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TIME: Hold the Pork, Please
By Daffyd Roderick
24/1/2001 11:32 am Wed
[Rencana ini mirip rencana AsiaWeek. Oleh itu ia tidak diterjemahkan
kerana is kandungannya hampir serupa. - Editor]
Hold the Pork, Please
Japan's Ajinomoto faces a p.r. nightmare in Indonesia for allegedly violating
Muslim dietary laws
By DAFFYD RODERICK
Of all the side-effects popularly thought to result from ingesting monosodium
glutamate-headaches, lockjaw, indigestion, cancer-breaking Muslim holy
law has never come up. Until last week, that is, when seven employees from
Japanese food-additive manufacturer PT Ajinomoto Indonesia were arrested for
violating Indonesia's laws regarding the manufacture of halal foods. The
rules-set down by the Ulemas Council, which governs Islamic dietary law in
Indonesia-prohibit the use of pork products in any part of food
preparation. The seasoning doesn't actually contain pork, the manufacturer
insists, though the early stages of production did involve an enzyme
derived from pig pancreas. Ajinomoto says it didn't know the hog enzyme was
present until a recertification inspection last September. The council then asked
Ajinomoto to change the process and recall the unkosher, so to speak, product from the shelves.
When the company dithered, the council went public with the findings and three Japanese
executives and four Indonesian co-workers ended up behind bars: arrested and jailed, essentially,
for feeding pork to Muslims.
If that didn't get the company's attention, the subsequent slide
of its stock price surely did. Ajinomoto's shares fell 14% on
news that its executives had been arrested. The manufacturer
decided to recall all of its seasoning in Indonesia-no minor
undertaking with 180 tons of msg already distributed, ready to
lend bite to otherwise bland broths and tang to torpid stews.
But Muslim consumers make up 80% of the market, and
Ajinomoto may have lost some of these consumers forever.
Yuyun, who operates a soup stall in Jakarta, has already
dropped Ajinomoto from his seasoning pallette. He still uses
msg but has switched to another brand-"until the scandal has
been clarified," he says, dishing out another bowl of his
flavor-enhanced bakso soup.
The debacle has taken on political overtones. Indonesian
President Abdurrahman Wahid (known as Gus Dur), himself a
Muslim cleric, has weighed in with the opinion that the
seasoning didn't actually violate Muslim law. Says his spokesman
Wimar Witoelar: "Gus Dur is concerned about the proper
administration of religious law and what he thinks might have
been an imperfect fatwa issued by the Ulemas Council." Some
charge, however, that Wahid's concerns are more fiscal than
spiritual. Since the jobs of more than 4,000 Ajinomoto factory
workers in East Java are possibly at stake, Wahid is suspected
of trying simply to please Japanese investors. Considering half
the country's workforce is unemployed and the fact that Japan
is one of Indonesia's major foreign investors, that doesn't
sound implausible. Wahid further irked the Ulemas Council when
he met on Jan. 9 with Japan's Justice Minister, Masahiko
Komura, and assured him that Ajinomoto's products were halal.
The next day, in the West Java capital of Bandung, Wahid told
reporters that his statement was made to "avoid difficulties in
the future." He then piously added that, if Japan pulled out its
investment, Indonesia would lose $1.3 billion and intimated that
certain groups opposed to his administration might be behind
the crisis. The Ulemas Council denied any political motivation.
"Two of our most senior officials are close to the President,"
says Din Syamsuddin, the council's secretary general. "Our
fatwa is final. We will not change our decision."
Back in Japan, Ajinomoto has learned a lesson in public relations
from scandal-tainted companies Bridgestone and Snow Brand.
Rather than delay acknowledgement and try to shirk blame,
Ajinomoto has quickly accepted responsibility and done what
companies, particularly Japan's, most hate to do: apologize. The
company has further extended the recall to Singapore where
the same products are sold.
For now, the company doesn't need to do much more than bow
deeply. All of the jailed employees were released last week. As
far as manufacturing goes, the company had actually quit using
the hog enzyme on Nov. 24, switching to a soy-bean-based
enzyme. Ajinomoto spokesman Yutaka Obora says, "It was our
mistake that we didn't submit the changes [to the council]."
Ajinomoto's woes didn't provoke much furor in Japan, the
world's leading consumer of msg. The last time we checked,
pork-or soy beans for that matter-weren't proscribed by
Shinto law. According to Japan's biggest daily, Yomiuri
Shimbun, Ajinomoto "will have to make this a bitter lesson to
learn about cultural differences." A bitter lesson indeed for a
company that makes its living out of being tasty.
Reported by Zamira Loebis and Jason