A controversial issue on grey areas of Halal is the presence of alcohol in food and beverage. Traditionally, consumers and Islamic jurists have identified alcohol as a substance that is Haram for consumption, whilst the process of fermentation is perceived as an unethical process as it produces intoxicants.
Since alcohol exists in small quantities in Halal food products, consumers are unsure of its legal values and whether it can be consumed. However, food producer claims that the fermentation processes itself are not unethical. In fact, the processes are essential in major industrial applications especially food processing and flavoring.
Alcohol is pervasive in the food industry in its indispensable role as food soluble, flavoring and preservatives. These distinctive features of alcohol as solvent agents are also extensively applied in pharmaceutical, cosmetics, drugs and antibiotics, and other industrial applications. The total value of the application of alcohol in these industries is in the billions of dollars considering that just in the soft drink sector alone, for example, Coca Cola reported sales of USD22billion in its 2004 annual report (Alcohol is used as solvent in this industry).
Alcohol occurs as a result of the processes of fermentation and in industrial applications, fermentation has proven to be an economically and commercially viable mode to produce alcohol. The type of alcohol that is commonly extracted through this process for the food industry is known as ethanol, which in its purest form would be harmful for consumption. Thus, ethanol is always mixed with other substances to render it safe for consumption. That brings us then to the main issue, is the prohibition on alcohol directed at alcohol per se or at the effects of alcohol, which is the intoxicating nature of alcohol.
Fatwas issued by international jurists and Islamic organisations have ruled that it is permissible to consume food and beverage that contain alcohol at levels that do not intoxicate. These levels are established at a very minimum level range of 0.01% to 0.05%, on the basis that at these levels the amount is not significant in causing intoxication. Thus, the prohibition is directed at the effects of alcohol itself, which is its intoxicating nature.
Applying the principles of analogy (Qias) in this matter, Islamic jurists have included all other similar substances that have the same effect as alcohol, i.e., intoxicants such as drugs, cocaine, heroin, marijuana, whiskey, gin, beer to be prohibited. Islamic jurists claim that the suppliers do not publish the components because one ingredient could have hundreds of components. The formula should be checked whether it has contents that are Halal or not.
The latest fatwa by Imam Yusof Al-Qaradhawi issued in 2008 pursuant to queries on energy drinks that contain a small percentage of alcohol, states that it is permissible to consume food that contains alcohol on the condition that firstly it does not intoxicate, and secondly the alcohol content was as a result of natural fermentation.
For the Muslim community, the issue is clear. Alcohol is present in most food and beverage for its specific uses and may be tolerated if it exists below the established parameter. However, the consumption of intoxicating beverages produced by commercial distillation like beer and wine are totally prohibited and there is no room for argument for their prohibition.
What the Muslim consumer has to be wary of is the disturbing trend towards the application of alcohol as food flavoring. Although the food products may not intoxicate or contain alcohol at all, the taste and smell of alcohol is in the food products. Alcoholic flavoring is entering areas it has traditionally stayed away from, such as cereals, sweets, jellies, ice cream, tooth paste and other household products whose main consumers are children.
Fakihah Azahari, Grey Areas of Halal – Alcohol, 2010 January, HalalFocus.com.
Reference on http://special.worldofislam.info/Food/halal_haram.html
Non-alcohol drinks should get Halal certification: Ulema Council, Jakarta Post, 2010 March 10