Does Islam have the answers to China’s food safety problems?

Saroja Dorairajoo and Ma Jianfu say the adoption of certain Islamic food production practices could build confidence and put China on the map as a major food producer

PUBLISHED : Friday, 29 July, 2016, 1:49pm
UPDATED : Friday, 29 July, 2016, 5:42pm

In recent months, there has been much negative focus on Muslims in China with regard to food. At least three incidents have triggered much debate and vitriol on social media.

In Xining ( 西寧 ), Qinghai ( 青海 ), a halal confectionery was attacked last May by Muslims who suspected the confectionery of selling pork products. In Xian (西安) in Shaanxi (陝西), hundreds of Muslims took to the streets to protest against the sale of alcohol in Muslim restaurants. And in Xinjiang (新疆), several foreign media reported on Muslim shopkeepers being forced by government officials to sell alcohol and cigarettes in their shops.

Such incidents highlighted the tensions within Muslim communities as well as with non-Muslims.

Following on the heels of these incidents came the announcement in June that a proposal by the Ethnic Affairs Committee of the National People’s Congress to draft a national law regulating halal food had been dropped. The proposed law was opposed by many, including Xi Wuyi from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, who said that the law violated the principle of separation of religion and state in China.

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At the same time, internet users have been commenting aggressively on social media against the rising tide of Islam and a “Muslim invasion” in China.

Is such a fear justified? Or could this Muslim “invasion” in the form of religiously ordained food serve to unite and create a better and safer China?

In Islam, food laws are succinctly codified in the Arabic word “halal”, which essentially means “legal” and “permissible”. In summary, the rules require the consumption of meat only from animals that are ritually slaughtered and the avoidance of pork, blood and alcohol.

In China, the term halal translates as qingzhen. A phrase meaning “pure and true”, qingzhen captures two meanings in Islam, that of halal, religiously prescribed foods, and toyyiban, a larger concept in Islam referring to a pure and wholesome life not only in terms of diet, but also in speech, thoughts and deeds.

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In regard to food, toyyiban includes not just halal foods but also nutritious, wholesome and hygienic foods. For example, meat slaughtered according to Muslim rites would be considered halal, but only meat from a chicken raised in humane, stress-free conditions and not fed antibiotics, for example, would be toyyiban. Essentially, toyyiban is a larger, all-encompassing concept that focuses on food safety, nutrition and health. Halal laws in regard to food are unique to Muslims but toyyiban laws in regard to food safety, nutrition and health are universalistic and applicable to all peoples, irrespective of religion.

While China does have strict laws governing food safety, the problem lies with implementation

We believe this understanding provides an answer to China’s food safety problems. While China does have adequate and strict laws governing food safety, the problem lies with implementation. Lapses in the production chain as a result of human greed often create food scandals and compromise the production of safe food. This has led to notoriously negative perceptions about Chinese food safety within and outside China.

However, if China wants to be a leader in food production for the world economy, toyyiban is an important way to ensure safety in the food production chain. This is because only religion can legislate morality; civil law cannot. That is why, despite strict laws governing food production and supply in China, one still finds severe compromises in food safety dictated by the desire for greater profits.

Islam, through its emphasis on halal and toyyiban, can guarantee the production of safe foods in China. This could put China on the international map as a major food producer (the current halal foods market is valued at over US$2 trillion) and supplier to the world. China could then rightfully claim its status as an important and respected player in the market and a leader in world politics and economics.

Saroja Dorairajoo is senior lecturer at the National University of Singapore specialising in food anthropology. Ma Jianfu is associate professor at Beifang University in Ningxia, and has conducted research and written extensively on all aspects of Muslim society in China