Tuesday, May 27, 2014

The Malaysian Pork Choc Controversy

"O you who have believed, eat from the good things which We have provided for you and be grateful to Allah if it is [indeed] Him that you worship. He has only forbidden to you dead animals, blood, the flesh of swine, and that which has been dedicated to other than Allah . But whoever is forced [by necessity], neither desiring [it] nor transgressing [its limit], there is no sin upon him. Indeed, Allah is Forgiving and Merciful."

Verses 172 to 173, Surat Al-Baqarah (The Cow), Al-Qur'an

Malaysia, aside from having the recent distinction of being that country which lost a commercial jumbo jet in the middle of the Indian Ocean, is also a country with a Muslim majority populace and the shadow of Islam looms over all aspects of Malaysian life, regardless whether one believes in Islam or not. For example, many concerts by international artistes were protested by fundamentalist Muslims in this country and several of them were outright called off - the most famous being Ke$ha's last minute cancellation of her show in October last year. Affecting me personally is how I can no longer enjoy my favourite instant ramen after they changed the recipe of its condiments to cater to the halal market, destroying its awesome flavour in the process.

halal malaysia label
The Malaysian halal label.

Speaking of "halal" (حلال), the Arabic word basically means "permissible" in Arabic and a significant part of the concept focuses on the dietary restrictions of Muslims - much like the kosher laws of Judaism. There are a variety of comestibles that Muslims are not suppose to consume and according to the Qur'anic verses 2:173, 5:3, 5:90, and 6:12, the list includes,
  • Pork
  • Blood
  • Animals slaughtered in the name of anyone or anything beside Allah, including anything offered or sacrificed to an idolatrous altar, saint or divine personages that are not Allah.
  • Carrion or carcasses of dead animal
  • Food over which Allah's name was not pronounced
  • Intoxicants, including alcohol
  • Animals that have been strangled, beaten (to death), killed by a fall, gored (to death), or savaged by a beast of prey (unless finished off by a human)

As with every other aspect of Islam, it is a Serious Business™. I mean, they have prosecuted two hapless bloggers for daring to invite Muslims to break their fast on bak-kut-teh during Ramadan last year in a tasteless if harmless captioned photo! If the mere idea of eating pork inflames them so much, imagine the outrage they will display when some products of a brand of famous chocolate bars that are ubiquitous in Malaysia were found to contain pork in them - which totally happened a few days ago.

Porcine DNA Cadbury KKM Statement
The Malaysian Ministry of Health's official press statement.

Okay, for those who are unable to read Malay, the gist of it is that the Ministry of Health's Food Safety and Quality division blew the whistle on two batches of products from the British multinational confectionery company, Cadbury, after DNA testing found porcine DNA in them. One was designated Cadbury Dairy Milk Hazelnut and the other is Cadbury Dairy Milk Roast Almond (their batch numbers given in the statement above). The Ministry also said that all halal certification issues still lies in the purview of the Department of Islamic Development (JAKIM).

The rest of the statement is a very thoughtful (but strangely out of place) review of the recent X-Men: Days of Future Past film and how our Minister of Health really enjoyed James McAvoy's performance as young Charles Xavier and hopes that he will reprise his role in X-Men: Apocalypse. That's like totally the truth, bro.

Cadbury Porcine DNA
The media statement from JAKIM.

In direct response to the Ministry of Health's published statement, Dato' Haji Othman Mustapha, Director General of the Department of Islamic Development (JAKIM), officially suspended the halal certification for the Cadbury products in question. He also said that investigations will be launched to find out how these goddamn pigs mysteriously turned up in chocolate.

One possibility is that industrial food packaging sometimes uses lubricants and stabilisers known as stearates, which are made from derivatives of animal products (including swine).

Meanwhile, the Ministry of Health will do more DNA testing on more of Cadbury's products to see how deeply the contamination runs. I don't know about you but I find it amusing that entire labs are performing DNA tests on junk food.

And now that we are on the subject of labs,

Porcine DNA Cadbury
The lab report.

The above report basically states that a sample (here labelled as milk chocolate with hazelnut from Ca[d]bury) that was sent to the National Public Health Lab on the 27th of February, 2014 was found to contain porcine DNA.

As this issue only came to public light on May 24, it meant that the Muslims of Malaysia have been unwittingly putting dirty, disgusting, super-haram chocolate-covered pork into their bodies while the Ministry of Health sat quietly on this information for almost 3 whole months! It says right in the report that the sample was analysed on the day of receipt, so yeah.

Now, I think that Malaysian Muslims would - to a substantial degree - put their trusts in the halal label because it helps them differentiate halal food from the haram ones. I wonder how much trust they still invest in that label now in light of this issue. They knew the chocolates were not halal since February after all.

Of course, a further question one might ask is, how much guarantee does the halal label even offer in the first place? Just look back to the list of non-halal food I have provided earlier. Are any tests performed on food to look for blood contaminants? Is it even possible to avoid absolute contamination of blood in meat products during their preparation? How would they know if the ingredients contained in any food was consecrated in the name of Allah, or that it had not been offered or sacrificed to any kafir idols, deities or saints? How can they tell the difference between carrion meat or slaughtered meat? Are there magical lab tests that can tell you if a particular piece of meat come from an animal that was strangled, beaten, gored, fallen from great height or killed by a predator?

Presumably, they don't test food for DNA of other animals so it is possible that Cadbury's chocolate bars also contain the remains of a dead alcoholic buffalo which died when it committed suicide to escape its gambling debts by leaping off the roof of a Cadbury factory into a tub of chocolate, therefore making it technically as haram as pork. You don't know that they don't. You don't know if any products bearing the halal label in the market don't, is my point.

It was not explicitly stated in any of the recent news articles covering this story but they probably detected the porcine DNA via a process called polymerase chain reaction (PCR), looking specifically for genetic sequences that are unique to Sus sp. and are not found in any other animals. This raises a profound philosophical issue in my mind.

If exclusively porcine DNA is non-halal, what about DNA sequences and genes that pigs share with human beings? As with all other mammals, pigs share a lot of common genetic heritage with human beings. Before the advent of recombinant DNA tech, we used porcine insulin to treat diabetics because it was only one amino acid removed from human insulin (compared to bovine insulin which is three amino acid removed). According to animal geneticist Lawrence Schook who mapped the pig genome, we are so similar to pigs that he claimed that he was able to take the human genome, "cut it into 173 puzzle pieces and rearranged it to make a pig." He added that, "Everything matches up perfectly. The pig is genetically very close to humans."

Does it then mean that the parts of our own DNA which are identical to pigs haram? To pose the reverse of this dilemma: are parts of porcine DNA therefore halal because the same genes are found in the human genome?

Hey, I am just glad I don't have to think about all these tough questions whenever I put anything into my mouth.

Contains porcine DNA,
k0k s3n w4i


shanaz@RS said...

This halal-haram conundrum gets pretty petty and tiring but then again I don't allow myself to entertain such thoughts. Liberating.

Awesome post KSW! :)

k0k s3n w4i said...

shanaz@RS: Thank you. Did you come from a Muslim family?