specifies all requirements. In the meantime, there are different approaches to working with manufacturers of halal products in the committees on the “halal” standard under different Muslim Spiritual Boards. Although, as far as I am aware, this issue is already being resolved, the first steps are being taken at the federal level to bring these requirements to a common denominator, while the Halal Standards Committee of the Republic of Tatarstan takes an active part in this work.

“Halal products must only be natural”

Once in an interview, the ex-minister of agriculture of the Republic of Tatarstan, unfortunately, the late Fatikh Sibagatullin said that “it is not enough to read the special prayer over the products 'Bismillahi rahmani rahim' and it will immediately become halal. No, the products must be initially useful, healthy, and most importantly — natural.” In this, I 100% agree with him. My point of view on the question “what is Halal?" is this: not only are these the capital canons of Islam, but most importantly, Halal products must be authentic — that is, the same as they were in the time of the Prophet. What exactly do I mean here? Firstly, there were no preservatives then, for example, sulphur dioxide; secondly, there were no “nature-identical flavouring”. Therefore, one should not stuff food with chemicals and then proudly call them halal.

At the same time, Halal standards should not be compared with GOST standards — one GOST is different from other. I'll give you an example: according to GOST, there must be only 20% natural product in the pastille!, everything else is at the manufacturer's choice — starch, flavourings, preservatives, sugar, other additives. Think about it, can these products then be called natural? All these ingredients do not fit at all with the definition of “natural”, which theoretically should be without any, as they say, “chemicals” at all.

Imagine, today in Russia at the legislative level there is no definition at all that there are natural products. Therefore, each manufacturer is free to call himself even, for example, outright counterfeit — natural products, and there will be no consequences to him for this. That's an even bigger problem today!

Of course, strict manufacturing requirements should apply to any food product if the manufacturer intends to certify it as halal. At one time, codes of rules and other regulations to some extent restrained domestic manufacturers. But since 2011, in terms of food products, the state has taken a radical step, abandoning the certification system in favour of the declaration system, thus relieving itself of some responsibility for food safety, thereby shifting it to producers, relying on their universal integrity.

Now, I believe, the practice of working in the mode of declaring compliance with food safety requirements has shown that it is necessary to make long overdue changes to this system, but in fact, no one is doing this. All these issues should be resolved only at the federal level. Now I am actively trying to break through to this level with a number of my proposals. But frankly, it is very difficult to do this. The State Duma is more engaged in legislative initiatives from the government or the Presidential Administration, and the initiatives of individual deputies are not very welcome. You can't get into the Federation Council either. The initiatives of the regions, as statistics show, also pass without enthusiasm. If any obvious problems appear, then it is extremely difficult to convey them to those who must solve them.

How does trade relate to natural products?

Another problem: how does trade relate to natural products today? It is more profitable for trade to buy the same “chemical” pastille, banned in Belarus, in a bright package for 400 rubles per kilogramme and make a margin of 30-50%, or even 100%, than to get involved with a real natural pastille made of fresh apples, the cost of which is at least 1300 rubles per kilogramme.

If we take the manufacturers of pastilles, which are “littered” with all marketplaces and stores, then most often not apples are taken as the basis for making pastilles, but purchased ready-made puree from them, and when drying, the proportion of preservative available in it increases several times, exceeding all permissible norms. That scandal in Belarus was just connected with this violation, when a pastille of one of the Russian manufacturers revealed a five-fold excess of sulphur dioxide.

Or, for example, in an effort to show the benefits of their products, the manufacturer adds honey to the pastille as a natural preservative. However! Honey when heated above 35 C0 turns into the same sugar and loses all its useful properties, and the pastille should be dried at a temperature of 55 C0, otherwise the whole mass turns sour and spoils. And where is the benefit of this product? It turns out that here the manufacturer misleads the buyer twice: the fact that the pastille with honey, where in fact it is no longer there, and the second is that the pastille is without sugar, which just appears in it after drying. And there is an economic component here. Honey can be bought at 250 rubles per kilogramme and at the cost of a pastille made from fresh apples at 1300 rubles, it turns out to be a very good saving. In general, there is also a deception here.

Halal centre for entrepreneurs and consumers

Summing up all the above, I would like to say that while the issue of a single standard for halal products is being resolved at the federal level, my business is the production of real natural products that meet the requirements that have already been announced by the Halal Standards Committee under the Muslim Spiritual Board of the Republic of Tatarstan. I am sure that halal products must be, first of all, natural and healthy. Taking into account that today Russia has great prospects for the development of this industry in connection with the active development and strengthening of trade and economic relations with the Islamic world, food producers need to think about the development of the direction for the production of natural products, which has long been time to give a legislative definition.

And also. Although we have been talking about the Halal industry for many years, but in the same Kazan, as one of the centres of Muslims in Russia, there is still no normal specialised Halal-Centre, where manufacturers and entrepreneurs could come to get the necessary information, where, for example, to start in the organisation of Halal production products, answers to your other questions from experts in this field, or exchange experience with colleagues. And also — so that consumers of halal products can come there, see the novelties of this industry, primarily food, and buy something. Yes, there is the Halal Committee under the Muslim Spiritual Board of the Republic of Tatarstan, but this is not enough, especially if the state plans to develop this direction, I think it's time to think about creating such a centre.

Well, as a first step, it is necessary that in the eyes of all consumers Halal products are associated exclusively with healthy products.

Sergey Nikiforov, an entrepreneur

The author's opinion may not coincide with the position of the editorial board of Realnoe Vremya.