Interview with Fethallah Otmani, Managing Director of AVS
What is AVS’s share of the French Halal meat market?
Fethallah Otmani: A study I conducted in 2008 – we don’t have more recent data – indicated that in terms of the volume of certified meat (note that the volume of meat we slaughter is higher because we don’t certify all the meat we slaughter) AVS accounted for about 5% of the total halal market in France.
What percentage of meat labelled as “halal” on the French market meets AVS’s criteria in terms of ritual slaughter, i.e. meat derived from animals that have not been stunned before the bleeding process?
Fethallah Otmani: In 2008, I concluded that 31% of slaughtered meat can genuinely be considered halal, but that not all the meat ritually slaughtered is necessarily certified and therefore labelled as halal. Moreover, this figure has collapsed with the coming into force in January 2013 of a new European regulation, which tightened conditions around ritual slaughter. Many of the slaughterhouses that performed a substantial amount of ritual slaughtering have now normalised stunning practices. My study was carried out prior to the introduction of the new legislation, so I don’t have precise statistics, but I think that today, we can consider that at most only 15% of the halal meat comes from animals not stunned before bleeding.
What are the main challenges that AVS will have to tackle in the coming years?
Fethallah Otmani: In the short term, there are at least three. AVS was born 25 years ago to meet a need which we haven’t entirely fulfilled. Today a person living in Paris and who wants to eat halal meat will have no problem locating it, just by going and shopping locally. However, if one lives in Lille it’s more complicated. This is our first challenge: to successfully roll out the project so that halal meat is accessible even in cities far flung or smaller than Paris or Lyon.
The second challenge concerns meaning. Despite our limitations, by enabling those in the Paris and Lyon regions who want to eat halal to do so, we have solved the immediate question: how to access halal? But then one needs to answer the deeper question on the meaning of halal: what does halal fundamentally entail? And this question raises a set of issues surrounding ethics in industrial farming, the rearing conditions etc. AVS has participated in alternative projects such as L’Ilot des Combes – a small farm in South East France – but these projects are marginal to our main activities. Thus our second challenge will be to successfully develop with partners, projects that address the ethical dimension of halal in its entirety (not just during the slaughtering process but also in the earlier animal rearing stages).
Finally, the third major challenge is an internal one. Even though we work throughout France, AVS was born in a spirit of closeness: it is a tightly-knitted structure whose decision-making centre is in Saint-Denis (Parisian suburb). Our association has a family feel with very close human bonds, based on trust which is prized even above skills, and which has allowed us to preserve a code of ethics transcending the issue of halal. But today AVS is spreading mainly abroad with our inspectors who shuttle between France and other countries, working with foreign-based inspectors with whom we only tend to have a distant relationship. This begs the question how to preserve this spirit of closeness while AVS develops internationally? This is all the more imperative because today 50% of our business is carried out abroad while conditions in France are becoming increasingly problematic.
So AVS activities in the coming years will focus much on developing internationally?
Fethallah Otmani: It’s not within our ambition to build a local presence abroad. Generally, when we take up work abroad, as in Poland, we go there simply to certify meat intended for the French market. Our approach is to find solutions in these countries and to enable our partners to do things by themselves. We are in high demand and we have an expertise and know-how that we can share, so it is important for us to become involved. But the challenge is to better define the nature of our involvement on the international stage.
After the management of our development internationally, the most immediate problem we face internally is that there is a whole generation of people (including the founders of AVS) – those who know why the project was set up, who understand that it is more than for simple financial gains – who will soon retire. And our concern is that we haven’t necessarily prepared ourselves well enough to pass on the baton. Former executives are the soul of the project even if they do not always have the skills and the academic credentials to manage a structure of this size, and conversely we have young people with the skills but who have not necessarily fully absorbed the ethos of the project. We try to guide them but to a large degree this has been insufficient. The challenge will be to continue the spirit of the project after the departure of the elders. We are an organization and our sole rationale is not economic, otherwise the project would no longer make sense.
These are the three major challenges, which are emerging in the short term. In the long term, the halal market is following the traditional meat market, which is terrible when you witness what’s happening there. It is a fiasco in terms of values, particularly with the treatment of animals as well as the staff working in slaughterhouses, the intensive use of pesticides and antibiotics, and even the relationship with the consumer, which is extremely depersonalised. Unfortunately, we see the halal market heading straight in the same direction. What is also terrible is that even when other solutions emerge, they are soon derailed from their initial intent. For example, organic products are theoretically a very positive thing but the economic model that most of the players in the organic sector adhere to is not an alternative: the actors in this sector behave like those in other sectors trying to secure exclusivity, to control the market and they use the same traditional channels.
In the long run, the other challenge is to create solutions that will enable the emergence of a new halal market, which is ethical and meaningful. And this is a challenge that poses itself to all Muslim actors in the halal market, not just AVS.
How does AVS plan to meet these challenges?
Fethallah Otmani: That’s the big question. Internally, the challenge is to stabilise the project and replace the current generation of elders without losing the soul of the project. This is the first line of work today: even though it’s still insufficient, over the past several years we’ve been providing guidance to our youngest members. We are trying to train them so that they are able to assume more responsibility within the organisation without destabilising the overall functioning and the direction of the organisation. It is a long-term job because it involves the transmission of a knowledge, which isn’t written, which one does not find in books. It is more about lived experiences and the sharing of common values. Young people have to face reality on the ground and maybe they will decide to do things differently that won’t be an issue. But first they must understand concretely how we work and why. It’s a time-consuming business, and we’re in the process of reorganising ourselves internally to reach this milestone.
The second line concerns our development internationally. We were initially caught out and didn’t handle things properly by heading off in all directions. We realised that we were lacking in terms of training and in terms of managing our project deployment procedures. So we are rewriting how we need to manage relationships with our partners, how we train the inspectors who join our structure, including those who live abroad. We must undergo a process of professionalization, which was already more or less present, but tailored for a smaller structure. For the moment, our threshold remains at 200 employees but structural developments suggest a step up in the structure to 300 or even 400 employees. We are reorganising ourselves, today so that when the time comes we can scale up to a more significant structure.
Then the third line is to try to work on concrete alternative projects because while pure theoretical reflection is valuable a lot of people within AVS – and that’s largely how we’ve built our success – need concrete things. This explains why we have worked on projects such as the Ilot des Combes. We are hoping for the development of similar initiatives in the future such as alternative farms with a different method of production. The long-term objective is that production from these farms leads to viable market solutions. This is another domain, which we are exploring in the hope that it will lead to a better understanding of where we should be heading.
In the long term, does AVS also plan to take care of animal husbandry?
Fethallah Otmani: It’s only my personal point of view, but I feel that in the vital field of livestock husbandry, our responsibility is to raise awareness in the hope that it will lead to the emergence of new organisations that will limit themselves exclusively to these issues and with whom we’ll be able to build genuine partnerships. Our difficulty is that we have a culture where to get things done you have to do them yourself, and when you want to do everything yourself, you end up doing very little, limiting both yourself and others. We have to learn to delegate, to work in partnership, to open up to other structures. This is what we have been attempting with several projects over the past decade but with mixed success. With livestock breeding a network of structures has to be established. The difficulty is not limited to the potential partners who need to be sensitised and come up with appropriate projects. The difficulty also lies in our own structure. Success will depend on our ability to work in partnership by overcoming our fears and hesitations.
Are you optimistic about the ability of AVS to meet these challenges?
Fethallah Otmani: Al hamdoullilah when we do things for God we always retain hope. If I reflect realistically on the specific challenges that will have to be overcome, the political onslaughts that we’ll have to face, I would tend to be somewhat pessimistic. But the main thing for us is to preserve and accomplish our project through thick and thin. If we are able to remain true to our ideals, I am sure openings will emerge, perhaps not necessarily the ones we anticipated, perhaps not the ones we are working on, but I know there will be openings insha Allah, that I am convinced of!