The Muslim market, which is thought to comprise 1.4 billion to 1.6 billion consumers worldwide, is characterised by rising income levels, an expanding middle class and is increasingly seen as an investment hot spot. This is a grouping defined by ideology, not geography.
The market may be dominated by the oil-rich Middle East, but there are growing numbers of Muslims in Europe, North America and Asia, the latter increasingly bolstered by improving economies and greater overall spending power. For the poultry industry, this means that there is growing demand for halal products.
Much like ISO, HACCP and GMP, a halal "endorsement" by a credible religious body assures consumers that a food product complies with Islamic standards.
Some 225 million Muslims, or close to a fifth of the world's Muslim population, lives in the 10 states that comprise Southeast Asia, and local poultry producers are keeping a keen eye on this rising market.
Over the next 12 months, an ambitious poultry project in the BIMP-EAGA sub-region, which consists of Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines, will align their resources together to boost poultry production and take advantage of the growing halal export market.
Already approved by individual countries' governments, the grouping brings together Indonesia, for its corn feed supplies; the Philippines, with its huge poultry companies; Brunei, for its reputation and experience in halal development; and Malaysia, for its strength in halal infrastructure and investments.
Regional cooperation aside, individual countries are also launching their own halal poultry initiatives. With four halal industry parks and strong government support, Malaysia is looking to ship its halal poultry products to the Gulf states and Europe, India, China and Russia.
Chief executive officer of Malaysia's Halal Development Corporation, Jamil Bidin, says, "We expect demand from these countries to grow even further and we are keen to get the local halal industry to capitalise on untapped demand for halal products around the world."
Ross, Hybro and Cobb are the main broiler breeds used in Malaysia, accounting for almost 90% of total parent stock. Arbor Acres and Hubbard are also active in the country.
Two local farms supply about 65% of all grandparent stock, with the rest imported mainly from Europe and North America. For layer hens, popular breeds are Hisex and Lohmann, which together accounted for more than 70% of the market last year.
Recognising Malaysia's strong halal credentials and market potential, July saw Taiwanese investment totalling RM1.4 billion (US$401 million) agreed for the development of a 2,500ha organic chicken and egg production site in Tanjung Manis, the country's newest halal park in Sarawak.
Home to some 16 million Muslims, or 60% of the total population, all poultry produced in Malaysia is halal. The country is aiming to position itself as a global centre for the production and export of halal products by 2010.
Malaysia is already self-sufficient in poultry products and, at 33 kilogram per capita, has one of the highest poultry consumption levels in the world. It exports its surplus broiler meat to Singapore, the UAE, Brunei, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Japan. However, the growth potential of these markets appears to be limited and so there is a need to find new markets.
Mr Jamil says, "Interest in halal food has also risen among non-Muslims with greater awareness of what the halal label offers not only from a religious point of view, but also as healthy and wholesome foods."
Dr Irfan Sungkar, of consulting firm Kasehdia, adds that non-Muslim Dutch consumers have also shown an interest in halal food, which they perceive to be safe and wholesome.
The Philippines is also sharpening its focus on halal and investing heavily to develop a landmark hub in the southern Muslim Mindanao region. In August, the country's Agriculture Department announced a US$18 million plan for a model halal poultry farm, with research and testing labs, slaughterhouses and production facilities.
Efforts are underway to attract investors to the project that should also be beneficial to local feed producers, veterinary services and logistics concerns. The Philippines has remained free from avian influenza, giving local production an advantage in export markets.
Key to getting the project off the ground was approval of a halal certification standard by Mindanao's religious leaders. Recognised standards are paramount in achieving exports and Mindanao is seeking out export opportunities in Iran and is in dialogue with investors from Kuwait and Brunei. The BIMP-EAGA venture will be further boosted by Mindanao aligning its halal certification with that of the other project stakeholders, Malaysia and Brunei.
Asia's biggest poultry exporter, Thailand, is making headway in the halal chicken export market. Its Halal Food Science Centre, at Chulalongkorn University, is a first and, like the Philippines, Thailand is planning a hub for halal food production.
Professor Winai Dahlan, director of the Halal Food Centre says, "In many countries, and especially for niche products, this certification is a must and lends a value to the product."
The Thai halal brand is recognised across the Middle East, which bought over 10,000 metric tons of Thai cooked poultry products in 2007, valued at US$23.5 million. To date, over 60 chicken slaughterhouses and processing factories in the country are halal- and export-approved.
If well managed, poultry, with its freedom from religious taboos, efficient feed conversion and perception as healthier than red meat, is increasingly attractive to the world's Muslim population. Producers in Southeast Asia have recognised this, and are on their way to making the most of a niche, but global, market.