Amid controversy over a plan to make halal labeling mandatory, food producers said Wednesday the issue of halal labeling should be left to the market to decide.
Sarni Ratu, a marketing manager at a fish processing company in North Jakarta, said producers would voluntarily seek halal certificates as their markets demanded so.
"We certified our products long before any proposal to make it mandatory because we see that customers prefer such labels," she told a forum organized by the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI).
She said she feared if halal labeling was made mandatory it would burden small-scale producers, saying their products sold well without certification.
Mandatory halal certification was included in a bill on halal product assurance which is currently being discussed at the State Secretariat.
It remains unclear when the draft law would be submitted to the House of Representatives for deliberation.
Earlier this month, MUI leaders told a House hearing the bill included obligatory halal labeling for food, drugs and cosmetic products.
The ulema council also demanded it be allowed to retain its authority around issuing halal labels.
But the draft law stipulates an independent body would administer and issue halal certificates.
Wednesday's forum also heard a submission from a female participant who questioned the urgency of compulsory halal labeling.
She quoted a survey on halal food conducted by marketing expert Rhenald Kasali.
She said the survey showed average customers, including Muslims, did not pay much attention to whether the products they purchased were certified by MUI.
The survey also found customers perceived products were safe for consumption as long as they were not attached with any "haram" (not halal) labels, which were also issued by the ulema council.
Rhenald could not be reached on Wednesday for confirmation.
Another participant, Linda Harahap, a fresh milk producer, asked the MUI to ease procedures and lower fees for halal labels if they were made mandatory.
"I only run a home-industry with small capacity production and there are so many permits I have to obtain," she said.
"Making halal certification mandatory will mean more money to spend.
"Therefore, I expect the issuance of halal labels can be arranged under the same window with hygienic labels, which are administered by the Drugs and Foods Monitoring Agency (BPOM), to save money," Linda said.
In his speech to open the forum, Agriculture Minister Anton Apriyantono asked the public not to oppose proposed mandatory halal labeling.
He said it was aimed at protecting consumers, including Muslims and non-Muslims, and said the labeling would mean certified products were made in accordance not only with Islamic sharia but also with hygienic standards.
"Halal labeling is only issued by the MUI if the products have already complied with the hygienic and quality standards applied by the Agriculture Ministry and BPOM," he said.
The minister said mandatory halal labeling had actually been included in the law on foods, enacted in 1996.
"However, the mandatory condition is not mentioned in the 1999 regulation on food labeling issued by the government, suggesting that it is a voluntary option," he said.
Anton said the MUI should submit a request for the Supreme Court to review the regulation in a bid to push their demand for mandatory halal labeling.