Ali Hussein El Zoghbi, Vice-President of FAMBRAS, at the Global Halal Forum (FAMBRAS).

Halal Industry

Q&A with Ali Hussein El Zoghbi, VP of Brazil’s FAMBRAS, South America’s largest halal certifier

Salaam Gateway talked with Ali Hussein El Zoghbi, Vice-President of the Federation of Muslim Associations in Brazil (FAMBRAS), about the early days of halal certification, how the sector has grown into the largest halal meat exporter in the world, and the first Global Halal Forum.

Salaam Gateway (SG): FAMBRAS was founded by your Lebanese father, Hussein El Zoghbi, in 1979. Can you tells us more about him and how it all started?

Ali Hussein El Zoghbi: My father arrived in Brazil in 1949, as part of the second wave of Lebanese immigrants. In the late 19th and early 20th century many Lebanese Christians had arrived. After World War II mainly Muslims arrived. Most of them came from the western Bekaa Valley, including my father, who was from Kamed el Loz.

He started as a peddler, but at first was down on his luck. At some point he was so desperate he considered moving back to Lebanon. But then he met Mohamed Hussein, who was also from the Bekaa. He offered my dad a meal and took him to a store. He told my father he could take anything on his account. He also told him to travel to the (south-west) state of Parana. My father did as he was told - he sold everything, returned to pay off his debt and started his life. It is this incredible sense of solidarity that saved him.

My father became a merchant, venturing into various businesses and grew to become a pillar of the Islamic community in Brazil. At one point he realized there was an opportunity in providing Muslim countries with halal meat. So, in 1976 he helped organize the first ever shipment of 650 tonnes of chicken from Brazil to Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. Three years later he established FAMBRAS. The rest is history.

SG: How large is Brazil's halal sector?

El Zoghbi: There are an estimated 1.5 million Brazilian jobs directly or indirectly related to halal. FAMBRAS employs some 1,500 people. We have certified some 400 companies, of which 25 operate in animal protein. There are not that many (companies), as the market is dominated by a few very large companies. The others are also mainly active in agribusiness - from oil and rice to Brazilian nuts. We are currently working on the certification of two hotels. Like my father used to say: Brazil could also be a halal tourism hub.

SG: How has Brazilian halal meat exports grown since 1976?

El Zoghbi: Brazil is the world's biggest producer and exporter of halal meat. In 2020, Brazil exported about a third of its chicken meat production, some 4.2 million tonnes, half of which was halal. At some 7.5 million tonnes, Brazil is the world's largest exporter of beef yet only 20% goes to Muslim countries. The combined value of Brazil’s halal beef and chicken exports amounted to some $4.7 billion in 2020.

SG: What are the main importing countries?

El Zoghbi: Regarding chicken, China, Saudi Arabia, Japan, the UAE and the European Union (EU) make up the top five. As for beef, China, Hong Kong, Egypt, the EU and Chile. However, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have entered the beef top 10. The latter is a relatively small country, but it’s a hub for re-exporting to other countries, including Iran.

SG: What are the other important exports to Muslim countries?

El Zoghbi: In addition to all sorts of agricultural produce, Brazil is a major supplier of aircraft to the Arabian Gulf. And we think this will only grow in the near future. Embraer is the world’s third largest aircraft producer, specialised in medium size planes (80-120 seats). In the past, Saddam Hussein's Iraq bought a lot of Volkswagen Passat cars, which were produced in Brazil. So, at the time Baghdad was flooded with Brazilian-made cars.

SG: With over 600,000 deaths, Brazil has been badly hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. How did this affect the halal certification process and halal exports?

El Zoghbi: We managed to continue working without any losses. Both food and health are essentials, so we drew up a contingency plan with the companies involved to protect our staff. We created a protocol so we could continue producing food without putting our employees at risk and honour the contracts we had. We did this through social distancing, personal protective equipment (PPE), a booklet with guidelines and regular follow-ups. Regarding the Friday prayers, we started broadcasting the sermon so people could watch it at home. Only when the vaccinations were underway did the public prayers at the mosque resume, yet at a distance of two metres. I'm very proud of what we achieved.

SG: How has the concept of halal developed over the last 40 years?

El Zoghbi: Today we can say with conviction that halal has become a seal of quality for consumers anywhere in the world. A seal based on an audit of the entire production process. Halal is no longer just about the way the animal was killed. Today, we assess where the animal is from, what it is fed, whether the type of production harms the environment. Working conditions should also be good. Work that (is considered) slavery, for example, cannot have the halal seal.

The audit also looks at animal welfare. For example, we must ensure that the cut is quick, so that the animal does not feel any pain. One cow cannot see another being slaughtered. And it is very important to control the flow of blood in order to avoid contamination.

SG: From 6-8 December (2021), Fambras co-organised the first ever Global Halal Forum in Brazil. Why?

El Zoghbi: We invited major national and international players for an exchange of ideas regarding all aspects of the halal business. I believe Brazil deserves its place at the table. It has become an example of excellence in terms of halal. We are part of this excellence, as we have been pioneers in the field and have introduced a series of innovations, which we thought needed to be communicated. For example, a QR code certification system, more agile management and administrative processes and, most importantly, traceability. We now have filming points and documentation that will allow the consumer to inspect the entire process of an animal from birth to slaughter.


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