More Japanese companies go halal to expand sales in Muslim markets

KUALA LUMPUR (Kyodo) — More Japanese companies are aiming to sell food products that are compliant with Islamic rules in a bid to carve a slice of the fast growing and lucrative Muslim consumer market.

A rising number of Japanese food manufacturers are seeking halal certification for their products from Malaysia and setting up factories in the country to produce halal food while some have also started to request for their plants in Japan to be certified.

Halal generally refers to food which is permissible for Muslims, meaning it does not contain anything derived from the pig, which Muslims are forbidden to consume, and that animals such as cattle and poultry have been slaughtered according to Islamic rites. These days however, the halal certification also extends to toiletries and cosmetics, and even to the provision of logistical services such as the storage and transportation of food.

Malaysia has been aggressively promoting itself as a global halal hub in recent years while the Department of Islamic Development Malaysia, better known as JAKIM, is now the world’s biggest governmental issuer of halal certifications.

The big international consumer brands such as Nestle, Unilever and Danone have long obtained Malaysia’s halal mark from JAKIM. The agency has so far certified more than 173,000 halal products, including food, services, cosmetic, healthcare products and logistics services, and there are about 2,273 companies operating in Malaysia, which are involved in these halal business activities.

However, Japanese companies have been slow to tap the halal market, which has so far attracted mainly the big Japanese brands that cater to the global market, such as seasoning maker Ajinomoto, drinks maker Pokka and yoghurt drink maker Yakult.

But that seems to be changing now with the rising demand for halal food, resulting in a surge of interest from other Japanese companies.

“In the past Japanese companies did not see any strong need to get involved with the halal industry because their domestic market did not require halal status,” said Jamil Bidin, chief executive officer of Malaysia’s Halal Industry Development Corp. “Recently Japanese companies have felt the need to do so after they decided to expand their market to Islamic countries such as the Middle East and Southeast Asia.”

He said more Japanese companies are showing interest in halal production with more than 300 firms attending its seminars in Tokyo, Osaka and Fukuoka last year while seven companies have visited its office to make enquiries so far this year compared with five last year.

Saifol Bahli, HDC’s head of training and consultancy, said that more Japanese companies started to show interest in halal since around 2009, when Japanese mayonnaise maker Kewpie Corp. set up a manufacturing plant in one of Malaysia’s halal industrial parks.

About 10 Japanese companies are now in the process of applying for halal certifications, he said. They include a major Japanese logistics company which would like its international food transportation network to be certified and also a Japanese supermarket chain in Malaysia which would like to be certified halal. In addition a Japanese food enzyme maker has also applied for its plant in Japan to be certified.

Saifol said it should be easy for Japanese companies to adopt the certification because Japanese products are already well known for their high quality and standard, which fits well with the certification’s demand for a high standard of cleanliness and safety.

In fact one of the appeals of the halal mark these days is that it also has a positive image among non-Muslim consumers.

The Malaysian government is eager to attract more Japanese companies to invest in the 21 halal parks that have been set up by the government or the private sector in the country to produce halal food, toiletries and cosmetics.

HDC has been working closely with the Japan External Trade Organization to organize seminars to promote halal production among Japanese companies.

Obtaining halal certification is a process that could take six months to one year, or even three years for bigger companies. The premise has to be inspected, ritually cleansed if it had produced non-halal food before, the list of ingredients used has to be audited, and the company has to employ at least two Muslim workers in their production operation.

Several factors have hindered Japanese food manufacturers from going halal in the past. These include Japanese companies being reluctant to have dedicated halal production lines unless there is a very big market to justify changing their business model. Another factor is the difficulty of getting halal ingredients for manufacturing and concern that the import of halal ingredients will further raise the already sky-high business costs in Japan. Another drawback has been the perceived difficulty of finding Muslim workers in Japan.

“The best way…is for Japanese companies to be open to collaborations or strategic alliances with big Islamic companies so as to change their perceptions and as a catalyst for the start of a halal industry in Japan,” Jamil said.

Currently the global halal market is valued at about US$2.1 trillion per annum, with an estimated 1.8 billion Muslims in the world.

The halal method of killing requires that the animal be killed by a Muslim, using a method whereby the animal’s throat is cut swiftly with a sharp knife to fully severe the two main arteries, windpipe and the esophagus. Besides swift death, it also ensures that blood flows out of the animal, as Muslims believe blood harbors and breeds bacteria and is not good for human consumption, according to a religious official at JAKIM.

(Mainichi Japan) March 13, 2011