Afzal Lokhandwala opened his first Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise in Illinois in 2002, and he almost immediately began advertising locally that much of his restaurant’s chicken was halal—slaughtered and processed according to Islamic law. The strategy proved so lucrative that when Lokhandwala opened five new franchises a decade later, he chose their locations based on their proximity to large mosques and Muslim communities.
Unsurprisingly, not all of KFC’s chicken comes from halal-certified poultry producers. In Lokhandwala’s case, about 75 percent of the chicken on the bone (as opposed to chicken fingers) was halal. But he kept halal and non-halal products separated in his restaurants, and informed customers about the difference. For years, KFC’s corporate office was fine with that, even helping him to identify halal-certified processors and distributors. About a year ago, however, the company cracked down, and told Lokhandwala he had to stop advertising his restaurants as halal-compliant. Lokhandwala, a practicing Muslim, sued KFC, saying the chain had long allowed his advertising approach, and that banning it now would hurt his business.
This week, a federal judge ruled in KFC’s favor. This was mainly due to the fact that the chain had decided back in 2009 that it would no longer permit franchise owners to make religious dietary claims about its wares, in part because terms like “halal” and “kosher” are interpreted differently by different groups. KFC also said that it could not guarantee that its restaurants would be able to prevent cross-contamination between halal and non-halal foods. Indeed, Lokhandwala’s restaurants have been the subject of furious debates among Chicago-area Muslims about whether his processing procedures and coating ingredients qualified as halal.
The suit’s outcome is unfortunate for everyone, because Lokhandwala was actually ahead of a growing trend. The Muslim population in the United States has grown by more than 1 million people in the last decade, now making up about 1.1 percent of the population, according to Pew. About half of Muslims in America say that eating halal is “essential” to their religious identity. But it’s not just Muslims who are interested in eating halal. To many non-Muslims, halal carries a vaguely healthful sheen of higher quality food and better treatment of animals. Bloomberg reported in 2016 that halal food was a $20 billion industry in the United States, a trend driven by Millennials. Walmart and Whole Foods are among the thousands of grocers that carry products by halal suppliers, and a chain called the Halal Guys now claims to have more than 200 restaurants in development.
Halal, in other words, could be “the next ‘kosher’”—a set of religious dietary laws that catches on among the general population. And the designation isn’t just for food: Halal-certified cosmetics are a quickly expanding market, with brands including Shiseido and Estée Lauder have getting into the game with select halal-certified products.
It’s surprising, perhaps, that halal is taking off at a time of widespread suspicion and persecution of Muslims in America. But as a perceptive piece on NPR’s Code Switch blog pointed out last year, culinary trends don’t always track political moods. German foods became wildly popular in America during World War I, and a chop suey craze coincided with anti-Chinese sentiments in mid-century.
That doesn’t help Afzal Lokhandwala, unfortunately. KFC’s objection to his advertising scheme make sense, if the company truly can’t guarantee the legitimacy of an individual franchise’s claims. But if the fast-food chain is smart, they’ll find a way to capitalize on America’s growing hunger for halal.