According to Mickey Quah, managing director of Kuala Lumpur-based Carefood Industries, it is because Malaysia is a nation of foodies.
“KL is a food paradise where we have an enormous variety of really good food. But then if you look at our neighbours, like Thailand for example – it is world renowned; everybody knows Thai food. So Malaysia’s government made a real effort to establish us, a Muslim-majority country, as a halal hub,” says Quah,
“Now we are saying: ‘Hey, it's time we promoted food as one of our country’s major identities.’ It was a logical thing to put our emphasis on halal food as we are this Muslim country.”
However, for food processors, attaining halal certification is no walk in the park. As opposed to other standards, such as ISO, where it is the manufacturing facilities and processes that are approved, halal goes down to ingredient level and even as far as the name of the product – if the label suggests something that doesn’t sound halal, it is not approved.
This is a double-edged sword: such minute detail puts pressure on manufacturers to adhere to tight standards; but by the same token, these standards are slowly enticing more customers to trust the quality of this type of food, according to Quah.
“I think one of the key things about halal certification as a selling point is that the certification means the food is clean and pure. For example, imagine a bottle of mineral water that is endorsed as halal: if that bottle of water had even a speck of dirt in it, it would no longer be considered halal – that’s an indication of the level we must work to.
“Saying that, there could be some fine-tuning in terms of the supply chain, from upstream to downstream so while measures are being taken for certification to be stricter, there should also be a balance in terms of controls versus productivity. If too many controls are in place, this could end up as counter-productive because the process of halal certification could take too long, even for renewal.”
Carefood is a sauce manufacturer that exports to both Muslim and non-Muslim countries, including the US, Europe, the Middle East and neighbouring states. It focuses on vegetarian products that are authentic to Malaysia and wider Southeast Asia. Most of its products are for the international market, and for Quah, having a halal logo on his AsianMeals range offers a distinct advantage.
“As an export manufacturer, people look at halal certification as an endorsement of food quality,” he explains. “Distributors and increasingly more non-Muslim consumers are realising that a factory that has been certified as halal over a number of years can prove its products are made to a very high level of quality as we must be inspected often by a halal certification board.
“Carefood is not just certified as halal, we are moving towards BRC, which is probably the highest standard, even in North America.”
Halal suppliers to the US see pockets of knowledge – usually in areas with a large Asian population – of food made under that principle. However, while overall awareness of halal is growing, Quah says the country is still quite far behind other parts of the world in terms of knowledge.
“Other countries like Australia, which are closer to Asia, are more conversant with halal certification. However, non-Muslim US consumers are starting to equate it as similar to being kosher.”
Indeed, the US began as a major challenge for Carefood, with consumers there rarely even knowing even where Malaysia could be found on the map – “They would know Thailand or Singapore, but never Malaysia,” he says.
“We have seen a change since then, having taken part in some major food exhibitions across the country, teaching distributors and through them consumers what halal means in terms of quality.
“And now more and more people are becoming aware of what this certification is. It has been a slow process but now things are starting to change.”