The Republic of Korea is the latest Muslim-minority Asian country to make concerted efforts to cater to the halal market both domestically and for export.
President Moon Jae-in arrived in Malaysia on Wednesday for talks, signing four memoranda of understanding, including one for cooperation in the halal industry.
To meet growing demand, a laboratory in South Korea is expected to be ready this year to enable companies to obtain the necessary halal status from international bodies. Korea will follow the Philippines, which last month opened its own national halal laboratory.
“The export and domestic sectors are both important. However, we are more focused on the export sector than on the domestic. This includes introducing Korean agro-food products to the Islamic markets such as Southeast Asia and the Middle East,” Dr. YoungMin Choi, Senior Researcher at the state-funded Korea Food Research Institute (KFRI), told Salaam Gateway.
Dr. Choi said the lab will help meet the increased demand for “overcoming technical hurdles faced by Korean agro-food export companies, such as alcohol reduction suitable for halal standards for traditional fermented foods (such as kimchi, soy sauce).”
The ISO 17025-compliant lab will ensure that the results of a domestic analytical body be accepted by halal certification bodies. Currently, Dr. Choi said, domestic food companies spend a lot of time and money to acquire various halal certifications, and this acts as a barrier to entering the halal food market.
The Korean government, specifically the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (MAFRA), is implementing various policies to develop new markets to diversify the Republic’s export destinations for domestic agricultural products, said the senior researcher.
Globally, Dr. Choi said Korea’s halal products include exports of instant coffee and seasoning to Europe, noodles, rice cakes and sauces to Southeast Asia, and cosmetics, fresh fruit, infant formula and snacks to the Middle East. Halal-certified kimchi and pears from Korea are already stocked on supermarket shelves in Dubai, where they carry a stamp of approval from the Emirates Authority for Standardisation and Metrology (ESMA).
Korean agricultural exports to 57 Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) countries have been steadily growing, from 356,600 tonnes in 2014 to 518,700 tonnes in 2018, according to Dr. Choi, in her presentation at the International Halal Industry Forum in Dubai on February 18, citing the Korea Agro-Fisheries & Food Trade Corp.
HALAL AT EVENTS
Domestically, Korea has expanded its halal offering after a series of international events.
Since 2015, it has been hosting an annual international halal conference to provide information to and connect the domestic halal supply chain, including manufacturers, distributors and exporters.
Also in 2015, the Universiade, an international multi-sport event organised for university athletes by the International University Sports Federation (FISU), held in Gwangju that year, served halal food. This is the first time the catering at an international event was halal.
Ourhome catering, which supplied the food for the event, obtained certification from the Korean Muslim Federation (KMF), which is recognised by Malaysian certifier JAKIM and Singapore’s MUIS.
Ourhome created a halal production line for the cafeteria at Athlete’s Village and served nine types of curry and halal kimchi. It created halal logistics, with dedicated storage and vehicles, and managed complete separation of cooking facilities, with professional Muslim cooks, and a halal menu.
In February 2018, Shinsegae Food offered halal catering at PyeongChang Winter Olympics, offering among others, roast salmon, lentil soup and steamed nasi biryani to cater to various tastes. “They invited a Malaysian chef to cook halal food,” Dr. Choi said.
The Korea Tourism Organisation (KTO) arranged for mobile prayer rooms during the event, and told local media of plans to introduce more of such facilities across the country, since “the number of Muslim tourists visiting South Korea is continuously on the rise.”
ALTERNATIVES TO HALAL-CERTIFIED RESTAURANTS
Korean restaurants are finding halal certification very lucrative.
Domestically, for some years, Korea Tourism has been promoting the country to its Southeast Asian Muslim-majority neighbours, such as Malaysia.
It published the second edition of a Muslim-friendly restaurant guidebook in January this year, aiming to reach over a million Muslim tourists each year.
In the exports sector, Korea has redoubled its effort to align with halal certification requirements on popular food products, including kimchi and soy sauce.
KTO’s guidebook lists 250 Muslim-friendly restaurants in the country currently, up from 238 in 2018.
In 2016, it developed its own rating system based on whether the restaurant is halal-certified, self-certified, Muslim-friendly, or pork-free.
Halal-certified restaurants carry a stamp from the Korea Muslim Foundation.
In self-certified restaurants, all foods are halal, according to the owner.
Muslim-friendly restaurants provide halal food but alcohol is sold on the premises.
Pork-free contains meat but no pork.
The tourism authority has been organising a Halal Restaurant Week annually since 2016 “to promote Muslim-friendly restaurants not only for Muslims but also for tourists from all over the world.”
Following its success at the Universiade, Ourhome has expanded into Incheon airport, where the company not only provides a halal curry menu, but also a selection of Korean halal food set, Bulgogi, which Dr. Choi said is created based on interviews with Muslims.
Locally, there is obviously an appetite for cuisines other than Korean, meaning that halal restaurants serving international cuisine find popularity. Another example is a Yemeni restaurant, serving kebabs, rice, hummus, falafel and agdah chicken among other Middle Eastern staples in Jeju, a tourist island off the southern coast of South Korea.
The island with its visa-free policy attracted 500-odd Yemenis who fled the civil war at home. A local restaurateur and musician, Ha Min-kyung, opened the restaurant when she realised that refugees had limited halal food choices on the island and would eat mostly vegetables. The restaurant, which serves Yemeni customers at a 50 per cent discount, is cited as a success story by the UN Refugee Agency UNHCR.
Certification remains the biggest challenge for the Korean halal supply chain, Dr. Choi said, with each Muslim country following its own criteria.
“The halal certification, which has already been acquired for export, is no longer valid in other countries unless it is mutually recognised by the certification bodies of other exporting countries.” This results in higher costs for acquiring multiple certifications, she said.
Language becomes another barrier, which can be overcome by Korean certification bodies seeking mutual recognition with other bodies. “There are no such cases except JAKIM and MUIS so far,” Dr. Choi said.
There are currently four halal certifying bodies in Korea, of which only the Korean Muslim Federation is recognised by Singapore and Malaysia.
(Reporting by Shalini Seth, White Paper Media; Editing by Emmy Abdul Alim firstname.lastname@example.org)
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