Belgian fruit syrup faces boycott calls over halal labelling

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SHAFAQNA - A fruit syrup that has been a staple of Belgian kitchens for generations is at the centre of a row over national identity, after its manufacturers applied for ‘halal’ certification.

The makers of Sirop de Liège, a molasses made of stewed apples, dates and pears and known by its distinctive blue and green pot, face a bitter backlash after they sought to tap into overseas Islamic markets.

The Siroperie Meurens, the family business that has been boiling fruit to the same recipe since 1902, faces calls for a boycott and has been inundated with online abuse since it announced the move.

Securing ‘halal’ certification would help the firm to target markets such as Indonesia and Egypt, at a time when the European fruit industry is under pressure due to sanctions on Russia that have halted food exports.

The move would confirm to Muslim consumers that the sticky brown syrup, which is eaten with bread and pancakes, or used as an ingredient in meatball sauces, does not contain pork gelatine. The recipe would stay the same, as would the labelling, the firm said.

“Everything is going global. We need to meet the expectations of different markets,” said Bernard Meurens, whose great-grandfather founded the firm.

He was taken back by the reaction after the policy was covered in La Meuse, the regional newspaper. Some readers claimed the product is now unfit for Catholics.

“I know that there is a climate of Islamophobia in Belgium at the moment, but not to this point,” he said. “Early Saturday afternoon, I looked at La Meuse’s website and I saw that there were already over 600 comments. Three quarters of them were negative, people who said they were going to throw away their syrup jar, and who called for a boycott. It was a terrible thing to read!”

Social media users posted pictures of their syrup pots being hacked in half with machetes, in the style of an Islamic State atrocity video, or posted cartoons of bearded fighters beheading pears.

Others wrote ‘Je Suis Sirop de Liège’, in a parody of the reaction to the Charlie Hebdo massacre.

“Making a good xenophobe is like making a good Sirop de Liège. You have to confuse apples and pears,” said one Twitter user.

Joseph Charlier, a former local leader of the Mouvement Reformateur, the governing liberal party, posed outside the factory with a pot of syrup in protest, saying he was “scandalised”.

“At 68 years old, I will not accept anything that requires me to eat halal,” he said. “It is a question of principle. Attitudes like those of Meurens will destroy our civilisation,” he said, adding that Belgium will soon “be under the control of extremists.”

The party distanced itself from the remarks, saying it supported enterprise.

Some 1,200 Belgian products, including quintessentially national dishes such as waffles, fries and chocolates, already have halal certification. But the row over fruit syrup comes as relationships between Belgium’s estimated 600,000 Muslims and the rest of the population appear to worsen.

Anti-Muslim graffiti is said to have proliferated following the Charlie Hebdo massacre.

More than 350 Belgians are believed by the security services to have gone to Syria. Two suspected Jihadists, said to have recently returned from fighting with Islamic State, were killed during a police shoot-out in January.

Ismail Saidi, the Belgian film director, pointed out that multinationals such as McDonalds had secured halal certification to enter the vast middle eastern markets, yet it is the “little guy from home” being targeted.

He said Belgium risks a “permanent identity crisis” until there is an improved dialogue between communities. That includes Muslims appreciating that secularists do not want to eat Halal food, he said.

“There needs to be a constructive debate between Muslims and non-Muslims, without politicians, when we say, ‘I need to know what’s bothering you with me’. Not so we can continue to slug it out, but to continue to live together,” he told Le Soir.

“Muslims are afraid, because they think we do not like them, and non-Muslims are afraid, because they think that they are invading even syrup. We must get out of this place.”

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