Getting food exporting Muslim countries in Southeast Asia to agree on a single halal standard will ultimately harmonise exports within Asean and ease market access into the European Union (EU), an authority on food and agriculture said.

Indonesian President, ASEAN Summit 2011

Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono as the ASEAN Chair led a plenary session of the 18th ASEAN Summit 2011 at the Jakarta Convention Center on Sunday (May 5). Photo by ANTARA/Widodo S. Jusuf

An acceptable standard agreed among countries like Brunei, Malaysia and Indonesia combined with reciprocity with Europe’s substantial Muslim population will pave the way for more halal products from the region to get onto supermarket shelves in the continent, said David Knight, chairman of Food and Agriculture under the British Chamber of Commerce (BritCham) in Indonesia.

“The spending power is great. We have a high standard of living, so whether it be goat, lamb, or this stuff or the other, they will buy,” said Knight following a discussion among Asean and EU representatives on agri-food during the first Asean-EU Business Summit here.

David, a former colleague of Noel Shields, the interim CEO of Ghanim International Food Corporation, said the Brunei Halal Brand has been “very successful” in its objective of creating the chaste image associated with food that practising Muslims consume.

“Malaysia has copied that. In a slightly different way, they just redesigned it. “We tried to get it here. But nobody wanted to know,” David said, declining to say why. A source who requested anonymity, however, said “it would take the edge off somebody’s pockets”.

“You need a united sense of the spiritual concept of halal. And it’s quite serious. Here we’ve got the MUI, who are really quite a smart bunch of guys, and you can work with them really well,” said David.

“The problem is, you’ve got to get all of the Islamic nations in Southeast Asia to agree to a one standard for halal.” But is it possible? “I believe it is,” David said. “But it needs gentleness, it needs understanding, and it needs a spiritual guide. Somebody that is there to guide them spiritually.”

Citing the success of Indofood, makers of the popular Indo Mie instant noodles, David said the world’s largest instant noodle producer made the right approach producing high quality products within an acceptable standards to eventually penetrate the EU market and elsewhere in the West.

Indofood posted US$2.04 billion in consolidated net sales last year, up 10 per cent from 2009. As of 2009, the halal industry in Europe was worth US$64 billion.

“The fundamentals are the same world over. Good quality, good prices and safe products. And that’s pretty much it.”

But not all of Indofood’s products, which are all stamped halal, are accepted everywhere. “It is accepted in the UK, accepted in Belgium, but what it isn’t it’s not accepted in Malaysia.”

“Now, we have to learn from that. It’s all about sitting down, negotiating, and learning from each other.”

“If I’m Manchester United and you’re Liverpool, we both want to win. But at the end of the day, football must win.

“And at the end of this day, trade and the security of the nation must win.”

By HADI MAHMUD, The Brunei Times