Shares in Ajinomoto, the largest food maker in Japan, bounced back yesterday (10 January) after Indonesian president Abdurrahman Wahid confirmed that the widely used monosodium glutamate (MSG) food seasoning produced by the company's Indonesian subsidiary is in fact "halal," and therefore allowed for Muslim consumption. Representatives from the Indonesian Council for Islamic Propagation (DDII) are still maintaining, however, that the president is wrong.

Presidential spokesman Wimar Witoelar commented: "As a person who has authority on Islam, the president said Ajinomoto is halal. The problem is solved."

Wahid's comments came after the results were released from a study by the National Institute of Sciences and the Body for the Assessment and Application of Technology (BPPT), which maintained that the MSG product was manufactured by Ajinomoto using an extract derived from cows rather than pigs.

Dr Abdul Malik, secretary to the Minister of Research and Technology, reiterated the president's words to a press conference: "Through scientific research it can be ascertained that the monosodium glutamate (MSG) bearing the Ajinomoto brand name is not contaminated by procine enzyme, a mixture that can be extracted from pork, various plants and other sources."

He added that the role of the scientific investigators was not a religious one in stating whether MSG produced by Ajinomoto is halal (allowed) or haram (forbidden) to Muslims, but rather "to provide a scientific explanation as a reflection of the moral obligation of the scientific community."

"Neither are we interfering in politics," added Malik: "We have submitted our reports without being asked by the President. And we have not supplemented them with recommendations."

Syahrial, head of the food and beverages control division at the Food and Drug Control Directorate General has explained the confusion of the use of pork in the manufacturing process of MSG. The porcine enzyme, which can be extracted from pork, certain plants and other sources, is used to function as a catalyst to speed up the conversion of soyprotein into bactosoytone during the process of MSG manufacturer. It is used in the early phase, but no later in the production process. "In the final product, no porcine enzyme […] was detected," he said.
Officials from the Batam branch of the DDII argue however that Wahid is wrong to declare the product halal, and is also wrong in contradicting the decisions of the Indonesian Ulemas Council (MUI) not to renew Ajinomoto's halal license.

Ashari Ansyah Noor, chairman of Batam's DDII commented: "We are still convinced that Ajinomoto contains extracts of pork as reported by MUI's Food and Drug Analysis Body. So even if the President rejects the findings, we are still convinced that Ajinomoto is haram (forbidden)."

Chairman of the DDII, Umar Shihab, maintains: "It's about upholding the truth."

While Indonesian officials argue about where that religious truth lies, however, Ajinomoto are facing severe financial repercussions. After the MUI refused to grant another halal license, the company was given three weeks to clear Indonesian shelves of its products, in a recall operation expected to mount to US$130m, and its East Java factory was closed. Sources from the parent company in Japan admit there are now large question marks over its planned investments in the Indonesian operations.