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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]

Source: TIME

Hold the Pork, Please

Japan's Ajinomoto faces a p.r. nightmare in Indonesia for allegedly violating Muslim dietary laws


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
Tedjasukmana/Jakarta and Sachiko Sakamaki/Tokyo