Six Biggest Polemics on Use of Alcohol in Halal F&B Industry

The issue of alcohol used in food and beverage industry remains a polemic in the Muslim community, as alcohol is perceived to be khamr (alcoholic beverage), which is inaccurate.

At Knowing Your Halal Ingredients session of the 2nd International Halal Technical Capacity Development Program (IHTCDP 2017), some very interesting points were raised with regards Malaysia’s current ruling on alcohol for Halal certification purposes.

Alcohol, or ethanol, is the intoxicating constituent in alcoholic beverages, and it is the only type of alcohol that can be consumed. Others like methyl, propyl and butyl can result in blindness and death if consumed, even in small doses.

For the food and beverage industry, ethanol is nearly ubiquitous in nature, with small amounts found in nearly all foods. It is a common chemical compound, produced during fermentation and used mainly as an ingredient in food preparation.

Ethanol is also used in food manufacturing to aid food processing. Examples include solvents for flavours extraction (vanilla bean extraction), food preservatives, disinfectants, vinegar fermentation, which is converted into acetic acid, as well as washing liquids used by food processing machinery.

Issue 1: If ethanol is produced by the same process as winemaking (fermentation), does that make it non-halal?

A: Fermentation is a preservation process, which is ordinarily involved to produce various food products from a myriad of botanical-based sources, such as cereals (sourdough), fish (budu or fermented anchovies), fruits (tempoyak or fermented durian), shrimps (belacan and cincalok) and legumes (soya sauce). The fermentation process is not necessarily just to produce a product for the purpose of intoxication (alcoholic beverage). The halal status of a product will depend on the objective (niyyah) for which the product is produced (al umur bi maqasidiha) and also on how it is going to be used.

Issue 2: Is the ethanol produced as industrial alcohol the same that is produced in an alcoholic beverage (khamr)?

A: Some misunderstanding has indeed occurred when the original term in Arabic, i.e. khamr is equated to alcohol in English. Alcohol has a wider meaning and connotation and is not only limited to ethanol or alcoholic beverages only. Ethanol does not necessarily mean khamr although the intoxicating constituent of khamr is ethanol. Its halal status will again depend on the intention or the purpose of the product (al umur bi maqasidiha).

Issue 3: What is the amount of alcohol allowed to be present in food and drinks for it to be considered as halal compliant?

A: To benchmark the permissible level of alcohol in food and drinks at the current level of between 0.01% to 0.05%, is not practical as it was found that even the most non-alcoholic products have alcohol levels of 0.01% or more, like energy drinks, cultured drinks and vinegar, although the possibility of intoxication is almost none. There are also ‘intermediate products’, which are not consumed directly in its original form, such as flavours and colours, which may also have higher alcohol content. These, however, are often diluted when they are used, with the remaining level of alcohol found to be around 0.01% in the final product.

Issue 4: Is adding khamr (wine, spirits) in the preparation of food and drinks permissible? Won’t the constituents be totally evaporated off?

A: It is not permissible to add khamr in any food/drink preparation as adding it will nullify its halalness, as khamr is considered a contaminant. Khamr residues will actually remain and be present even after the food have been vigorously cooked or heated for a long time.

Issue 5: Can the “medico-legal principles of intoxication” be applied as the basis to determine the level of alcohol in food and drinks?

A: The basis of deciding the permissible level of alcohol in food and drink must be on a clear basis and not to be decided at random. The “principles of intoxication” that is used as a basis in ‘medico-legal’ cases related to driving under influence (DUI), can be used to assist the decisions made in determining the permissible level of alcohol in food and drinks. It is suggested that a maximum level of 1% v/v is adopted as the permissible level of alcohol in food and drinks.

Issue 6: What is the ideal amount of alcohol that is allowed to be present in fermented food and drinks?

A: The maximum amount of alcohol in nabidh from dates on the third day is recorded at 0.06%. Tapai is found to have an alcohol content of higher than 1%, but no cases of intoxication have been reported thus far. The influence of density and the presence of a solid matrix may bring about in dampening the absorption of alcohol by the human digestive system. However, this has to be further investigated. The levels of alcohol in nira (arengata pinata) and Nipah (coconut) palm saps are also high and needs further investigation.

As a conclusion, scientific and Shariah-based approaches can both be used to assist in the determination of alcohol level in food and drinks, using the ’medico-legal’ principles as the final determinant.

The rate of the 0.01% – 0.05% alcohol content standard set by JAKIM also needs to be reviewed as it is not considered practical or realistic for most of the halal fermented food market. However, the 1% v/v is determined as the maximum level of alcohol in food products produced through natural fermentation.

It is however imperative that the industry overcomes these uncertainties and institute proper coordination of the permissible levels of alcohol in various products for the overall benefit of the halal industry.

** As published in the H MAG 2019, a special edition print in conjunction with the Global Halal Summit (GHaS 2019), Kuala Lumpur Convention Centre, April 2019. For further inquiries or more insights, kindly get in touch.