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A small dairy producer is accused of supporting terrorism and then, perversely, of racism. By Max Opray.

Social media attacks on target halal suppliers

In a corrugated iron shed nestled amid the golden slopes of the Fleurieu Peninsula, Nick Hutchison glares at his smartphone. Swiping his way through screenshots of messages deleted from the Fleurieu Milk & Yoghurt Company Facebook page, Hutchison pauses periodically to read out the more colourful examples. When he does so, the voice of the 26-year-old marketing manager betrays a mixture of emotions: anger, contempt, incredulousness, regret and a hint of hurt.

For this small South Australian dairy business, it has been a strange sort of journey. The wheels were first set in motion seven months ago, when the company was offered a $50,000 contract to supply milk and yoghurt to some of the leading airlines in the world, including Emirates. There was one condition: halal produce only.

To be halal is to be spiritually hygienic for Muslims: the equivalent of kosher for Jews or jhatka for Sikhs. There are Christians, too, who follow the recipes of their holy cook book. And cultural influence on what people eat certainly extends beyond religious doctrine: the most militantly secular people can exhibit irrational dietary preferences, such as the Westerners who happily devour the flesh of cows and chickens but are repulsed by the thought of eating horse or dog.

The rules of halal most famously prohibit pork and alcohol, and most controversially insist on preparing animals for consumption by slitting their throats and allowing them to bleed out. One would assume any digital activism about halal would focus on this, but the Fleurieu Milk & Yoghurt Company produces dairy, not steak, so why is anyone having a go at Hutchison?

The answer is found within a second layer of strangeness: there is practically nothing in halal guidelines that even applies to the company’s cow milk nor (with very rare exceptions) their yoghurt range. Their produce is halal without even trying, however, Emirates requires more than that: the airline wants to tell customers they have certified halal. Particularly in regard to milk, the airline is indulging in a modern, corporate kind of silliness, akin to how certain bottled water companies describe themselves as organic. Of course the water is organic: it’s water.

There was no doubt, however, that slapping the words “halal certified” on the product would be worthwhile for Hutchison and his bosses: a fee of $1000 to secure a contract worth 50 times as much, along with international brand exposure. The deal was locked in, and from the yoghurt-guzzling passengers en route to Dubai right down to the dairymen in Myponga, everyone was a winner. That is, until three weeks ago, when things got stranger still. 

Hutchison received an email asking if his company’s products were halal-accredited. Aware of anti-halal sentiments floating about the internet, he cautiously confirmed it was so, throwing in some guff about how Fleurieu Milk & Yoghurt remains a proudly South Australian company. The emailer didn’t reply, instead sharing Hutchison’s response with halal boycott social media groups, provoking thousands of members to overwhelm the company’s page with insinuations that halal products support terrorism.

“I wish I’d just closed the Facebook page down until it blew over,” Hutchison says. Instead, the company decided that for the sake of employee welfare and their brand, they’d remove the certification and risk losing the Emirates contract, which contrary to widespread media reporting has not actually happened yet. To compound matters, all the media attention regarding the cave-in to the boycott groups has prompted a second wave of Facebook criticism, mostly accusations of racism and cowardice. Hutchison says it is unfair to compare Fleurieu’s decision with that of other companies that have held firm against anti-halal campaigners, such as the makers of Four’n Twenty pies, who confronted the boycotters online and won national praise for doing so. Hutchison argues that most businesses targeted are bigger than Fleurieu, better equipped to withstand the heat, and often sell products that Muslims will actively avoid without certification, such as meat pies.

“People are saying now, ‘What about the Muslims who can’t buy your products now?’, but that’s not true – we are still halal,” he says.

On the phone from the mid-north coast of NSW, Kirralie Smith tells me Emirates was engaging in extortion. In our conversation she’s warm and friendly, much like the branding of her Halal Choices website, which glows with a consensus-building aura that in turn reminds me of the Howard government’s WorkChoices campaign, all smiling faces and cheerful fact boxes. It was on the Halal Choices Facebook page that Smith reposted Hutchison’s fateful email exchange with one of her followers.

“I’ve had to remove the email from my page because [the follower] copped a lot of abuse about it, which is really unfortunate,” Smith says.

“Lots of people were calling her a bully and threatening her.”

Inspired to take on halal certification groups after attending a talk on the subject in 2010 by Anglican pastor Mark Durie, Smith is frustrated that the halal boycott movement is routinely dismissed as the work of a handful of angry xenophobes, given it has attracted tens of thousands of people.

“It’s a whole spectrum – yes, you’ll have your redneck racist bullies, but also your everyday consumers,” she says.

When singling out a halal-certified producer to bombard, she urges her followers to do so in a respectful way – so as not to hurt the movement’s image. They then descend on the targeted company like a digital lynch mob, overwhelming their social media presence with accusations that halal certification fees finance terrorism and Islamic law (sharia).

I ask Smith about the relationship between certification groups and terrorist activities, and she says such connections are not her main focus, but points me to some overseas examples of Canadian and French halal certification groups linked with organisations such as Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood.

As for Australia-based halal certification groups, the boycott movement doesn’t have a whole lot to point to. I check in with the attorney-general’s office, the Australian Crime Commission and the Australian Transaction Reports and Analysis Centre, none of which indicate such organisations have been linked with terrorist activities.

Islamic Council of Queensland president Mohammed Yusuf is nonplussed. In true Queenslander fashion, he laconically shrugs off the boycott movement as misguided.

“They’ve been making noises that halal certification fees have been funnelled overseas to fund terrorism, but they don’t know anything about it,” he says.

“We charge an average of $250 to certify a restaurant or takeaway, which doesn’t even cover the cost of doing the initial inspections or the random follow-up checks.”

 The Islamic Council of Queensland is just one of many organisations that offer a certification service, and takeaways are certainly at the cheaper end of the halal compliance scale. Abattoirs face the highest outlay, with some having to fork out hundreds of thousands of dollars to meet halal criteria. Of course, this in turn allows them to access the vast meat markets of the Middle East.

Smith argues that these certification costs essentially function as a covert tax imposed by a minority group on everyone else. She says that even if the proceeds from fees are going towards mosques, schools and charity work, as the certification groups claim, it should be up to the consumer whether to support such projects. She’d like to see a “user pays” system implemented where mosques subsidise the cost of halal compliance for the rest of the community. It is in a way the dream conservative cause, a love child of the carbon price and the war on terror: a “Muslim tax” on the rest of Australia.

Pauline Hanson doesn’t like it, and in announcing her return to politics last week as party leader of the One Nation party, she cited the “forcing” of halal on Australia as one of the reasons for her attempt at a comeback. Slightly more mainstream conservatives have jumped on board, too, with Queensland Liberal National Party MP George Christensen weighing in with a post on his blog titled “Terror in the Tucker Box?” in which he idly speculates about the possibility of halal certification fees in Australia being funnelled towards terrorist organisations. He then neatly segues into the boycott movement’s argument that such fees are an unfair religious tax on non-Muslims.

 When I put this to Yusuf, he sighs.

“If there is a company that wants to sell to a particular group of consumers – in this case the Muslim community – well, this is our requirement to buy it, and we’d like peace of mind with independent certifications,” he says.

“That’s all there is to it: a buyer and a seller.”

For Yusuf, the boycott groups are missing the point – this isn’t political correctness gone mad but simply the free market in action. It’s not really of concern to the foot soldiers of this online crusade, however, for whom halal logos on local food products – particularly iconic brands such as Four’n Twenty – are a matter of identity. They see it as the first phase of a plot to Islamise Australia, the caliphate marking their territory, the branding equivalent of an imam urinating on an Australian flag. First they came for the yoghurt, and I did not speak out.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 29, 2014 as "Almost certif iable". Subscribe here.

Max Opray
is an Adelaide-based freelance journalist.