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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC

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Thailand's Halal Drive

Jul. 26, 2016

Thailand, a Buddhist country, is aiming to become a major player in the global trade of products for Muslims.

"Halal" means permissible in Arabic. The label guarantees that the product contains no pork, alcohol or other ingredients forbidden by Islamic law.

Most people in Thailand are Buddhist. Muslims account for only 5 percent of the population. But the Thai government is currently working to expand production of halal products to increase export earnings.

"We believe we'll be able to win some of the halal market, which is 1.7 billion people worldwide," says Somchai Harnhirun, director general of the Thai Ministry of Industry.

Currently, the global Muslim population stands at 1.7 billion, and is expected to rise to around 2 billion by 2030. The halal product market size is projected to reach 10 trillion dollars.

Thailand is aiming for this huge market. It currently ranks 13th in the world in exports of halal products. The government launched a 5-year plan this year with the goal of rising to among the world's top 5 by 2020.

Mahachai Food Processing is located in a district of western Bangkok. The company’s 530 employees produce foods made from processed fish, generating annual sales of 80 million dollars.

Their main products are unseasoned fried foods and dumplings, which are popular as ingredients in various dishes. All the company’s products have halal certification.

In line with the Islamic Committee’s regulations, all of the company's fish must be washed at least 3 times. The final wash is in a shower because, under Islamic law, fresh flowing water is needed.

The company is currently rolling out a new halal product, a crispy fish snack. It was developed after market research in the Middle East revealed a lack of such snacks on the market. Last year, the product received halal certification.

"Until now, we’ve sold most of our products in Asia and didn’t really think about trying to sell in the Middle East," says Charoen Rujirasopon, the company's CEO. "There are many Muslims outside Asia and we want to target these markets. If we can export this fish snack, we think we can achieve further growth."

"There are many companies in Thailand with sufficient production capacity that are yet to take note of the market’s expansion," Harnhirun says. "We are trying to encourage those companies to take advantage of these business opportunities."

The Central Islamic Committee of Thailand has the authority to certify halal products. The committee checks whether products made in Thailand are consistent with Islamic principles, and issue halal certifications. It’s the only such body in the country.

Without the permission of the committee, Thai companies are not allowed to display the halal logo on their products. The committee set very strict standards, which include not only the ingredients of the products, but also the production process, preservation and transportation of the goods.

"We’ve already issued halal certifications to nearly 5,000 companies. And the number of companies seeking accreditation continues to grow. In total, we’ve certified more than 100,000 products," says Surin Palarae, secretary-general of the Central Islamic Committee of Thailand.

To ensure products meet standards for halal certification, ingredients are scientifically analyzed at Chulalongkorn University, one of the state-owned institutions.

To obtain certification, companies must submit to the Central Islamic Committee the results of analyses conducted at the Center. Specialists examine each of the product's individual ingredients to confirm whether anything is prohibited by Islam.

"In one year, I inspect around 3,000 products, but only find problems in 2 or 3 of them," says a staff member at the center.

Random testing is also performed at the center. If the same company commits 2 violations, they will be banned indefinitely from receiving halal accreditation.

"Thailand was the first country in the world to establish a halal Lab and we have a track record going back 20 years. Over that period, halal science has become known in a large number of countries. Halal food from Thailand is trusted as it’s subject to scientific inspection," says Winai Dahlan, founding director of the Halal Science Center.

Halal goods production is spreading to rural areas. Chiang Mai Province in Northern Thailand is a region the government hopes will become a center for the production of halal goods. But there's been some trouble.

Some locals are against the construction of an industrial park for producing halal goods.

Surin Sirinta is an influential figure in the area which was chosen for the industrial park.

"If a halal industrial park had been built on higher land like this then the waste water would’ve flowed into the river and contaminated it and the surroundings," Sirinta says.

Sirinta also says locals had mixed feelings on Muslims coming to the area.