Lab helps make halal a scientific certainty

Scientists are stepping in to make sure Muslims and others who want to keep pork off of their plates and out of their personal items can rest assured.

Halal (permitted) and haram (prohibited) consumer products have been a major concern for a long time in majority-Islamic countries around the world, as well as other nations, and keeping pork out of products is a huge market-driving force.

Now, scientists at the Dubai Central Laboratory (DCL) in the UAE are piloting a Halal Testing Service to help identify pork in cosmetics and personal care items, including lipsticks, soaps, and lotions and creams. Such a scientific step would be a leap forward in guaranteeing items are halal, since up to now testing largely has consisted of inspecting factories to make sure that meat was ritually slaughtered and to observe whether any pork was physically put into products.

Officials told Reuters that the DCL would be available to help with legislation and programs aimed at protecting Islamic consumers and communities from prohibited products.

“The new service is useful to the customers of these products, traders, and statutory and regulatory bodies, DCL Director Ameen Ahmad said. "It is one of the regulatory requirements of the Gulf Standard Specifications, which state that these products are free of pork fat and its derivatives."

Ahmad said the DCL started this program because so many other initiatives have centered halal inspection only around food products. The UAE lab uses a process called Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy to spot the presence of pork fat in products, then follows up with gas chromatography mass spectrometry.

At press time, the DCL had not returned calls to talk about intent and methodology, but the Gulf News Journal spoke with Harry Keller, a scientist and educator in California, about how these high-tech scientific methods can assure Islamic consumers they're not using products with pork in them.

Keller said infrared spectroscopy is commonly used to test various kinds of chemicals in laboratory settings.

“Spectroscopy is the science of illuminating something with electromagnetic radiation,” he said.

Each fat has specific chemicals and a molecular structure that can be examined in this way.

With infrared, he said, scientists can look at how specific substances absorb parts of the electromagnetic spectrum -- fat, for example, would look different under infrared light than it does to the naked eye.

Fourier transform, Keller said, is used to separate specific signals from background noise. Keller used the example of NASA technology that separates incoming space signals from cosmic noise.

“It's a tricky process.” Keller said, describing how a Fourier method helps with “teasing apart complex fingerprints” of chemical compounds.

“You have to separate out the signal that's specific to the fat,” he said.

In the follow-up step of chromatography, chemical constituents of a substance are floated up through a tube for observation.

The use of these very modern scientific processes to test products for pork ingredients represents a compelling interaction between the frontier of the scientific world and religious and cultural practices going back many centuries in human history. It's another step in the evolution of traditional religious practices in today's modern world, and how they adapt according to technological advancements.