Malaysia reels from fake halal meat scandal, consumer mistrust 

Malaysian officials on Saturday implored local and international consumers to trust the country’s halal standards after a fake certification scandal rocked its meat trade. (Shutterstock/File Photo)
Malaysian officials on Saturday implored local and international consumers to trust the country’s halal standards after a fake certification scandal rocked its meat trade. (Shutterstock/File Photo)
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Updated 15 February 2021

Malaysia reels from fake halal meat scandal, consumer mistrust 

Malaysian officials on Saturday implored local and international consumers to trust the country’s halal standards after a fake certification scandal rocked its meat trade. (Shutterstock/File Photo)
  • Government’s certification process under the spotlight after cartel selling non-halal meat for 40 years exposed 

KUALA LUMPUR: Malaysian officials on Saturday implored local and international consumers to trust the country’s halal standards after a fake certification scandal rocked its meat trade and raised questions about its global ranking.

“Those who have committed crimes must be brought to justice. Halal is the image of Islam as well as Malaysia, and I believe that those involved will give their full cooperation to resolve this issue,” Zulkifli Mohamad Al-Bakri, religious affairs minister, told Arab News.

Al-Bakri is part of the Malaysian Halal Council, temporarily chaired by Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, which includes officials from several ministries and halal industry and product specialists. 

It was reinvigorated last month to address a fake halal meat scandal that rocked the country in December after reports emerged of a cartel that had allegedly been bribing customs officials for 40 years to import and sell meat that was not slaughtered according to Islamic customs or sourced from approved stakeholders.

The cartel imported frozen meat from China, Ukraine, Brazil and Argentina and then repackaged it in the southern state of Johor. 

Some of the imports included kangaroo and horse meat, which was then mixed with and sold as halal beef, triggering outrage among Muslim consumers who said this was sacrilegious to their Islamic faith.

Two people have been arrested and multiple investigations launched into the scandal. 

With more than 60 percent of Malaysia’s 32 million population Muslim, local abattoirs and cattle farms are often unable to meet the market’s demands, with the nation relying on imports for its meat supply.

Government data from 2018 showed that Malaysia imported nearly RM15.72 billion ($3.89 billion) worth of animal products and RM274.77 million worth of live animals. 

Following the expose, Malaysian consumers are calling for an investigation commission to put the scandal to rest.

“In a country that emphasizes so much on the halal logo, many people give their trust to the authorities only to learn from news reports on how bad and corrupted they got,” Ikhwan Ridzwan, 31, an operations manager for an international agency based in Malaysia, told Arab News.

He added that the officials involved owed the public an explanation.

“The first thing the authorities should do is to be transparent, take ownership of this scandal that has been going on for decades, arrest the players and reassure consumers with transparent communication,” he said.

To mitigate the lack of trust in halal products, Ikhwan said that his family was now wary of “where they were buying the meat from.”

“It has led us to be more careful and curate where we buy and inspect the packaging for halal certification,” he said.

Thaqeef Sidek, 28, told Arab News that he was “appalled” by the scandal.

“This is because it rooted back to one of the most respected and trusted organizations, Jakim,” he said, seeking more transparency and accountability from the authority in charge, the Department of Islamic Development Malaysia (Jakim), which oversees halal certification in the country.

The Kuala Lumpur-based consultant explained that growing up as a Muslim, he was educated to check halal certification for consumables frequently.

“It’s understandable that most of us do observe a strict level of halal standards,” he said, urging the government to set up “an independent commission to investigate the scandal.” 

“There should be reform in Jakim as well . . . the halal certification department could be independently run and detached from the government . . . there would be less bureaucracy in the future for both consumers and businesses,” he said.

Meanwhile, Al-Bakri said that Jakim — as a key player in the halal industry — was “fully supportive of all enforcements being carried out” by the agencies involved in the investigations.

“Jakim has carried out meetings with the agencies as well as importers and distributors of meat products to get their input as we would be able to improve our standard operating procedures and relook at legal acts in place that can be made better,” he told Arab News.

To ease public concerns, Al-Bakri added that Jakim had opened up its public comments section for the Malaysia Procedure for the Recognition of Foreign Halal Certification Bodies 2021.

“Jakim calls for all, especially the Muslim community, to give their feedback. We believe that the credibility and authority of Jakim have been internationally recognized and we would like to work hard to retain our stature globally,” he said.

News of the scandal has tarnished Malaysia’s global status as a reliable source of halal products.

On Wednesday, Malaysia’s Halal Development Corporation (HDC) CEO Hairol Ariffein Sahari told The Malaysian Reserve that the company expects earnings from its exports of halal products to be RM31 billion instead of its RM50 billion target for 2020.

Economic downturns, triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic, mainly contributed to the deficit in export returns.

However, representatives from the Malaysia Muslim Consumer Association (MMCA) told Arab News that since the scandal broke, networks involved in the halal business outside Malaysia have raised concerns as well, with many questioning the authenticity of the halal stamps issued by the country. 

“Malaysia was once a key destination for businesses to seek their halal certifications from, but of late the level of confidence has dropped, leaving Malaysia with no choice but to carefully address this,” Nadzim Johan, MMCA president, told Arab News.

He added that Malaysia’s status as a global name in the halal industry had been “thrown out the window.” 

Last year, Malaysia was named as the best country in four out of six sectors in the State of Global Islamic Economy Report 2020/2021.

“We want strong action taken by the government to resolve this scandal as it will also raise confidence among consumers,” he said, adding that the authorities must set up a monitoring system to avoid such events in the future. 

He said that Malaysian Muslims had resorted to purchasing local meat or substituting beef with fish or vegetables. “We have seen people stop consuming beef or buying local meat, which is double the price.” 

Major retail stores are reeling from losses due to the expose. 

Aeon Retail Malaysia’s chief human resource officer and corporate communications director, Kasuma Satria, told The Malaysian Insight that it had suffered a 40 percent drop in red meat sales as a result of the scandal. 

“Comparing figures for those weeks, despite the Christmas period, there was a drop in sales of red meat by 30 to 40 percent,” he was quoted as saying.

In comparison, Malaysian beef prices fluctuate between RM30 to RM33 per kilogram than Indian imported beef, which is RM21 to RM25 per kilogram. 

While consumers and businesses continue to call for reform within Jakim, other authorities involved in the meat import process, such as the Malaysian Quarantine and Inspection Services (Maqis), told Arab News that the department has enhanced its enforcement activities since the cartel was exposed. 

“We have tightened our standard operating procedures,” Saiful Yazan Alwi, Maqis director general, said.

The Malaysian Department of Veterinary Services (DVS) has strict guidelines for the importing of meat, which includes using an approved abattoir for slaughter.

The approved abattoir must provide certification that the animals’ slaughter was carried out according to Muslim rites, and that all chilling, processing, transportation and other acts in connection with the handling and consignment of the meat was done separately from other animals.

According to the DVS records, Malaysia has approved 28 abattoirs from Australia, New Zealand, Argentina, Brazil, Pakistan and South Africa. 

“We also conduct online counter checks of the authenticity of the halal certificate with authorities from exporting countries,” Saiful said.


Pakistani PM urges Sri Lanka to join China corridor

Pakistani PM urges Sri Lanka to join China corridor
Updated 14 min 14 sec ago

Pakistani PM urges Sri Lanka to join China corridor

Pakistani PM urges Sri Lanka to join China corridor
  • Khan woos business leaders with promise of ‘religious tourism’

COLOMBO: Prime Minister Imran Khan on Wednesday opened Pakistan’s doors to “religious tourism” from Sri Lanka, inviting business leaders to visit the historically rich Gandharan region in the northwest of the country where a 40-foot statue of sleeping Buddha was recently unearthed.

He also sought their participation in Islamabad’s multibillion-dollar China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project with Beijing.

“Pakistan has probably the most undiscovered religious tourism. For people in Sri Lanka, what is of great interest is the Gandhara Buddhist civilization. We have discovered various new sites for tourists to visit Pakistan,” Khan told delegates at the Pakistan-Sri Lanka Trade and Investment Conference in Colombo.

The event was attended by Sri Lankan Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunwardena, and a host of officials.

Khan added that the Buddhist civilization was “discovered in the north of Islamabad,” the capital of Pakistan, and that “the findings will be of interest to Sri Lankan tourists who go to historical places.”

“Pakistan will do its best to restore Sri Lanka’s tourist industry,” he added.

Earlier on Wednesday, during talks with Rajapaksa, Khan said that both countries were “on the same page” on the need to alleviate poverty in their respective nations.

“We both agreed that poverty is due to food inflation, and this problem could be solved by bridging the gap between the producer and the consumer,” he said, citing the example of China, which had “successfully uplifted more than 700 million people.”

“Successful trading relations will help alleviate poverty. Pakistan is part of the One Belt and Road initiative of China, and CPEC is one of its flagship programs, and it means connectivity, and it will help enhance Sri Lanka’s connectivity right up to Central Asia,” he said.

China has pledged more than $60 billion for infrastructure projects in Pakistan as part of CPEC, central to Beijing’s wider Belt and Road Initiative, for the development of land and sea trade routes in Asia and beyond.

Khan also underlined the “exceptional quality” of Pakistan-Sri Lanka relations which are “marked by trust, understanding and mutual support,” before inviting Rajapaksa to visit Pakistan at the “earliest convenience.”

The Pakistani leader also stressed the importance of building a “robust economic partnership characterized by enhanced bilateral trade, investments, and commercial cooperation.”

Sri Lanka’s business leaders agreed.

“The first-ever investment forum with 39 Pakistani business magnates will pave the way for development in trade and investments,” Bandula Dissananayake, secretary-general of the Sri Lanka National Chamber of Commerce, told Arab News.

On Monday, both prime ministers witnessed several economically important agreements between Sri Lanka and Pakistan for development in tourism cooperation, investment, technology and education.

Pakistan’s exports to Sri Lanka grew from $97 million in 2004 to $355 million in 2018, while Sri Lanka’s exports to Pakistan grew from $47 million in 2004 to $105 million in 2018, almost double over the same period.

However, the two-way trade totals only $460 million, despite the potential to garner more than $2 billion.

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UK to launch vaccine trials on COVID-19 variants in summer

UK to launch vaccine trials on COVID-19 variants in summer
Updated 24 February 2021

UK to launch vaccine trials on COVID-19 variants in summer

UK to launch vaccine trials on COVID-19 variants in summer
  • The new versions of the vaccine are being produced in case COVID-19 variants substantially evade immunity provided by the current jabs

LONDON: British clinical trials of vaccines against new variants of COVID-19 will start in the summer to prepare updated jabs for the autumn if variants evade the current inoculations, the Oxford University vaccine group’s lead researcher has told the UK Parliament.

Prof. Sarah Gilbert said her team is producing an initial group of vaccines against new variants that are at least partially resistant to the current jabs being rolled out.

The new versions of the vaccine are being produced in case COVID-19 variants substantially evade immunity provided by the current jabs.

A small trial in South Africa found that a variant that emerged there, and which has since arrived in the UK, is partially resistant to the Oxford vaccine.

Vaccines from Novavax and Johnson & Johnson also appear less effective against the South African variant.

“We need to make preparations so that everything is in place, if it turns out that we do need to do it,” Gilbert told British MPs.

“Currently, the plans are to be ready for an immunization campaign in the autumn, so before going into the winter season we’d have a new variant vaccine available if it turns out that’s what’s going to be required,” she added.
“If we see the emergence of a new strain very close to that date, it’s going to be difficult to go through this whole process, because we do need to conduct a clinical study and get regulatory approval, in time to be vaccinated before the winter.”
Gilbert said trials are underway to judge whether mixing vaccines will provide better protection against COVID-19 by stimulating the immune system in different ways.
The Oxford vaccine group is also looking at producing nasal spray and pill alternatives to the standard inoculation.
 


EU mulls vaccination passports to resurrect tourism after COVID-19

EU mulls vaccination passports to resurrect tourism after COVID-19
Updated 24 February 2021

EU mulls vaccination passports to resurrect tourism after COVID-19

EU mulls vaccination passports to resurrect tourism after COVID-19
  • Some governments, like those of Greece and Spain, are pushing for a quick adoption of an EU-wide certificate for those already inoculated so that people can travel again
  • Earlier in February, Greece and Israel signed a deal to ease travel restrictions to Greece for Israelis with proof of COVID-19 vaccination

BRUSSELS: European Union leaders will agree on Thursday to work on certificates of vaccination for EU citizens who have had an anti-COVID shot, with southern EU countries that depend heavily on tourism desperate to rescue this summer’s holiday season.
Lockdowns to slow the pandemic caused the deepest ever economic recession in the 27-nation bloc last year, hitting the south of the EU, where economies are often much more dependent on visitors, disproportionately hard.
With the rollout of vaccines against COVID-19 now gathering pace, some governments, like those of Greece and Spain, are pushing for a quick adoption of an EU-wide certificate for those already inoculated so that people can travel again.
However, other countries, such as France and Germany, appear more reluctant, as officials there say it could create de facto vaccination obligation and would be discriminatory to those who cannot or will not take a jab.
France, where anti-vaccine sentiment is particularly strong and where the government has pledged not to make them compulsory, considers the idea of vaccine passports as “premature,” a French official said on Wednesday.
Work is needed on the details, including whether it should be in digital form, be accepted globally and at what stage of the two-step inoculation process it should be issued.
“We call for work to continue on a common approach to vaccination certificates,” a draft statement of the leaders video-conference seen by Reuters said, without setting a time-frame for a result.
Officials said the EU was working with the International Air Transport Association, which is keen to revive air travel, and with the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and the World Health Organization.
But travel with certificates also raised legal questions, officials said, because those last in line for vaccinations could argue their freedom of movement was unjustly restricted by the often months-long queues.
EU officials also point out there is no guidance yet from the WHO and EU agencies whether people who have received two shots of the COVID-19 vaccine can still carry the coronavirus and infect others, even if no longer vulnerable themselves.
It was also not clear if people could be infectious having already fought off the coronavirus themselves, for how long they remained immune and if they too should get certificates.
“There are still many things we don’t know,” a senior official from one of the EU countries said. “We need more time to come to a common line.”
But time is short for countries in the south, where the hospitality sector needs to know what it should prepare for in the coming months. Despite the official stance that all EU governments want to solve the issue together, some might decide to move faster individually.
Earlier in February, Greece and Israel signed a deal to ease travel restrictions to Greece for Israelis with proof of COVID-19 vaccination.


UK team testing tablet, spray alternatives to COVID-19 vaccine

UK team testing tablet, spray alternatives to COVID-19 vaccine
Updated 24 February 2021

UK team testing tablet, spray alternatives to COVID-19 vaccine

UK team testing tablet, spray alternatives to COVID-19 vaccine
  • Researcher Sarah Gilbert: We have flu vaccines that are given by nasal spray, and this could be a very good approach in the future to use vaccines against coronaviruses
  • Sarah Gilbert: It’s also possible to consider oral vaccination where you have to take a tablet that will give the immunization, and that would have a lot of benefits for vaccine rollout

LONDON: Researchers who produced the Oxford University COVID-19 vaccine are assessing the use of tablets or nasal sprays to replace jabs.

Lead researcher Sarah Gilbert told a parliamentary committee that “we’re … thinking about second-generation formulations of vaccines” that could replace injections, but they will “take time to develop.”

She added: “We have flu vaccines that are given by nasal spray, and this could be a very good approach in the future to use vaccines against coronaviruses.

“It’s also possible to consider oral vaccination where you have to take a tablet that will give the immunization, and that would have a lot of benefits for vaccine rollout — if you didn’t need to use the needles and syringes for people.”

Both options “will have to be tested for safety and then for efficacy as well, because the immune responses that will be generated by both of those approaches will be a little bit different to what we get from an intramuscular injection,” Gilbert said.

Kate Bingham, who chaired the UK government’s vaccines taskforce, said two injections given by healthcare professionals is “not a good way of delivering vaccines.”

She told the BBC: “We need to get vaccine formats which are much more scalable and distributable, so whether they’re pills or patches or nose sprays.”


Iran arrested French tourist nine months ago, says his lawyer

Iran arrested French tourist nine months ago, says his lawyer
Updated 24 February 2021

Iran arrested French tourist nine months ago, says his lawyer

Iran arrested French tourist nine months ago, says his lawyer

DUBAI: Iran has detained a French tourist for nine months and his lawyers have been denied access to him, one of the lawyers, Saeid Dehghan, told Reuters on Wednesday.
The arrest, if confirmed, would come at a sensitive time, when the United States and European parties to Iran's 2015 nuclear deal are trying to restore the pact that was abandoned by former U.S. President Donald Trump in 2018.
"His name is Benjamin and he is being held at the Vakilabad prison in the city of Mashahd. He was detained nine months ago and he faces contradictory and baseless charges," said Dehghan, who declined to give the French tourist's full name.
Iran's judiciary was not available to comment. There was no immediate official reaction from French authorities to the news.
Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards have arrested dozens of dual nationals and foreigners in recent years, mostly on espionage charges, including Franco-Iranian academic Fariba Adelkhah, whom Tehran sentenced to six years in prison in May 2020 for security-related charges.
Adelkhah was released on furlough last October. Dehghan, who is also Adelkhah's lawyer, said she had been under house arrest since then.
"Of course, Adelkhah is wearing an ankle monitor which limits her movements to 300 m (985 feet) from home,” Dehghan said.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian in a speech to the U.N. Human Rights Council on Monday called for Adelkhah's release. Tehran, which does not recognise dual nationality, has rejected France's calls to release Adelkhah.
French daily newspaper Le Figaro reported on Friday that a person with dual French and Iranian citizenship and a German national had been arrested in Iran more than two weeks ago.