Pork extract : Islamic body knew long ago

The Islamic council was aware months ago the Japanese firm was deceiving Muslims by using the enzymes but it did not want to scare the public.

In what could become another political hot potato for President Abdurrahman Wahid’s beleaguered government, the country’s highest Islamic authority disclosed yesterday that it knew as far back as September last year that pork enzymes had been used in producing a popular flavour enhancer.

Sources in the Indonesian Ulemas Council (MUI) told The Straits Times that they discovered the fact after a tip-off from officials of the Japanese firm PT Ajinomoto when MUI was about to carry out an audit of its food product.

“We were aware months ago that the company was deceiving Muslims by using bactosoytone,” said K.H. Maruf Amin, who heads the MUI body that certifies whether food in Indonesia is halal.

Bactosoytone is a medium extracted from pork to produce the enzyme needed in the production of the taste enhancer. Asked why it took so long for MUI to release the information to Indonesians who make up the world’s largest Muslim population, the Islamic cleric said that the council “did not want to scare the public until it got the facts right”.

Mr K.H. Maruf said that for three months, MUI made trips to Ajinomoto’s factory in the Mojokerto district, near Surabaya in East Java, for field surveys.

Besides this, it also carried out tests at the Institute of Agriculture in Bogor that houses the MUI laboratory.

For several observers, however, the delay in resolving the matter in September – made worse by revelations that Ajinomoto continued production using pork enzymes even when it was under investigation – only undermined the government’s credibility.

Once again, Mr Abdurrahman’s coalition government was being perceived as weak and ineffective.

Noted a seasoned diplomat: “The government can’t seem to crack down separatists in Aceh, catch Tommy Suharto, stop bombing attacks or even fix things right away when they found out that pork enzymes were being used in a product popular with Indonesians.”

Some would like to think that MUI’s delay was politically motivated.

After all, the Islamic body is divided between supporters of the President and his arch rival Amien Rais, the national assembly chairman, who is reportedly plotting to bring Mr Abdurrahman down by August.

There were also disaffected elements in MUI who were waiting to strike at Mr Abdurrahman.

But MUI secretary-general Din Syamsuddin countered suggestions of a political ploy in the delay, saying that the three-month period taken to audit Ajinomoto was “nothing out of the ordinary”.

Meanwhile, some observers speculate that arresting Japanese executives was one way to sabotage the Indonesian economy on the throes of recovery.

Most of Ajinomoto’s top brass have been caught, including Japanese vice-president Yashushu Oda. The top man, president director Mitsuo Arakawa, was arrested on Sunday by police and faces a five-year jail sentence.

This, conspiracy theorists argue, could send ripples through the Japanese investor community in Indonesia. A Straits Times check with the Japanese Embassy here, however, revealed otherwise.

An embassy official said: “There are no indications yet that the confidence of Japanese firms have been affected. Many of them see the Ajinomoto case as just being a special case with no bearing on the investment climate.”

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