This is the website and blog of Dr John Lever.

Wednesday 25 October 2017

A sustainable and secure food future needs #halal

The industrial food system faces many challenges. In recent decades the increasing production and consumption of high calorie, cheap processed food has undermined food security and contributed to a rapid increase in obesity and diet related ill health worldwide (Carolan 2013). The overuse of antibiotics in industrial animal agriculture provides a good example of the issues involved. Many global food companies use antibiotics to prevent rather than treat disease on factory farms and this is now recognized as a major contributory factor in the increase of antibiotic resistance worldwide (Akhtar, 2012). This is hugely significant for animal, environmental and human health and a number of studies have shown that antibiotics in the human food chain contribute to diet related ill health (Collins 2012; Lam et al 2012). A backlash against antibiotic use is now emerging and there is an embryonic movement for factory farm divestment (Levitt 2016).

Global expansion

To some extent, the global expansion of halal can be linked with concerns and anxieties about industrial food production. The halal food industry is estimated to be worth around $700 billion annually and with the Muslim population expected to increase from 1.6 billion to 2.2 billion by 2030 the opportunities on the horizon are vast (Bergeaud-Blackler et al 2016). In Arabic, the word ‘halal’ literally means ‘permissible’ or ‘lawful’ and in relation to food in particular it signifies ‘purity’ and is protected by certain Islamic practices. A number of Muslim requirements have been met in the global food industry, including injunctions to avoid substances where there is a threat of cross contamination from unacceptable ingredients, yet it has also been argued that the halal certification industry must make it easier for halal consumers to chose healthier food options (Tieman 2016). Much as the UK food industry is under pressure to shorten supply chains and improve sustainability in the aftermath of the horsemeat scandal of 2013, so there is a focus in Malaysia – a leading player in the global halal industry – to incorporate thoyyib[1] into all stages of halal production and assurance.

Halal assurance first emerged in Malaysia in the 1980s and Malaysia has since been recognised as a major halal hub in Southeast Asia through cooperation with states such as Indonesia, Brunei and Australia. Instrumental in the development of internationally recognised halal standards, Malaysia has been particularly successful in bridging Islamic traditions with the demands of international markets though its state led certification scheme overseen by JAKIM (Department of Islamic Development of Malaysia) and Nestlé Malaysia. This has added a new dimension to the global production and consumption of halal and Malaysia is pursuing plans to become a global halal hub by improving all aspects the global supply chain. A better understanding of the notion of thoyyib is now seen to be central to this process.

What is thoyyib?

Little understood, thoyyib is an integrative concept that relates to food safety and quality-produced food and a number of links can be made with sustainable food production and consumption. There has been growing Muslim interest in organic halal food in Europe for a number years and London recently hosted the UK’s first Halal Food Festival, which attracted many consumers from beyond the Muslim community. The links between organic food and thoyyib are evident in the shared focus on a hygienic, nutritious and healthy way of life, and it has recently been argued that the certification of nutritionally deficient halal products is therefore misleading (Tieman 2016).

Halal and sustainability are now both seen as opportunities. It is no longer enough for producers to focus solely on what type of food is produced – how food is produced is just as important. As well as product ingredients, consumers everywhere are increasingly concerned about farm animal welfare, transport, packaging and waste management, and many are demanding nutritious and quality food options that allow them to lead a healthier lifestyle. Thoyyib provides an opportunity, if better understood, to improve the many aspects of halal production, thus contributing towards a more sustainable and secure food future. Halal is no longer simply an expression of contested forms of production and consumption. It is part of a rapidly expanding, globalized market that is starting to bring the concerns of Muslim and non-Muslim consumers closer together.


Akhtar, A. (2012) Animals and Public Health: Why Treating Animals Better is Critical to Human Welfare, Palgrave Macmillan

Bergeaud-Blackler F., Fischer, J. and Lever, J. (2015) Halal Matters: Islam, politics and markets in global perspective London, UK: Routledge.

Carolan, M. (2013) Reclaiming Food Security, Earthscan: Routldege.

Collins, N. (2012) Livestock antibiotics ‘could have contributed to human obesity’, The Telegraph, 22 August

Lam, David W., and LeRoith, D. (2012) “The worldwide diabetes epidemic”, Current Opinion in Endocrinology, Diabetes and Obesity 19.2.

Levitt, T. (2016), Factory farming divestment: what you need to know, The Guardian, 3 March

Tieman, M. (2016) Halal diets, Islam and Civilisational Renewal, 7 (1)

[1] “Halal alone won’t take you far. Food must also be “thoyyiban”. Statement by the President of the NestlĂ© Halal Committee Regulatory Affairs of Malaysia, published in a Department of Standards Malaysia newsletter http://fr.scribd.com/doc/25463489/SH-Nestle-Malaysia(consulted on January 24, 2014).

This post first appeared on the University of Huddersfield current affairs blog - View from the North on 25 April 2016: http://blogs.hud.ac.uk/academics/blog/2016/04/25/a-sustainable-and-secure-food-future-needs-halal

Friday 22 September 2017

New paper in Human Figurations

Abstract: In this paper, we seek to move beyond dominant interpretations of Elias by drawing attention to an increasing body of work in the fields of social and public policy. We engage with debates about secondary forms of involvement to facilitate an appreciation of how this as yet undocumented tranche of empirical work can lead to greater understanding of the negative effects of state/elite policies in the current period. We conclude that by adopting a position of ‘detached involvement’ figurational sociologists can generate reality-congruent knowledge that allows them to make concrete statements about contemporary social processes.

Keywords: Contemporary social processes; involvement–detachment; policy; politics; sociology of knowledge.

Tuesday 15 August 2017

Cheap food, fraud and #brexit

The potential fraud and food safety issues posed by brexit come at a time when our food system already faces major challenges from climate change. Some of the biggest threats come from the UKs love of cheap food.

The 2013 horse meat scandal illustrated the need for better regulation to enable traceability and eliminate fraud when food crosses borders within the global food system. Yet at the Oxford farming conference earlier this year, Conservative Party delegates informed us that there will be less but more coherent food policy regulation in the post-brexit period, and that this will enable better consumer protection. Brexit thus provides an opportunity, it appears, to eliminate food fraud, or at least make it easier to deal with.

But this begs the question of where UK food will be produced in the post-brexit period: will we all consume food produced locally, or at least in the UK? At present this seems unlikely, hence public concern over chlorine washed chickens imported from the US and the dilution of animal welfare standards.

Industry insiders say they aren't loosing any sleep over the potential for a food fraud frenzy in the post-Brexit period, not least because there are many barriers that restrict entry into the food industry, and because there are easier ways to make money. But during a recent enquiry by the House Lords Select Committee on the European Union, Chris Elliot argued that the food sector presents many opportunities for fraud, and that the UK is not immune from the consequences.

There are numerous threats. If prices rise quickly or unexpectedly post-brexit, opportunities for food fraud may increase as producers look to cut corners or substitute cheap ingredients for more expensive ones. New trade relations with the US could increase competition and damage an already shrinking and under threat UK agriculture and farming sector, thus further incentivising fraud. Cutting corners may also increase microbiological hazards as discarded waste re-enters the food system illegally, thus raising concerns over food safety.

The implications of 'A Food Brexit' are vast and little understood. The difficulty of making changes or cutting back quickly without full consideration of the issues at hand increases the potential for food fraud significantly. As the horse meat scandal illustrated only too well, cheap food comes at a high cost.

Friday 16 June 2017

Labour, Mobility and Temporary Migration: A Comparative Study of Polish Migration to Wales

Labour, Mobility and Temporary Migration: A Comparative Study of Polish Migration to Wales (2017) Julie Knight., Lever J. and Thompson, A., University of Wales Press

Labour, Mobility and Temporary Migration delves into sociological research on Polish migrants who migrated to the lesser-explored South Wales region after Poland joined the European Union in 2004. At the time of enlargement, Polish migrants were characterised as being economically motivated, short-term migrants who would enter the UK for work purposes, save money and return home. However, over ten years after enlargement, this initial characterisation has been challenged with many of the once considered ‘short-term’ Poles remaining in the UK. In the case of Wales, the long-term impact of this migration is only starting to be fully realised, particularly in consideration of the different spatial areas – urban, semi-urban and rural – explored in this book. Such impact is occurring in the post-Brexit referendum period, a time when the UK’s position in the EU is itself complex and changing.