September 30, 2015

Can appropriate certification process improve food sovereignty?

In my rihla (journey) across different food landscapes I have discovered that people consume food not necessarily to satisfy hunger but for cultural, religious and social reasons. This is even more pronounced in Canada where people explore and learn from other cultures by including other people’s food in their cuisine. Cultural groups differ in their definition of good or appropriate food. For example, the elite and environmentally conscious believe in organic and/or local, the Jews in kosher, and the Muslims (including Somalis) in halal meat. The challenge with procuring appropriate food labelled organic, local, kosher or halal is the authenticity of the certification process. In some cases, the value chain is well defined and monitored, especially in the case of local organic, but not in the case of halal certification. Although there is Zabiha Halal certification for meat on the shelves of mainstreams stores, most halal consumers in Canada purchase from small stores. Some people have reservations about whether the meats from these stores were processed based on the standards expected of halal products. Halal certification should be based on the Quran, Hadith (practices of prophet Mohammed), Ijma (a consensus of legal opinion), and Qiyas (reasoning by analogy) (Regenstein et al 2003). In other words, it is difficult to ascertain that a small halal store truly sells appropriate meat if the owner did not slaughter the animal.

As desirable as halal meat may be in terms of health implications and taste, this may be compromised when appropriate certification is not in place. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency states that “Halal claims on food labels, packaging or advertising material must now include the name of the certifying body” (CFIA 2014). This is a step in the right direction, especially for traceability, but more must be done in terms of processes and procedures. And how are the people who purchase from small ethnic stores sure of what they are purchasing. The Canadian producers can also benefit from the export market if the process is appropriately certified. This should not be seen as religious observation but a business model that will increase Canada’s international relevance while providing food for Canadians of various backgrounds that want healthy, organic and ecologically friendly products.

Finally, consumers should be protected from business people benefiting by charging a premium from these niche markets without abiding by the required rules and regulations.


Regenstein J. M, Chaudry M. M & C. E. Regenstein (2003) The Kosher and Halal Food Laws. Comprehensive Reviews in Food Science and Food Safety 2: 111-127.


CFIA (2014) Notice to Industry - Government of Canada improves labelling of halal food products


Bamidele Adekunle, ECVOntario, SEDRD, University of Guelph, CANADA
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September 25, 2015

Halal: A Preferred cuisine

The nation of Somalia on the eastern horn of Africa has undergone a terrible humanitarian crisis. As of 2013, 1.1 million Somalis had been forced to disperse across the world as refugees [1] in response to a deadly combination of war, drought, corruption, and famine. Many of these people have sought and found sanctuary in Canada. Here, they must face the new challenges of adapting to a foreign climate and culture. Not least among these issues is the question of whether or not traditional eating habits can be maintained in a nation 12,747 kilometres from their homeland.

Somali Food – Overview
Somalia is an Islamic nation, meaning that most people abide by Islamic dietary laws. Meat features prominently within the Somali diet, and is included in all meals if possible. Goat meat is a popular favourite, with beef and chicken also eaten in quantities. Fish is less commonly used in Somali dishes, but does feature more prominently within certain regions of Somalia. Meals often consist of meat and flavoured rice, often with one of Somalia’s many specialized breads accompanying. Injera bread – found in many regions of East Africa – is made using teff and/or sorghum [2], and is used as both foodstuff and utensil in various meals. Pancake-like Malawa bread may be taken with honey. With a high grain and starch content, the traditional Somali diet is rich in carbohydrates, but may be deficient (according to Western standards) in fruit intake. However, the variety of beans, grains, and spices used in cooking lends the traditional Somali diet a healthy vitamin and mineral mix.

Somalia’s Islamic dietary laws declare certain foodstuffs – including (but not limited to) pig meat, blood-based products, and the meat of most carnivores - to be ‘haram’ [2], and forbid them. Furthermore, in order for a meat to be ‘halal’ and thus good to eat, it must be slaughtered in the correct fashion. Given that the Somali diet features meat so very prominently, it is desirable that Somalis in Canada have access to halal meat products. In general, Canada’s halal meat market is robust and wide-ranging [4], allowing Canadian Muslims to purchase and prepare their meals with ease. However, it should be noted that many new arrivals will not be aware of how to negotiate the Canadian halal markets, and (given the dominance of halal food within Somalia) unused to having to check that their food is halal. Things like sweets - which may contain things like gelatin from animals slaughtered in haram fashion – can be a source of confusion and distress.

Cultural and Gendered Considerations
Within Somalia, nutrition and cuisine is the almost-exclusive preserve of women. Few men know much about diet, cookery, and nutrition, and still fewer see any reason to learn such skills. This can cause problems when moving to Western nations, as the Western way of life and cost of living means that many women must get jobs, leaving them less time than they would have in their home nation to cook meals. This can be a source of domestic tension. Somalis within the USA have also expressed great concerns [5] about the diets of their children. Within Somalia, children and adults usually take lunch and dinner together. However, the Western school day prohibits this in most cases. While this is usually accepted within de-patriated Somali communities, many parents nonetheless miss the sense of family unity which comes from sharing at least two important meals a day with their children. Somali parents have also expressed great concern that their children’s school nutrition is not adequate, and that they are not properly prepared for the fact that haram foods hide in many guises within Western schools. Most of all, they are worried that their children will fall prey to Western food disorders such as an addiction to junk food, obesity, diabetes and so on. They also worry that a lack of parental control over their children’s diets and the Western obsession with physical appearance could lead to deadly conditions [6] like anorexia and bulimia.

Food Availability
In general, dispersed Somalis have proven adaptable and willing to compromise upon foods within the bounds of Islamic eating laws. Assuming that halal produce is available, the Somali diet should be able to continue with only a few adjustments. Halal beef and chicken can be substituted for goat, for example. However, it is notable that some traditional dishes will be harder to prepare. Camel and goat’s milk are staples of the Somali diet. While halal cow’s milk may be substituted in some cases, many Somali women feel that it is simply not the same. Canned goat’s milk is also often available in halal stores, and goat’s milk in general is becoming more available within Canada [7] - but people who are used to fresh goat’s milk, straight from the udder, feel that the canned milk is no substitute. Camel’s milk, meanwhile, is not a commodity common to Canada. African herbs and spices are also notably lacking. When these ingredients can be obtained, they are usually a lot more expensive (due often to transport costs) than they would have been back in Somalia. All in all, Canada can generally accommodate the Somali diet, but many traditional dishes may have to be eschewed, and ingredients are generally harder and more expensive to obtain.

[1] Refugees International, “Somalia”
[2] The Science of Cooking, “Ethiopian Ingera
[3] Halal Certification Services, “What is Haram?”
[4] Alberta Agriculture and Forestry Ministry, “Canadian Halal Meat Market Study”
[5] Jennifer Decker, “Eating Habits of Members of the Somali Community: Discussion Summary”, Sisters Of Charity Health System
[6], “Medical Issues From Anorexia, Bulimia, and Other Eating Disorders”
[7] Canadian Grocer, “Canadians flocking to goat milk products”, Oct 2011

Helen Abbott, Guest Contributor, ECVOntario, SEDRD, University of Guelph, CANADA

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September 11, 2015

Sesame Oil: A Keystone Ingredient

If you cook your own food, you’ll know what I’m talking about: that one ingredient. The one that’s always on your shopping list, always in your pantry. There is no substitute, you can’t seem to get away from using it, and without it your kitchen might as well be closed. I call it a keystone ingredient. Think of your keystone ingredient. Is it a spice blend? A particular cheese? Type of nut? For those preparing Somali food it is sesame oil. Found in a variety of traditional plates ranging from bun (a breakfast dish made of coffee bean soaked in sesame oil) to muufo (a corn bread topped with sesame oil), the sesame plant and accompanying products are easily accessible in Somalia and an indispensable part of Somali food identity.

While conducting a recent focus group aimed at better understanding the food related needs within the Greater Toronto Area’s Somali community, I was invited to reflect upon the impact of barriers to keystone ingredient access. The food enthusiasts participating in the conversation identified frustration with the availability and cost of sesame oil in Canada. Although a variety of ethno-cultural fruits and vegetables are widely available, especially in large urban areas, the limiting factor in food preparation for many comes from barriers to sesame oil. This made me wonder – do keystone ingredients also play a keystone role in the proliferation of ethno-cultural food in Ontario? Can methodology be developed for the identification of keystone ingredients within refugee path immigrant communities in order to prioritize them for local production?

The availability of keystone ingredients within each refugee path immigrants’ community, more so than other ethno-cultural foods, is imperative. When keystone ingredients are accessible, kitchens are open!

In case you’re wondering: my keystone ingredient is lemon juice.

Valencia Gaspard, PhD Student - Rural Studies, ECVOntario, SEDRD, University of Guelph, CANADA

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September 4, 2015

Understanding Refugee Path Immigrants

In my quest for knowledge, I became confused about concepts such as the whiteness (in terms of race, class and education) of spaces such as the farmers’ market, appropriate definition of a food desert, and the possibility of control over the food consumed by groups such as  refugee path immigrants.  Refugee path immigrants (RPIs) are people who entered their new country through refugee routes (Adekunle et al. 2015). My confusion may have stemmed from my epistemological and ontological inclination that explanation is subjective and our perceptions shape our reality.

As a pluralist, I have come to understand that the only way we can understand a phenomenon is to use different approaches while taking a polyocular view at the prevailing landscape. As a team we have explored the consumption pattern of the three largest cultural groups in the Greater Toronto Area and have made significant impact to the food landscape of Canada as a multicultural society. Going forward, the ECVOntario team will explore the possibility of control over food consumed by vulnerable groups such as the refugee path immigrants in Canada.

Can refugee path immigrants control their food through access to culturally appropriate foods, community shared agriculture, urban gardening, attendance of farmers market, avoidance of processed food, etc.? We will answer this at the end of our new project …

Bamidele Adekunle, ECVOntario, SEDRD, University of Guelph, CANADA
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