Sunday March 17, 2013
One man’s beef is another man’s boon
By HARIATI AZIZAN and NANCY NAIS
Halal certification is not meant to discriminate. In fact, everyone can benefit from it, says Jakim.
WHENEVER she needs some groceries, Anira Mohd likes to go to the mall near her house in Taman Shamelin Perkasa, Cheras.
“They try really hard to take care of the Muslim customers. The halal and non-halal sections are properly marked, and they even separate the trolleys,” shares the finance executive.
Still, she was taken aback when she saw the “non-halal parking” sign at the mall not too long ago.
“I appreciate what the management was trying to do to alert their Muslim customers. I would not want to walk into a non-halal supermarket or, worse, buy anything non-halal by mistake. But maybe they could have done a better job with the sign,” she says.
Anira was not alone in thinking that the mall had designated a car park specifically for non-Muslims when they saw the sign.
When marketing manager S. Nunis saw it, she was bemused. “What can be non-halal there? What else are we going to separate - toilets, escalators, a whole mall?”
As is the norm today, it did not take long for the sign to become the subject of discussion on social media.
The purple “non-halal parking” signboard which was erected next to an elevator on the third floor of the complex was not hard to miss, especially when all the pillars in the same level car park were also painted purple.
While some netizens voiced their disapproval at the mall management, others tried to see the lighter side of it.
Police officer ASP Alif Haiqal Ramesh, a Muslim convert, believed signs like this would confuse the people while businessman Eric Lew asked “Is this necessary? They don't even do this in Middle East”.
Sharifah Mazlina Al Idrus, who described it as ridiculous, remarked, “The parking floors are probably made of non-halal material.”
The sign was corrected after the mall management got whiff of the public reaction. It was really a misunderstanding, says its advertising and promotion manager K. L. Lim.
The distinction between halal and non-halal products is nothing new in Malaysia.
The signage controversy, however, attracted attention because it came on the tail of another (non-) halal sign brouhaha.
A hotel in Petaling Jaya got a lot of flak two months ago when a local daily reported about its “halal” staff lift. It was designated to transport halal supplies to the hotel's restaurants and was off limits for non-halal products.
The hotel management explained that it was a requirement by the Malaysia Department of Islamic Development (Jakim) to prevent the free-mixing of halal and non-halal products, which can lead to cross-contamination.
Netizens, however, had their own take and what rankled people most was that suppliers of non-halal products would be required to take the stairs, evoking comments of “first, the goods; next, the people.”
“It does sound like discrimination towards non-Muslims. Can they provide a non-halal lift too?” notes a Muslim lawyer who only wants to be known as Az.
A Muslim postgraduate student who declines to be named agrees. “This is too much. Muslims are not so weak that they need protection in every small thing. Many of us know better and can think for ourselves,” she says.
The thing is, argues Islamic Consumer Association of Malaysia (PPIM) chief acivist Datuk Nadzim Johan, many Malaysian Muslims do not know better.
“Any product can be halal one second and non-halal in the next. It is easy to get contaminated in a mixed environment. This is something that everyone needs to be aware of and adhere to the rules and regulations.”
Many take it for granted, he adds.
“For instance, (when it comes to food) most people think that if there is no pork, it is halal. Even Muslims make that mistake because our education and understanding of halal is minimal.”
Jakim defines halal, which originates from an Arabic phrase, as “allowed” or “permitted” by Islamic law.
While it can be used in a wide scope - a halal banking system or a halal relationship between husband and wife - the term halal under the Trade Descriptions Act 2011 covers seven areas or schemes: food and drink products including additives; eating establishments/premises; consumer goods; cosmetics and toiletries; slaughter houses; logistics; and the latest scheme to be introduced, pharmaceutical products.
As the Act specifies, in the preparation, processing or storage stage, halal food should not come in contact with or be near any kind of food/element that is forbidden to Muslims or contain any substances that are considered impure by Islamic law.
It is not a simple issue, Nadzim says. “It involves belief and conviction in life. Halal is a requirement for Muslims. They need to make sure that all the food they take is halal. That is the basic principle, but for Muslims, it is not just about the eating, it is also about not touching and others.”
Thus, Nadzim disproves the notion that the halal lift was meant to discriminate, pointing out that the non-Muslims can still take it.
They are only barred from it when they are carrying non-halal produce, he says. “We also have separate (coaches in) trains for women, so should men feel discriminated?”
However, Nadzim feels strongly that it is important for enterprises and businesses to get the authorised certification before they start labelling their premises halal or non-halal as it can confuse both Muslims and non-Muslims.
Breaching the regulations can be considered as fraud as it is misleading the customer, he stresses. “Many don't think that it is a fraud, much less a serious fraud.”
Jakim's Halal Hub Division director Hakimah Mohd Yusoff confirms that misleading and confusing consumers with a self-declared halal or Islamic status (including the use of terms like “Makanan Orang Islam” or Islamic food), use of self-made or fake halal signage and logos (not issued by Jakim) and non-compliance to the guidelines and standards of the Halal certification, among others, is an offence that carries a maximum fine of RM500,000.
Since January 2012, Jakim has been the sole body in the country authorised to issue halal certification. However, they have no ruling on “non-halal” signage.
Referring to the case of the halal lift and non-halal carpark, Hakimah feels the proprietors should not be faulted for their good intentions.
“The principle is clear: halal and non-halal food cannot mix. According to the standards of the halal certification, the eating establishments need to put in place an effective halal control system to prevent cross contamination of raw ingredients.
“They need to show that they can do it but how they do it is not dictated. It is up to their own initiative,” she says.
Ideally, other than separate storage this would include separate transportation processes. While many have started to use separate storerooms, chillers and freezers for halal and non-halal food, it is not as easy to have a separate loading bay or entrance. This is where many have to come up with alternative measures.
Herein lies the confusion.
“Most of the time the establishments, especially those who are in the process of applying for their halal certification, will go beyond the requirement. This is when you sometimes get these over-zealous measures,” says Hakimah.
She tells of importing companies that carry out the samak (the purification process according to Islamic teachings) of their container every time before use, regardless of whether it had been used to transport halal or non-halal goods.
“Our requirement is for them to samak the container only if it was used to transport non-halal goods prior to their use,” she says.
To prevent similar confusion in the future, Jakim is currently working on clearer guidelines to standardise operations, she adds.
Although some may think the standards and requirements are overboard, Hakimah stresses that they are necessary to maintain the integrity of the production flow and supply chain for consumers' assurance.
“If you load or transport pork in one trolley, for example, the chances of cross contamination with halal raw products are higher,” she adds, pointing out that the principle does not apply to canned food or anything that is properly packed.
Jakim's halal certification is also holistic, she adds, covering not only the syariah requirements but also other aspects such as hygiene, equipment safety, storage standards and food quality.
“Consumers can be assured with our certification that they are getting high quality, safe and syariah compliant products with our stringent standards. In fact, our enforcement teams comprise not only religious experts but also health and safety specialists and food technologists,” she says.
Hakimah reveals that the halal industry is a lucrative industry, recording some RM35.4bil worth of halal exports last year and has attracted many entrepreneurs and businesses.
With around 2.1 billion Muslims in the world, many see the halal certification as a “marketing tool” that can give them an edge over their competitors.
However, many jump into it without full understanding, she notes.
An indication, she says, is the range of products that enterprises have tried to get certified as halal.
“One person asked if they can get their corn certified halal. I asked why? Corn is a vegetable. It's a natural product. Why do you want a halal certificate for a vegetable?”
A check by Sunday Star found other “halal” posers.
A hotel in PJ claims to be a leading “syariah-compliant” hotel but what that actually means is unclear. One reader, Sharon, shares that a local TV network had a notice at the start of a documentary warning viewers of its “non-halal content”. The documentary featured financial systems.
Hakimah explains that halal in generic terms does have a wide meaning, but advises businesses not to go overboard with their labelling.
She shares that Jakim is constantly reviewing the halal schemes and processes as Malaysia becomes more open and new sectors emerge.
To meet the growing demand, Jakim plans to apply for more manpower to strengthen its enforcement unit. At the moment, she adds, they are working closely with other agencies.
The halal standard is not intended to discriminate, Hakimah stresses. “Halal certification is voluntary. If businesses, enterprises, manufacturers and even consumers are not willing to meet the standards, they don't have to. It is about having choices and alternatives.”
To her, the halal certification can even be a unifying factor for a diverse, multicultural country like Malaysia.
“Before this, Malaysian Muslims will not try Chinese cuisine because they worry that it's not halal. But with halal certification, we can have halal versions of Chinese food, especially the traditional food, and expose the Malays to the Chinese customs like the Moon Cake festival, for example. You can see that the moon cake has now become a common culture in Malaysia.”
New guidelines on halal certification