PARIS – PARIS (AP) — Note to big companies hoping to tap into France's lucrative but long-neglected Muslim consumer market: Pitfalls may await, and not only in the form of complaints from the far-right.
As of this week, 22 outlets of popular French fast food chain Quick are serving burgers it says respect Islamic dietary law. And while many Muslims are delighted, the powerful main Paris Mosque complained Thursday that Quick's criteria aren't all-encompassing enough, and that the operation is meaningless.
Quick's meat is certified as halal, but Cheikh Al Sid Cheikh, assistant to the rector of the Paris Mosque, said the burger chain should have had the other ingredients checked as well, from its mustard to buns to fries.
"The rest must be validated too, or else there's no point," he told The Associated Press. Quick responded that it has no intention of making any of its restaurants halal through-and-through — beer is still served there, for example, said spokeswoman Valerie Raynal.
Such cultural sensitivities are new territory for many French companies. Until recently in France, a country obsessed with secularism, companies were hesitant to reach out to France's Muslim population, estimated to be 5 million, the largest in Europe.
Quick, the No. 2 burger chain in France after McDonald's, is the latest group to enter the expanding French market for halal food, which has an estimated euro5.5 billion ($7 billion) in annual sales, according to a study by France's Solis marketing agency.
Both the Casino supermarket chain and the Fleury Michon line of cold cuts have halal offerings. The Paris Mosque has high praise for Kentucky Fried Chicken France, which it says spent four months consulting with Muslim officials recently about its fare. The chain is a rarity in that it has offered halal food for years — though it never trumpeted the fact.
Part of companies' reticence may have been political. Quick's announcement prompted a torrent of negative commentary from the far right and from the rest of the political spectrum, with complaints that the company was forcing halal food on non-Muslims. Only about 6 percent of the chain's outlets have gone halal.
The brouhaha over the burgers follows a debate on burqas, which France is preparing to ban — a symbol of the country's insistence that integration is the only path for its minorities.
Beyond the political chatter, the Paris Mosque's reaction highlights disagreement among France's Muslims about what foods are really halal, who is qualified to decide, and whether the certification agencies are rigorous enough in making sure that animals are slaughtered properly.
Halal meat must come from animals that have been killed by a cut to the jugular vein. The animal's head is pointed toward Mecca, and a blessing is recited.
Fateh Kimouche, founder of the French Muslim consumer Web site Al-Kanz, says most of the 40 to 50 outlets in France that provide halal certification aren't rigorous enough and don't have their own inspectors to verify that Islamic law is being respected.
He says the situation is scandalous, calling it "halal-gate."
"Up to 90 percent of meat marked 'halal' isn't really, and there are big names in French industry that are up to their necks in the problem," he said.
Beyond that concern, he says Quick's decision will be a wake-up call to big business about how important the halal market is in France. Quick, for its part, says business has doubled in recent months at eight outlets that have already tested the concept.